updated 6 February 2023
© Priska Ketterer

Unsuk Chin

South Korean composer born 14 July 1961 in Seoul.

Unsuk Chin was born in South Korea in 1961 and began studying piano and musical theory on her own at a very young age. She went on to study composition at Seoul National University under Sukhi Kang until 1985, and performed as a pianist at the Pan Music Festival.

Her composition Gestalten was selected for the World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Canada in 1984 and the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. In 1985, she received a fellowship from the DAAD to go to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, where she stayed until 1988, studying with György Ligeti. She has made her home in Berlin since 1988.

Her compositions have featured in numerous festivals and concert cycles around the world, in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Korea, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries. Her Akrostichon-Wortspiel (1991) has been performed in many countries, by groups such as Ensemble Modern, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the Nieuw Ensemble, Asko Ensemble, Ictus Ensemble, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Her graduation piece, Spektra, won the Gaudeamus Award from the Gaudeamus Foundation in Amsterdam in 1985, and Santika Ekataka came first in a composition competition for an orchestra piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese government in Tokyo in 1993.

Unsuk Chin was a composer-in-residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2001-2002 and received a commission for her Violin Concerto, which they premiered in 2002 with Viviane Hagner, conducted by Kent Nagano. Several other concertos followed: a Double Concerto for piano, percussion, and ensemble (2002); Šu for sheng and orchestra (2009); a Cello Concerto (2006-2008, revised in 2011); and a Concerto pour clarinet (2014).

Other works if note include a cycle of piano études (1995-2003); ParaMetaString for quartet and electronics, which was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (1996); and several ensemble pieces, among them Gougalon: Scenes from a Street Theater for Ensemble (2009-2011); Fantaisie mécanique (1997); Xi (1998) and Fanfare chimérique (2011), both of which were premiered by the Ensemble intercontemporain; Rocaná for orchestra (2008), which was premiered by Kent Nagano in Montreal; cosmigimmicks, which premiered in 2012 at the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw; and Graffiti, which premiered in 2013 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

She has also composed major pieces for solo vocalists, such as Miroirs des temps, a BBC commission for the Hilliard Ensemble and the London Philharmonic (1999-2001); Kalá, co-commissioned by the Danish Radio Symphony, the Gothenburg Symphony and the Oslo Philharmonic orchestras (2000); and Cantatrix Sopranica for two sopranos, counter-tenor, and ensemble, a commission from the London Sinfonietta (2004-2005). These were followed by other pieces, including an opera, Alice in Wonderland, based on the book by Lewis Carroll, which premiered at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in June 2007; Le Silence des Sirènes, which premiered with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in 2014; and Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles for choirs and orchestra, which premiered with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016.

In 2017, she received the Sibelius Prize from the Wihuri Foundation for International Prizes, and in 2019, the Bach Prize of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

Unsuk Chin’s work is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2017


Boosey & Hawkes.

By Jérémie Szpirglas

Exploring the work of Unsuk Chin is a sinuous and exhilarating journey. She has deliberately made the path playful — strewn with surprises, pretenses, and unexpected asides, twists, and turns.

The first twist along the path is Chin’s nationality: although born in Seoul, she refers to her South Korean identity little, if at all, in her music. This is due in part to the fact that Korea’s ancient musical traditions are more or less lost today — cut off by the Japanese occupation in 1910. Chin had only indirect access to these traditions. Her childhood was instead suffused with Western musical traditions. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, gave her an informal but formative early education, teaching her the basics of reading music and playing piano when she was a small child. When one of Chin’s pieces, Gougalon for ensemble (2009), attempts to revive some form of Korean tradition, it is not through the music itself; the piece instead is simply inspired by the street theater performances and other forms of street life that gave color to the neighborhoods of Seoul in the 1960s.

At the same time, Chin is fascinated by other non-European music ¬¬— particularly the gamelan and, more broadly, the Balinese musical tradition, which irrigates her work with shimmering, fluid, ever-changing colors. Works for ensemble and orchestra such as the Concerto for Violin (2001) and Akrostichon-Wortspiel (1993) were inspired by the gamelan, for example. Melodic ostinatos — the more or less varied repetition of small cells — becomes one of her ways of sketching out harmonic gestures with complex and iridescent structures.

While Chin appropriates various musical elements she has picked up along her path, she does so with tremendous subtlety. If ever a reference is clear, it is most likely ironic, even sarcastic. But Chin adapts postmodernism with precaution: external elements must meet a real aesthetic need, or have been ripened and mulled to the point of complete appropriation within her highly personal language.

Alternately, external elements must be the very project of the piece: in Miroirs des Temps (2001), Chin locates new energy in the music of the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance — as many before her have done, from Igor Stravinsky to György Ligeti or the members of the Second Viennese School. Notably, she weaves a Cypriot virelay and a ballata by Johannes Ciconia into the piece, which also includes nods to Pérotin and Guillaume de Machaut. Since the late 2010s, Chin has experimented with orchestral music, seeking to tell the history of music in what she has described as a sonic time lapse, borrowing the idea from the time-lapse videos that present a succession of still images of the same object (or the same viewpoint) at different times. Frontispiece for Orchestra (2019) weaves together fragments borrowed from Anton Bruckner, Anton Webern, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Scriabin, and Stravinsky. Gestures of one composer are revisited in the spirit of another; thus, Brahms-inspired harmonies are refracted through the work of Charles Ives; material taken from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is performed in the style of Pierre Boulez. Similarly, in subito con forza (2020), composed for Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Chin composed using Beethoven-esque gestures (or rather symphonic gestures in the tradition of Beethoven, since they contain nods to many other composers) to create a powerful, color-dense miniature. Here, again, she engages in mischievous dialogue with her musical forebears, but pushes the dialogue far beyond the realm of mere exercise: a compositional through-line (a chord, a type of expression) guides her discourse to create a coherent whole, a kind of mosaic. In this way, she seeks “to try and do something new with each piece, but without losing the connection to the tradition.”1

In Miroirs des Temps, Frontispiece, and subito con forza, the orchestral writing creates a kind of “meta-language.” By the same token, in SPIRA: Concerto for Orchestra, the orchestra becomes a “meta-orchestra,” a chameleon-like instrument with which Chin plays. Inspired by the biological processes of growth and metamorphosis from a single seed, SPIRA considers by turns the symphony orchestra as a single entity or “super-orchestra,” as an assemblage of instrumental sections or individual musicians upon which the discourse centers, and as a concert ensemble cast as a kind of concerto grosso, in which all of the members of a given section assume the role of soloist.2

A Scientific Approach to Composition

Another step in Chin’s biography leads the listener to another surprising turn in her path: that is, her musical education and career, beginning with her long apprenticeship with Ligeti. The influence of her teacher is palpable in some of Chin’s scores. Her piano Études (2003), for example, can be heard as a compositional exercise written in tribute to Ligeti’s Études as well as to his own heroes: one hears a far-off recollection of the unsettled rhythms of Conlon Nancarrow in Étude No. 4 “Scalen” and the colorful imagery of Claude Debussy in Étude No. 6 “Grains.” These echoes are misleading, however: the voice of the student shares little with that of her master.

When Chin left South Korea for Europe, she had already won several international prizes for her work. But reacting to the few pieces she had written by that time, Ligeti coldly told her that what she was writing was “not your own music.”3 Disconcerted, Chin threw them all away and did not compose for three years. It was a necessary interruption that allowed her to trace out the first contours of her own language. More than exerting a musical influence — which would lead Chin to borrow the writing techniques of her teacher — Ligeti passed on a “Ligetist” approach to composition. Chin took on his unique understanding of composition, in particular his capacity to change radically throughout his career and tirelessly expand his style. She also took on his almost scientific view of composition in which he would take a concept and exhaust its possibilities, before moving on to the next one.

Among the passions Chin shares with Ligeti is a love of mathematical objects. These constitute a formidable reservoir of models she can transpose into composition. Rocaná for orchestra (2008) is an excellent example. Working through “self-similarity,” Chin experiments with a “fractal” musical form. “The music in Rocaná flows uninterruptedly,” she writes.

The overall picture and the overall structure are one entity, one “tonal sculpture.” However, one can look at it from various angles, since the inner structures are constantly changing. Even if the music at times gives the impression of stasis, subtle impulses, interactions, and reactions are continually present. Certain elements appear time and again, yet always in varied form. They are not developed: they instead lead seamlessly into one another and blend, forming new interactions and processes. Orderly structures suddenly turn into turbulence and vice versa.4

The result of this process resembles the sound kaleidoscope of the Balinese gamelan described above. Behind this self-generative and stochastic form, the writing she develops is inspired not by mathematics itself but by mathematical models applied to physics. Working with the similarities between sound and light in wave form, Chin seeks to translate certain well-known phenomena of light into music: deviation, decomposition, and other reflections. This is the meaning behind the title Rocaná, which in Sanskrit means “room of light.”

From OuLiPo to OuMuPo

As is true of Ligeti, Chin’s fascination with mathematics goes hand in hand with a taste for play. Through parody or imitation, plays on words or with constraints, Chin pursues the work begun by the writers of the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) movement into the realm of music, from OuLiPo to OuMuPo, or Ouvroir de Musique Potentielle, as it were.

Titles of Chin’s works sometimes make open reference to play on words or on sounds. Akrostichon-Wortspiel, for example, refers to the acrostic (a poem in which the verses are arranged so that the first letter of each line, when read from top to bottom, reveals a name, a saying, or a phrase that relates to the poem’s author, dedicatee, subject, etc.). Miroirs des Temps for soloists and orchestra (2001), takes its form from the very OuLiPo tool of the palindrome; using the palindrome as the piece’s point of departure suggests a retrospective view of music history. Works that use theatrical techniques — whether intended for stage or concert — show even more strongly Chin’s taste for constraint. In Allegro ma non troppo for solo percussion and tape (1998), the base material is the sounds of tissue paper, watches, water droplets, and other percussions. In Double Bind? for violin and electronics (2007), whose title evokes a paradoxical and seemingly unsolvable situation, Chin proposes “a fantasized, manipulated and altered view of the relationship between musician and instrument as well as life ‘in the wings’ of a musician.”5 She once more engages in playful self-reference and mirroring, with this musical reinterpretation of the theatrical mise en abyme, unveiling the processes at work in the piece. The live electronics, developed with Benoît Meudic at IRCAM, participate in a playful entangling of “natural” acoustic sound and “artificial” sound; they become a grain of sand that gets caught in the seemingly flawless machine formed by the violinist and the violin.

Cantatrix Sopranica for two sopranos, countertenor, and ensemble (2005) is probably the most emblematic of Chin’s works of artistic play. The piece is inspired by a work of the same name by Georges Perec, which, parodying a scientific treatise, presents the results of a series of experiments with throwing tomatoes at sopranos. In her piece, Chin proposes an “exploration of the act of singing,” a kind of song about song. Here, again, the title is misleading, as Chin deliberately distances herself from Perec’s text. Only the fourth movement (constructed as a “snowball”) uses a strictly OuLiPo text (by Harry Matthews). Borrowing from texts by Gertrude Stein and the Berlin-based poet Arno Holz, and a Chinese text dating from the Tang Dynasty, Chin adopts the same attitude toward music that OuLiPo writers had toward literature: she plays with its rules and invents new ones, highlights its tics and its quirks. In sum, self-reference returns once more: the music is about itself.

As do the writers of OuLiPo, Chin finds freedom in constraint. From within her rigid framework, she allows herself expression with a fancifulness that is at once delicate and richly detailed, and often unpredictable. It is in this balance between formal perfection and playful volubility that she finds her tone. Her light touch is real and intentional, but it hides more than meets the eye. It is up to the listener to explore the different pockets Chin has sewn into the piece. Stitched between the lines — or, more accurately, immanent in them, hidden in the background of the musical discourse — is the true emotion, emerging from unpretentious whimsy.

To play, to dream

Given her taste for self-reference, absurdity, mathematical games, and play with constraints, it comes as no surprise that Chin would be drawn to Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s masterwork inspired her only opera to date, which was composed between 2004 and 2007, when it debuted in Munich. Carroll’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, had already inspired Akrostichon-Wortspiel. But despite the fascination it holds for audiences of various ages, education levels, professions, and nationalities, it is less the story that drew Chin to the work than its lack of conventional plot, of moral, and even of emotion. “Instead, [Carroll’s] writing,” Chin notes,

consists of sequences full of wordplays, absurdist situations and “nonsense.” The wry logic of Carroll’s writing paints the picture of an alternative universe in which different physical laws exist […]. Lewis Carroll was also the first surrealist. It is really all about dreams.6

The premiere of Alice marked a new center of gravity in the work of Chin, or, rather, a new approach to an existing orientation: the literary and the dramaturgy that it subtends. Since Alice, literary references of all sorts have emerged in Chin’s composition — Greek tragedy, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett in cosmigimmicks for ensemble (2012), James Joyce in Le Silence des Sirènes for soprano and orchestra (2014), and Octavio Paz, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Fernando Pessoa, William Blake, and Percy Shelley in Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles for children’s choir, mixed choir, organ, and orchestra (2016). Where once they were far-off sources of inspiration, more and more often they underpin her composition, which manifests a clear interest in theatricality.

Theater is the main subject of Gougalon, for example. The piece emerged from a Proustian experience during a trip to China, when the composer’s walks through the poorer neighborhoods of Hong Kong and Guangzhou transported her back to her childhood in the war-scarred city of 1960s Seoul. Against the backdrop of this long-lost memory emerged the silhouette of a troupe of street artists — the kind of hard-working performers whose amateur shows with identical plots were, more often than not, merely a pretext for hawking pills and potions of dubitable efficacy. Their arrival in a neighborhood would attract a colorful crowd of street peddlers, smooth-talkers, magicians, hawkers, hucksters, and hagglers, whose hubbub Chin recreates7 in a gesture that recalls the opening of Petrushka by Stravinsky. In cosmigimmicks, Chin found herself tracing a loose history of pantomime, puppet theater, and mask theater from ancient Greece up to Marcel Marceau (in a new and veiled tribute to her teacher, Ligeti). In a similar vein, Mannequin: Tableaux vivants for orchestra (2015) is a tribute to dance, by way of a distant nod to the fantastical short story “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. In a surreal manner, this piece crosses the thin boundary between dream and reality.

The dream is no doubt one of the most important pathways into Chin’s universe, a dimension to which she devotes a great deal of careful work. “Lewis Carroll really understood something about [the] child psyche, about the extended dream world it is about,” she said. “These glimpses of the dream world are a realm of imagination, and I try to render it into music.”8 It is through the prism of dreams that Chin’s fantastical and mysterious titles should be understood. They are often chosen for their musical and sonic qualities, and at times for their wordplay: Fanfare chimérique (2010), Fantaisie mécanique (1997), or even Spectres-speculaires (2000) (which has since been removed from her catalogue). For Chin, an orchestra is an “illusion machine”: she uses it as a potter uses a potter’s wheel, and the music becomes a manifestation of her dreams. Her composing also resembles Alice’s Cheshire Cat: it always seems to be slipping from our grasp, leaving only an enigmatic smile floating in the air behind it — for humor, too, is never far off.

My music is the reflection of my dreams. I attempt to compose a musical rendition of the visions of blinding light and the incredible magnificence of color scattered throughout my dreams: the play on light and color in space, simultaneously materializing as a flowing sound sculpture. This beauty is both abstract and remote, but through such grand qualities it can reach the emotions to convey joy and warmth.9

No doubt it is in renditions of the atmospheres and colors of her dreams that Chin’s mastery of instrumental composition shines its brightest. It also beams through in her talented electroacoustic work — which she began at the Technical University of Berlin and has pursued in other specialized institutions such as the Studio for Electronic Music of the WDR in Cologne and IRCAM in Paris. In electroacoustics, Chin seeks a form of fusion between electronics and acoustics, but one that is in no way univocal: to the contrary, it pushes open a broad horizon of musical metamorphoses, fluid and mobile.

In the end, perhaps it is to provoke this constant feeling of uncertainty and unexpectedness — the very feeling that characterizes dreams — that Chin has strewn her path with so many surprises and diversions, creating a journey propelled by sleight-of-hand, illusion, and unpredictability.

1. In Benjamin POORE, “‘I need solitude’: Unsuk Chin on Literature, Creativity and Being an Individual,” bachtrack.com, 20 March 2018. 
2. Unsuk CHIN, notes for SPIRA
3. Unsuk CHIN in an unpublished interview with the author. 
4. Unsuk CHIN, Notes for Rocaná
5. Unsuk CHIN, Notes for Double Bind? 
6. Unsuk CHIN in an unpublished interview with the author. 
7. Unsuk CHIN, Notes for *Gougalon,” trans. Howard WEINER, boosey.com. 
8. Unsuk CHIN in an unpublished interview with the author. 
9. Unsuk CHIN, Composer Snapshot, boosey.com, 2003. 

Texte révisé en juin 2022.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en octobre 2020).

Bibliographie sélective

  • Stefan DREES (éditeur), Im Spiegel Der Zeit. Die Komponistin Unsuk Chin, Schott, Mayence, 2011.
  • Dominique DRUHEN, « Notes de programme Akrostichon - Wortspiel » dans ENFANCES - Contes et Récits, Forum : Les albums pour l’enfance : le samedi 7 février 2004, Paris, Cité de la musique, 2004, p. 44-45.
  • Dominique DRUHEN, « Notes de programme Akrostichon - Wortspiel » dans Orient/Occident : le vendredi 22 septembre 2000, Paris, Cité de la musique, 2000, p. 4.
  • Frank HARDERS-WUTHENOW, « Notes de programme Xi » dans rendez-vous avec David Robertson et l’Ensemble intercontemporain : le mercredi 24 février 1999, Paris, Cité de la musique, 1999, p. 4-5.
  • Arnold WHITTALL, « Unsuk Chin in focus : Meditations & mechanics », dans Musical Times vol. 141 n° 1870, Hove (Grande-Bretagne), Musical Times Publications Limited, 2000, p. 21-32.
  • Martin WILKENNING, « Unsuk Chin, l’imagination pour seule contrainte », dans Accents n° 26, avril-juin 2005, en ligne sur http://www.ensembleintercontemporain.com (lien vérifié en octobre 2020).

Discographie sélective

  • Unsuk CHIN, Parametastring, dans « To be loved », Esmé Quartet, avec des œuvres de Ludwig van Beethoven et Frank Bridge, 1 Cd Alpha Classics, 2020, ALPHA590.
  • Unsuk CHIN, Graffiti, Ensemble Musikfabrik, avec des œuvres d’Olga Neuwirth et Sun Ra, 1 cd Wergo, 2014, WER68612.
  • Unsuk CHIN, Piano Concerto ; Cello Concerto ; Su, dans « Three Concertos », Sunwook Kim, Alban Gerhardt, Wu Wei, Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung , direction, 1 cd Deutsche Grammophon, 2014,
  • Unsuk CHIN, Six Piano Etudes, dans « Musical Toys », Mei Yi Foo : piano, avec des œuvres de Sofia Gubaidulina et György Ligeti, 1 cd Odradek Records, 2012, 1700302.
  • Unsuk CHIN, Fantaisie mécanique;* Xi ; Akrostichon-Wortspiel ; Hide and Seek ; The Puzzle of the Three Magic GatesThe Rules of the Game – sdrawkcab emiT ; Four Seasons in Five Verses ; Domifare ; The Game of Chance ; From the Old Time ;Double Concerto, Piia Komsi : soprano, Samuel Favre : percussion, Dimitri Vassilakis : piano, Ensemble intercontemporain, direction : Patrick Davin, David Robertson, Kazushi Ono et Stefan Asbury, 1 cd Kairos, 2010, 0013062KAI.
  • Unsuk CHIN, Rocaná;* Violin Concerto*, Vivane Hagner : violon, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, direction : Kent Nagano, 1 cd Analekta, 2009, AN 2 9944.
  • Unsuk CHIN, Alice In Wonderland, Sally Matthews, Piia Komsi, Julia Rempel, Dietrich Henschel, Gwyneth Jones, Andrew Watts, mise en scène : Achim Freyer, costumes, masques, marionettes : Nina Weitzner, chœur mixte et chœur d’enfants du Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester, direction : Kent Nagano, 1 dvd medici arts, Unitel Classica, Euroarts Music Inter, 2008.
  • Unsuk CHIN, « Akrostichon-Wortspiel » :*Akrostichon-Wortspiel;Fantaisie mécanique;Xi;Doppelkonzert;Double concerto, Ensemble intercontemporain, direction : Patrick Davin, 1 cd Deutsche Grammophon, coll. « 20/21 », 2005, DG 477 511-8.
  • Unsuk CHIN, El aliento de la sombra, dans « Electroacoustic music : Elektronisches Studio, Technische Universität Berlin», avec des œuvres de Ricardo Mandolini, Robin Minard, Georg Katzer, Wolfgang Motz, Bruno Martinez, 1 cd Academy, 1995, 0085102ACA.