Unsuk Chin: Hear my $200,000 concerto

At 42, the composer Unsuk Chin has won one of the world's most prestigious music awards. But, as she tells Martin Anderson, the path from South Korea to lyrical modernism wasn't smooth
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The Independent Culture

The annual Grawemeyer award is one of the most prestigious in classical music. It is given to a contemporary composer for a specific work, bringing a colossal $200,000 in prize money and an equivalent amount of kudos. The first winner, in 1985, was Witold Lutoslawski, for his Third Symphony; subsequent winners have included some of the biggest names in new music, Ligeti, Penderecki, Takemitsu and Boulez among them.

The 2004 winner is the Korean composer Unsuk Chin - the third woman to take the Grawemeyer. Like the rest of us, composers come in all shapes and sizes, but Chin isn't quite what you'd expect a modern composer to look like: she's petite, delicate, almost weightlessly graceful, with the kind of sultry, heavy-lidded eyes that you see on James Bond's sexier villains. The award is for her Violin Concerto, which receives its first UK performance at the Barbican on Friday, when the soloist, Viviane Hagner, will join the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Martyn Brabbins.

Chin first made her mark with a piece called Acrostic-Wordplay, for soprano and ensemble, written in 1991. Three years later, she was signed up by the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, whose efficient machinery has since made sure of widespread international performances for her meticulously crafted works, among them a Fantaisie mécanique for chamber ensemble (1994); Miroirs des temps (1999), which was a BBC commission for the Hilliard Ensemble and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; and a piano concerto in 1997. A Double Concerto for the unusual combination of piano, percussion and ensemble appeared last year.

Born in Seoul in 1961, Chin is only the second Korean composer to make the running in contemporary classical music, her sole predecessor being Isang Yun (1917-95). When she was in London recently, I asked her how this had come about. "When I was 11 or 12, I decided to become a composer; before that I wanted to be a pianist." But under what impulse? It's hardly a conventional teenage career plan, even in the West. "My father was a minister in the Presbyterian Church, and my mother - a Christian, too - was a teacher. They couldn't afford to pay for piano lessons. At that time in Korea, in the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies, we were very poor. My music teacher at school was a composer, and one day she advised me to become one, too; she said it was much better to be a composer than a pianist."

So how, without support, did she make her way forward in music, in composition in particular? "I learnt everything by myself. I listened to music every day, Western classical music; I played piano; I studied a lot of scores. It wasn't normal to buy recordings or scores: they were all rarities and very expensive. I borrowed scores from other people, too, and copied them out - the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony, in its entirety."

Which other composers was she listening to at this stage? "Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart..." Not Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and the other composers we might call "lyrical modernists", among whom she is now counted? "No, at that time we didn't know these people at all. Stravinsky we did know: I was 13 when I heard the Stravinsky Violin Concerto. I found it very beautiful but, for my ear, at that time, there was too much brass!"

Could the attraction to Western music be ascribed, at least in part, to the fact that her father was active in an Occidental spiritual tradition? "When I was a child, I used to accompany the hymns in the church. For me, it was like an exercise in harmony. They would say hymn number so-and-so, and I would have to play. I was only eight or nine years old, very young, and it was quite stressful, but it was also very good practice. Sometimes, when people got a bit excited and went higher, I would have to play a half-tone higher, transposing up, sometimes down... I did that for years. It was my first encounter with the Western tradition."

Chin ascribes her first brush with musical modernism to Sukhi Kang, her principal teacher of composition and piano at Seoul National University. When she began studying with him in 1982, Kang "had just returned from Europe, bringing a lot of information with him. I learnt a lot from him, even aspects of craftsmanship, of how one sets notes. I heard Ligeti first, then Penderecki, Stockhausen, Boulez."

Was her own music already advancing along similar lines? "No. In fact, I had written very little up to that point - only little things, sonatinas, variations, that were rather tied to tradition. But I was open to all possibilities. Stockhausen and Boulez were really difficult to understand, but I was very inquisitive none the less, and I was prepared to take this music into myself."

When did she write the first work that pointed to her current style? "That was after my studies. I did compose a piece during my studies, in 1983, which was chosen for the World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Canada, and that was my first international success. Nothing like that had happened in Korea before. And, at 22, I was still very young.

"After that, I composed a piece for my final exam at the university, and that was selected as a finalist for the Gaudeamus competition in Holland, and I was lucky enough to win first prize. All of that happened within the three years that I was studying with my teacher, incredibly quickly - too quickly!" Chin's rise continued to be rapid. In 1985, a German government scholarship took her to Hamburg to study with Ligeti, no less. Three years later, she moved to Berlin, where she has lived independently ever since. "Life hasn't been easy so far, since I'm a freelance composer, and I have a family - one son who is three years old - and I have to compose to provide all the necessities of life: rent, mineral water, cigarettes. When you think about it, it's a bit crazy that you can, or must, live like that.

"My dream was always to do what I wanted, to live my own life, and so, even without this prize, I can't complain about anything. Even when I don't have much money, and don't have a car, I do have a fulfilled life. I've lived in much worse conditions than this, and it didn't do me any harm. I've never wanted to join an institution or take up a position somewhere that might have nothing to do with me. I just want to be myself and get on with my work."

Chin's Violin Concerto had its first performance in Berlin in January 2002 by the then 26-year-old Viviane Hagner, who has been drawing critical superlatives since her emergence on the international stage. The two women worked intensively together on the piece - Hagner, Chin says, "gave me a lot of advice on why something might be difficult, what isn't possible, how something could be easier to play". The result is a staggeringly difficult, though still violinistic, solo part that Hagner somehow takes in her stride.

Chin's listeners, though, have an easier time of it. Her concerto is relatively traditional in form: not quite half an hour in length, with the soloist swirling above a carpet of instrumental colour - the use of the orchestra is reserved and refined. The Grawemeyer committee described the work as "a synthesis of glittering orchestration, rarefied sonorities, volatility of expression, musical puzzles and unexpected turns". It is also, for all its modernist musical language, remarkably lyrical. The composer nods. "Yes, you could say that. The most important thing for me in my music is that there should be a big palette of expressive possibilities. If it's only lyrical, or only aggressive, then, for me, it is flat and one-sided. So, within a piece I try to communicate diverse, differing states of feeling and modes of expression."

So, Unsuk Chin's work is thus relatively accessible, even to the listener who thinks that he or she ought to be afraid of modern music. "That's my philosophy when I compose: I never write pieces for my composer-colleagues - I write pieces for many different types of listeners. There are the normal classical-music lovers. There are the professional new-music lovers. And there are the people who have never had anything to do with music. For me, a good piece of music is one in which people from all of these different groups maybe don't understand everything but can at least get something out of it. It is very important to me that my music speaks to all of these people on a certain level."

The UK premiere of Unsuk Chin's Violin Concerto is on Friday at 7.30pm, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7596) and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3