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Published on 17th April 2018

Unsuk Chin's journey from rags to musical riches


The celebrated Korean composer shares the challenges of her upbringing and how she overcame them with Maxim Boon.

Even with the advantages of a well-heeled education, few composers ever achieve international recognition. So, given the extraordinary hardships Unsuk Chin faced as a young girl growing up in Seoul – the daughter of a Presbyterian minister with very little money – the scale of her success today is all the more remarkable.

“South Korea [in the 1960s] was one of the poorest countries in the world and there was a military dictatorship in power,” she says.

“It was also a highly patriarchal society; women were allowed to enter education but not in order to become independent.

“But I was always a stubborn person, determined to follow my own dreams.

That stubbornness has more than paid off. Chin is now considered one of contemporary art music’s most significant figures. Her award-winning works have drawn global attention for their rich, meticulously crafted sound-worlds and playful theatricality, and are performed by some of the world's top ensembles - including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet and the London Sinfonietta.

A showcase of her music will form the centrepiece of this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival.

“It is very hard to compare the conditions [during my childhood] to my circumstances today,” she says. “Life acquires a very different meaning if it consists of constantly fighting for survival.”

Chin recalls a love of music from an early age. While her father was able to teach her the basics – enough for her to accompany hymns on the piano, at least – formal tuition was beyond their means.

But Chin’s resolve to follow her passion for music never wavered. She became pragmatic: instrumental lessons were expensive, but writing music required little more than paper, pencil, and a drive to create.

But Chin’s story is not simply one of overcoming financial adversity. It’s a story of resilience and a dogged single-mindedness to change the status quo.

She was twice refused entry to Seoul National University – “in Korea, this equalled existential disaster” – but gained a place on her third attempt.

Then, faced with the scarcity of opportunities for composers in her home country, she applied to study overseas.

But even after earning a Gaudeamus Foundation grant in 1985 to study in Germany under legendary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti - one of the key figures of the European avant-garde - cultural hurdles still stood in her way.

“For a female Asian composer, there were some very strong glass ceilings back then - at least in Germany,” Chin says.

“I overcame those obstacles by trying to ignore them, concentrating on my work and constantly trying to improve its quality.”

Currently based in Berlin, her stature as a composer now rivals that of her mentor, Ligeti.

Despite how far her own career has come, Chin remains concerned about the biases – both institutional and from audiences – impacting young artists, although she admits these have shifted in the past three decades.

“These days, young performers are expected to play the ‘glamour game’,” she says.

“Both men and women feel pressured to be sexy, or to offer a personal story rather than developing their artistic potential. And that creates its own kind of inequality.

“There’s great music by very good composers which is not being performed because it’s not considered ‘sellable’. Art is being threatened by dwindling arts education in schools, by information overload, by a lack of knowledge and time.

“It’s easy to fall back on lazy habits, cliches and stereotypes, but curiosity is like a muscle. It has to be trained.”

First published 17 Apr 2018, for The Age.