75th Aldeburgh Festival featured composer Unsuk Chin shares her thoughts and experiences in a special interview for Britten Pears Arts.

Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The most formative influences are probably those from childhood when the senses react to everything around them in a more ‘holistic’, immediate approach. Then, there was the time of my studies: immersing myself in European avant-garde music in the early 80s was vital, as I had before that known ‘Western’ musical history only until Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Conversely, the experience of studying with Ligeti, who denounced the avant-garde, requested utterly original music of excellent craftsmanship from himself and his students, asking me to throw away my prize-winning works, was a pivotal moment. Indeed, moments of crisis and subsequent attempts to find a way out are essential moments and threshold experiences. The excellent Danish poet Inger Christensen wrote that the major influences on her work were creative stumbling blocks, irritations that, in the long term, made her question and develop her approach. For me, such a moment was when I worked, in the late 80s, and after a writer’s block of almost three years, for a couple of years at a studio for electroacoustic music. Through this, I could re-evaluate the essential elements of my compositional approach and expand the basis of my music. Another significant experience was, in the 90s, longer stays in Bali, where I studied Gamelan music – the acquaintance of a different tradition of great refinement and quality deeply rooted in the society was a discovery.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

That was to realise my childhood dream of becoming a professional musician and fighting my way out of difficult circumstances – in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea was a poor post-war country on the periphery, and it was not easy to start as a female Asian composer in Germany.

moments of crisis and subsequent attempts to find a way out are essential moments and threshold experiences

Unsuk Chin

Of which works are you most proud?

I move on and try to do something new with every piece. I have removed several earlier works from my work list as I am not content with them. As for the remaining ones, I accept them, but there are also pieces to which I feel more emotional distance than others – which is unsurprising when one revisits works from several decades ago. But I can also name a counterexample – my Piano Concerto, which is from 1995 but which wasn’t much performed before the Deutsche Grammophon recording two decades later. This is a work into which I put all the energy and frenzy of my then 34-year-old self – I wouldn’t compose in this manner any more, but I feel emotionally close to it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I prefer not to, as it may make it more difficult for the listener to approach the work without prejudices. Besides, when I compose a new work, the most important thing for me is its unique shape. Of course, as a composer, you have a particular craft; you prefer certain materials and draw on compositional techniques acquired through the years. You cannot and perhaps shouldn’t avoid that. Nonetheless, it is important for me to attempt each work to be singular in character. Pablo Picasso once expressed it this way: style holds the painter captive in the same point of view, in a technique, in a formula, but he always wants to make something that is new and unknown to himself.

Woman leaning against a piano with bookshelves in the background

Unsuk Chin

Credit: Priska Ketterer

How do you work?

With pen and paper. Composing is, above all, waiting — days, sometimes weeks, before the empty staves. And then, suddenly, a door opens in the head. With age and experience, one develops trust that this door opens at some point if one tries hard enough. The music is in my head. I sometimes jot down ideas, plan harmonies, etc., but for me personally, it is an abstract process without piano or other devices. It can take several years for thoughts and concepts to mature. And when the pressure is great enough, it’s like giving birth: the thoughts have to come out, then you write.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That I am fortunate to be performed by several excellent musicians.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring composers?

To think carefully if one really wants to have a life as a professional composer. It is usually a back-breaking and lonely job, and the financial prospects are often nonexistent. If one really wants to do it, one should, but one should be aware what price it takes.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

This is not easy since, nowadays, there is a tendency to think more and more in purely economic and functional categories, on top of which you have to add the quickness of modern mass media. Besides, there exists a mistaken notion that classical music would be something ‘elitist,’ which is why the notion that society should support artforms that only a small minority will engage with has lost traction. All of this does not mean that things were better during other times. However, it is concerning and a scandal that music is often no longer even considered a minor subject in schools due to very obscure claims of competitiveness and economic success – claims often made, for example, by numerous politicians. It is wrong to withhold from children the experience of art, which is one of the things that distinguishes human beings from AI, not to mention that art often provides indispensable solace and a utopia. Anyway, there are also ‘late bloomers,’ audiences that can be won over with creative ideas and new approaches even if they won’t have had previous exposure to classical music; after all, the experience of great music can be a deeply emotional one. The methods and approaches used to try to develop classical music’s audiences depend on the place and context. But the main thing, I believe, is trust. Trust in quality, the hard work of serious performers and composers, the slow progress of building audiences and overcoming obstacles, an almost aggressive defence of artists’ quality and hard work, the audience’s right to hear this music, and the need for financial support of the whole musical ecosystem.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Playing the piano. If I need a break during an intense compositional process, I might play fugues by Bach for hours. This helps me clear my mind and persevere.

The above article is an edited version of the full interview with Unsuk Chin, which can be found in this year's Aldeburgh Festival Book.

This questionnaire was prepared and presented in partnership with Frances Wilson and Meet the Artist. For the complete archive of composer and artist interviews visit meettheartist.online