Unsuk Chin: ‘Without an inner conflict I’ll come to nothing’

The music of Unsuk Chin was often performed in the Netherlands by the Nieuw Ensemble and in the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee. On 24 and 25 September she debuts with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Subito con sforza, a commission. I interviewed Chin for the September issue of Preludium, the magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra. Here is the English translation.

Unsuk Chin: composer with an independent mind

Born in Seoul in 1961, Unsuk Chin grew up as the daughter of a minister. Contrary to what one might expect in an Asian country, not Buddhism is the main religion in South Korea, but Protestantism. The family wasn’t rich: ‘We had a piano at home but no records; the people of Korea were very poor at the time.’ There was no money for piano lessons either, so she taught herself to play the instrument; from the age of eight she even contributed to the family income by performing at wedding ceremonies.

She got to know classical music thanks to friends: ‘I knew a few people who owned a gramophone and some records of the great masters, which I listened to when I visited them. The most modern piece I heard was Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but I also loved Brahms and especially Tchaikovsky. I even copied the score of his Sixth Symphony because I could not afford to buy the sheet music.’ To her taste this piece is often performed too clichédly: ‘The exaggerated pathos doesn’t do justice to the music. The Pathétique has an incredibly logical structure. When you simply perform it without exaggeration it works perfectly, as in the recordings of Haitink with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.’

Volcanic eruptions, extreme serenity

Beethoven was also one of her favourite composers, because ‘he was constantly looking for new directions. He was the first consciously modern composer, in the sense that every piece asked for original solutions, even if this meant breaking through existing forms. I wrote my new piece on the occasion of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Subito con sforza contains some hidden references to his music. – What particularly appeals to me are the enormous contrasts: from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.’

Just like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven at times found inspiration in folk music. Chin herself sometimes speaks of ‘imaginary folk music’ in relation to her own work. ‘But that remark mainly concerned my ensemble piece Gougalōn’, she retorts. ‘In any case, the organic connection between classical concert music and folk music was broken a long time ago. You only still find it in the Viennese Classics, Mahler, Stravinsky’s Russian ballets and with Eastern European composers such as Bartók, Janáček and Ligeti.’

Nevertheless, she does entertain a musical connection with various kinds of music: ‘As an antidote to avant-garde dogmas and clichés from New Music, it is important and fascinating to relate to very diverse forms of music. However, I consciously make no distinction between classical and folk music. My work cannot be geographically localized, and I don’t consider this desirable either.’

Writer’s block

Subito con sforza was inspired by Beethoven’s conversation books. Especially his remark: ‘Dur und Moll. Ich bin ein Gewinner. [Major and minor. I’m a winner.] Is composing a struggle for her? ‘Definitely! Without an inner conflict I come to nothing. Once I have accepted a commission I always think I have an idea that I only have to develop further. But the moment I start, I at once get the feeling that I have no idea whatsoever. Every day I experience dozens of writer’s blocks, but somehow it progresses, millimetre by millimetre. When the piece is finished I realize that I had it in me from the beginning. I have to pay that price over and over again. The advantage of having more experience is that you know that at some point a door will open and the piece will be finished.’

How does she deal with commissions in general? ‘First I have to think whether I’ll accept them at all. That may take quite a while, for I carry ideas with me for a very long time. When I first heard the cellist Alban Gerhardt play, I immediately decided to write a cello concerto, but it took me eight years to realize it. I do make sketches, but very sparingly. At a certain point the bomb bursts, as it were, and a more intense compositional process begins.’


On 24 and 25 September her music will be performed together with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. ‘I have always been fascinated by his exuberant inventiveness. By the way, I have a difference of opinion with many of my fellow composers. In comparison with Stravinsky, for instance, Prokofiev may seem a bit coarse, a bit less “sophisticated”, but I have always loved his directness. That incredible, never-ending stream of ideas, the many masks of his music, the element of surprise! Of his piano concertos the radical Second is my favourite, but the classicist Third is a fireworks of pianistic virtuosity and ensemble playing.’

Prokofiev is often considered a radical modernist. Chin called Beethoven ‘modern’, too. Is it important to be modern and what does this actually mean? ‘No idea! Composers have always considered themselves contemporary. Bach would have been shocked at his music being labelled “baroque”. Personally I have the feeling that I don’t belong to any school or movement, but I do try to write music that is “modern”. In the sense of: starting from our time, making reflective and critical use of the compositional possibilities available today.’

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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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