Unsuk Chin: grinning teeth and false magic in Gougalōn

Unsuk Chin (1961) is one of the most successful composers of our time. She won the Gaudeamus Award in 1985, the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2004, and was recently honoured with the Bach Prize 2019 of the city of Hamburg. On Saturday 18 May the German ensemble Musikfabrik will perform her popular piece Gougalōn in NTRZaterdagMatinee in Concertgebouw Amsterdam. The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 4.

Chin was born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as the daughter of a minister. When she was two years old her father bought a piano for his church services. She was immediately fascinated, but there was no money for piano lessons. She learnt to play the instrument on her own account and from the age of eight she contributed to the family income as a piano accompanist for wedding ceremonies.

From Tchaikovsky to Ligeti

In high school she got to know music by composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky and decided to start composing herself. When she heard a piece by György Ligeti at the Seoul Conservatory, she was so impressed that she asked him by letter to teach her. He agreed and in 1985 she moved to Hamburg. The acquaintance was a shock: Ligeti rejected all her previously composed pieces. According to him they were well written but lacked personality.

Ironically, it was precisely in this period that she won the Gaudeamus Music Prize with Spektra for three celli, the piece with which she graduated from Seoul Conservatory. Under Ligeti’s tutorship she developed her own style, in which beauty of sound and humour go hand in hand. In 1991 she composed the witty Akrostichon-Wortspiel for the Dutch Nieuw Ensemble and solo soprano, based on nonsense lyrics. Two years later, this piece marked her international breakthrough.

East meets West

Chin tirelessly searches for unheard sounds and timbres. She writes for common western instruments, but manages to elicit eastern sounding sonorities from them; sometimes she also uses Asian instruments. In this way she organically links her Korean background with her western education. In her frequently performed ensemble piece Gougalōn Chin once again addresses her roots.

The idea arose during a stay in China in 2008-09. In her own words she experienced a ‘Proustian moment’ when visiting cities such as Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The atmosphere of the old and poor residential neighbourhoods with their narrow, winding alleys, ambulatory food vendors, and market places reminded her of her childhood in Seoul. This evoked long forgotten images of travelling amateur musicians and actors trying to foist homemade medicines on the common man/woman by means of street theatre.

Clattering teeth and dancing barracks

The title Gougalōn derives from old High German. The word’s meanings range from ‘tampering’ and ‘fooling people with fake magic’ to ‘making ridiculous movements’ and ‘divination’. Chin emphasizes she does not directly refer to the amateurish street theatre of her youth and that the music is not intended to be illustrative; she describes her piece as ‘imaginary folk music’. Yet it is difficult to avoid associations with the subtitles of the six movements, especially since Chin paints hilarious scenes with special sound effects.

For instance, the solo violin plays seemingly completely out of tune glissandi in ‘Lament of the bald singer’, the percussionists suggestively produce rattling sounds in ‘The grinning fortune teller with the false teeth’, in ‘Dance around the shacks’ long held lines of the strings are supported by swaying brass, while in ‘The hunt for the quack’s plait’ a pandemonium bursts loose that would well suit a pursuit scene in an animated film.

Gougalōn was well received by both audience and press. ‘Vivid, extravagant and technically assured to the point of virtuosity’, opined The Guardian; ‘Chin successfully pairs a typically German love of the grotesque with an Asiatic sound world, to hilarious effect’, wrote Backtrack. 

On the programme, too are world premières by Rozalie Hirs and Sander Germanus, and works by Carola Bauckholt and Rebecca Saunders.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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3 Responses to Unsuk Chin: grinning teeth and false magic in Gougalōn

  1. Pingback: Carola Bauckholt concocts music from sludge flakes and animal sounds | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  2. Clare Shore says:

    Thank you for your excellent article on Unsuk Chin’s music, Thea!


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