The colour of sound

Unsuk Chin is one of the leading composers of our time. Evie Bamford looks at Chin’s life, music and her Violin Concerto No.1, the piece that confirmed her greatness.

Unsuk Chin’s childhood wasn’t easy. Born in Seoul in 1961, she grew up poor, barely a decade after the war that left Korea devastated and divided. She had music, though. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, brought a piano into his church and she immediately fell in love with it. Without the money to afford lessons, she began teaching herself to play, and by the age of eight she was providing accompaniment at his services.

It was just the beginning. Chin later completed a composition degree in Seoul, before receiving a scholarship to study at the prestigious Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, where she was drawn into the orbit of the great György Ligeti.

In an interview with her publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, Chin described her move to Germany as a creative liberation; art and inspiration were everywhere. Ligeti, a composer known for his unconventional teaching methods that included the analysis of rock and jazz, encouraged Chin to discover her own identity separate from the aesthetics of her inspirations, Debussy and Stravinsky, without letting go of tradition.

So despite the artistic freedom Chin found in Germany – and the fact that she makes a point of saying her music is free of distinctive cultural characteristics – she believes her Korean heritage, alongside her homeland’s historical lack of interaction with Western compositional dogma, enabled her to discover and express her own voice.

She began experimenting with electronic music and by 1988 was working as a freelance composer in a German electronic music studio. The experience prompted her to stop relying on motifs to tell her story; she was now able to think of music in a more abstract way, where colour, timbre and texture conveyed emotion instead.

You can hear it in Chin’s First Violin Concerto (2001). It was the work that brought the composer’s music to an international audience. The late music critic Alan Rich called it the first masterpiece of the 21st century, and it earnt Chin the Grawemeyer Award, generally regarded as the Nobel Prize for music composition. More importantly, it transports you to a vibrant, luminous world, where her playful use of rhythmic and textural imagery creates a work bursting with colour and innovative soundscapes.

Towards the back of the hall lurks an immense percussion section, with at least six players required to tackle 23 instruments. Many of them, such as a Javanese gong and the lithophone, are non-Western and not typically seen in this context, contributing to the work’s shimmering, ethereal nature.

For all that, the concerto retains a classical structure, with broadly traditional movements, though four of them instead of three. The first trio of movements explore the tonal relationship between the four open strings on a violin: G, D, A and E. These notes form the basis of the opening theme, which returns towards the end of the fourth movement. This time, the violin is supported by other members of the string section; the collaboration between soloist and orchestra is complete.

The work closes with neither a bang nor a whimper but an exhalation, a meditation focused on the out-breath. Somehow, though, as the last note fades, the concerto is still breathing, as if Chin has much left to say.

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