Unsuk Chin’s new work “Chorós Chordón” will be premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle tomorrow, November 3. In advance of the concert, we spoke with her about Ligeti’s tough side, the Korean new music scene, and glamor in classical music.

VAN: How do you deal with loneliness, self-doubt, and frustration in your work? Is it easier or more difficult today than in the past?

Unsuk Chin: The process is always difficult. More than anything, composing means waiting and mistreating yourself! The worst thing is the long, excruciating phases in which you sit in your room and nothing progresses. This process usually takes a very long time, and takes place almost exclusively in my head. When I start writing, things tend to go very quickly, although of course it’s always possible that I’ll have relapses. That’s something that never changes. What does change with age and growing experience is that one becomes more relaxed when there’s a performance.

If I need some kind of diversion, I practice piano for hours—it gives me a lot of energy because I can deal with the great repertoire that already exists. Actually, I wanted to be a concert pianist, but for that I would have needed a continuous, specialized education. That could never have happened, the money wasn’t there—in the 1960s and 1970s South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world.

In 1985, you travelled from Seoul to Hamburg to study under György Ligeti. He was apparently a tough teacher who would sometimes throw his students’ scores in the trash. Did anything like that happen to you?

Oh yes, of course. When I came to him I was still composing diligently in the post-serial style, and I’d won prizes with such pieces. Ligeti was beside himself, he couldn’t understand why I’d make these schoolboyish imitations of the lingua franca of the central European avant-garde, why I’d hand in pieces like the countless others that already existed. Of course he was right. Ligeti was the harshest critic you could ever imagine, not only toward his students, but to his colleagues and himself. He demanded absolute mastery of the métier, and complete originality. He suffered the most when he felt unable to live up to his own standards. A cynic par excellence and certainly not a simple person, but a great intellectual and a visionary.

Was there any feedback he gave on your work that has stuck with you—whether in a productive or unproductive way?

In the long-term it was productive, of course, but it was extremely paralyzing at first. While studying with him, I couldn’t compose for nearly three years, and refused offers from publishers as well as commissions. At the time it was terrible, but in hindsight it was a good thing. If you don’t experience a crisis as a young composer, you can’t progress. I found myself working with electroacoustic music, and during my late 20s brought a number of pieces to fruition in the studio at the Technische Universität Berlin. The working conditions at the time were extremely tedious, you needed a lot of time and patience—but that was good, you had time to think. It’s not like that today: now you push a button for the effect and it happens just like that. That’s a dangerous thing for creativity.

When I came to Ligeti, he’d turned his back on the new music scene at 60 years old, with the intention of composing only original music. That was brave—because of his “betrayal,” quite a few new music figures considered him done for. There was quite a lot of belief in the scene back then, and rebels faced damnation. Ligeti’s classes were completely unconventional—we’d analyze new music (with a special preference for outsiders), jazz, traditional music from outside Europe, works of ars subtilior, Mozart and so on, and we’d talk about literature and the natural sciences. It was a pretty universal approach.  

A sketch from Unsuk Chin’s “Gougalon (Scenes from a Street Theater)”, 2009/2011
A sketch from Unsuk Chin’s “Gougalon (Scenes from a Street Theater)”, 2009/2011

You’re curating two concert series with contemporary music in London and Seoul. What’s your experience of the Korean new music scene? What’s trendy there, what makes it special?

What’s interesting is how little exchange there is between different new music scenes, how local it often is. With the concert series with the Philharmonia Orchestra a lot of the music I’m programming has never been played there before—every concert has a UK premiere. There’s a respectable new music scene there, it’s just one-sided. And in Germany there are several internationally important new music composers who don’t get any attention, even local ones like York Höller or Friedrich Goldmann are barely programmed in their own homeland, I don’t understand that at all.

As far as Korea is concerned, the situation is quite specific. While there are lots of [Korean] composition students abroad, in the country itself there’s no infrastructure for new music, so it’s not easy to build something up and develop it. That’s not to say that role models are missing in Korea: even in the 1950s we had Isang Yun (although he was living in exile), and Sukhi Kang, whom I studied with—he was something of a one-man-institution for new music in South Korea, who fed us with the latest scores from the European avant-garde and organized the first ambitious new music concert with international music. But these kinds of initiatives often fizzled out due to a lack of institutional stability.

Which young Korean composers should we be listening to?

No doubt there are talents, and once in a while good pieces. The question is always how these talents progress, and whether they have the peace, and find the opportunity, to develop. An additional challenge is that composers from East Asia have these strange clichés about their culture thrown at them, as if they can’t just be part of international classical music culture.

It’s also difficult in Korea because new music still finds itself—to say the least—in a niche, so it’s barely possible for a “Korean” new music tradition to emerge. It’s different in Europe, where in many cases I can hear whether somebody is Italian, Scandinavian, German, French, or English. As for Isang Yun, he has his own personal style, which I really appreciate, but it would make no sense for young Korean composers to copy it— it comes from a completely different context, historically speaking.

The lack of tradition can be a blessing though, because you’re not pushed in any way by new music dogmas, which can be the case in other countries. On one hand, traditions are good, but the problem can arise where you have difficulties thinking outside the box. Bartók, the great Russian composers of the late 19th century, Sibelius, Janáček—the lack of an established classical tradition certainly didn’t damage them, they just searched for their own tradition and created it. But this requires a radical spirit: you have to question everything, be a cosmopolitan, and work on yourself an insane amount, and it’s a question of luck, too. An example of something completely unique—not actually a composer, but a filmmaker—is the auteur filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk. As a hermit and a complete loner, who is also almost exclusively recognized abroad, he has done something completely individual that is specifically Korean—it could only come from Korea—but also somewhat universal, about the human condition.

A photo of Unsuk Chin as a child, at the piano 
A photo of Unsuk Chin as a child, at the piano 

In a youth orchestra in Seoul between 2001 and 2002, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were seen as saints, while Korean music was viewed rather contemptuously. Do you think there’s been a greater appreciation for, and return to, Korea’s own musical tradition since then?

How do you define Korea’s musical history? Of course, there’s a very old tradition of Korean music. But during the Japanese annexation at the beginning of the 20th century, this tradition was cut for the most part—and then came the radical industrialization of the 1960s, almost overnight, and then the radical revolution that led to the information society. These were, and remain, serious cuts, even if in the last 40 years there have been attempts to resurrect traditional music. But that explains pretty well, in my opinion, why Koreans are crazy for Western classical music, and why there are so many excellent classical performers.  

Your new piece for the Berlin Philharmonic works with complex textures and passages. Do you hear these accurately in your head, or do you think there’ll be big surprises the first time you hear it?

I hear the details. The dilemma is on a completely different level: When I begin to compose a piece, it starts with abstract ideas, colors, and visions. The musical reality on paper, however, is full of technical details. You have to overcome the difference between these polar opposites somehow. It’s a process that has many stages, and the piece has to be ready at some point. And there are differences of course: in some cases, I can say that I’ve managed to realize perhaps 95 percent of my ideas, whereas sometimes the discrepancy between the idea and what’s written down can be greater, which sometimes leads to a new version. There are times when the notated result is different from what I had in mind, but I can live with that if it’s logical and works in its own way.

"When I begin to compose a piece, it starts with abstract ideas, colors, and visions. The musical reality on paper, however, is full of technical details." — Unsuk Chin in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

How do you decide if a premiere of one of your pieces is a success? Do only your own standards count, or do you listen to feedback from colleagues and friends, the performers or the audience?

You can only rely on your own criteria. It might sound a little haughty, but it’s true. You live in your own world, and you have to be OK with that. On the other hand, communication through music is very important to me, but certainly not in the sense that I’d compose for a certain target group. That’s out of the question.

Unsuk Chin, “Alice in Wonderland”; from a performance at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007 with the director Achim Freyer.

In an article for the Guardian, you speak of “advanced music.” Isn’t that term a little problematic? Do you really think that classical music has a unique quality or effect?

Well, creativity can be found in all kinds of places, even where you least expect it, and terminology is always problematic, because it simplifies by definition. Of course, you can’t talk about anything without it. And it’s a fact that some music is complex, laborsome, takes a lot of effort from the listener, and will cost more money than it earns. This kind of music is only possible when a society is ready to support things that don’t have a clear “use,” that aren’t “worth it,” or if they are, only after decades and centuries have passed. This might sound pretentious, but without a belief in the immaterial worth of this music, in “art music,” or in “great works,” the music of Beethoven would not have been possible.

This support used to go without saying. Now these assumptions are crumbling a bit, even if I’m definitely not a fan of saying, “in the good old days…” If you follow the developments of the last few years or decades, it doesn’t necessarily fill you with hope. Copyrights are losing meaning, classical music isn’t present in schools, and even at the glamorous end of the concert spectrum, there are tectonic shifts taking place that would have been unimaginable at a different time. I think it’s impossible to say what the consequences of the digital revolution will be. That’s why I’m in favor of using the term “art music,” even if it’s scary because it sounds so elitist. But if you can’t defend something that’s fragile, expensive, and has its own special value now, how will you be able to defend it from even more extreme changes in the future?

Let me try an analogy. There are so many TV shows out there right now that are complex, intelligent, and extremely well made. But they can’t replace the “art films” of a director like Michael Haneke. There needs to be space for both—but an art film won’t exist without outside funding, because it won’t recoup its losses. So it needs special support. Someone needs to pay the bill. That’s always been true of classical music.

Eurocentrism is pervasive in classical music. There’s often a sense that Western European music is considered to be more highly developed than the music of other cultures. Part of this idea is that music progresses linearly, culminating in art music. Do you think that non-Western classical musics are appreciated enough in the West?

Linear progression doesn’t exist. Is the music of the late Middle Ages less meaningful than a Mahler Symphony? The very act of comparison is highly problematic. How can you compare the highly polyphonic musics of, say, Georgia or the southern half of Africa with the heterophonic music of Northern India, which makes use of highly refined rhythms and intonation? Not to mention the fact that music is defined differently in different places: sometimes it can’t even be separated from dance or language. All these various traditions are part of the world’s cultural richness, and it would be an immeasurable loss if they were to die out.

I look at these issues from the perspective of a composer who was socialized mainly in the tradition of Western classical music, which is also a part of global cultural heritage as well. I feel at home with the music. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot from non-European musical cultures such as Balian gamelan music, even though I admit my relationship with it is totally subjective and selective. But I think that’s acceptable. Debussy learned from Southeast Asian music, Messiaen from Indian, Boulez from Japanese, Ligeti from sub-Saharan African; and the result was magnificent. It’s the opposite of musical colonialism: they took something foreign to them and turned it into their own subjective music. I recently read an article by a musicologist that dealt with and problematized this kind of work as “colonialist,” with a lot of fancy terminology. It was absurd, to put it mildly. These composers never acted like they were doing anything besides their own thing. Their approach was the exact opposite of “world music,” which throws all kinds of wonderful and terrible things into a pot, with the inevitable result that the amalgamation ends up being less valuable than the sum of its parts.

I don’t believe in linear progress, optimization, or growth. There’s no such thing as improvement without a price to pay. Something that concerns me in classical music lately is the increasingly show-oriented nature of the business. Young performers are thrown into the market, styled, chewed up and swallowed, and then replaced by others in the blink of an eye. And it seems to me like this is becoming increasingly common.

Unsuk Chin, “Le Silence des Sirènes”; Barbara Hannigan (Soprano), Simon Rattle (Conductor), Berlin Philharmonic

We asked you about doubt and frustrations at the beginning of the interview. What’s the part of your work that you love the most?

Do you have to love your work? It’s not about having fun. Composition is a profession that you can never get enough of. In every piece, I try to do something new, instead of copying myself. There’s always a higher, more difficult mountain to climb. You can sit in front of the blank staff paper for weeks and, right at the moment where you think you’re ready to jump out the window, the knot gets untied. It’s not possible without a struggle.

"Do you have to love your work? It’s not about having fun. Composition is a profession that you can never get enough of." Unsuk Chin in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

There’s a significant difference from piece to piece, though. When you start you have no idea how things will turn out. I wrote my Concerto for Sheng quickly, even though the preparations took a long time, because of how complex the instrument is. A piano etude of mine, which is only two and a half minutes long, took forever. I almost lost it over that piece. None of this goes well with today’s “Mindfulness: Be Happy Now” mentality. It’s certainly not glamorous. I’m grateful to be able to make a living from composing, but when I look at the glossy concert world, it definitely feels a long way away. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.