Unsuk Chin on studying with Ligeti, working with performers and her first encounters with music

Unsuk Chin moved in the 1980s from her native South Korea to Germany where, taught by Ligeti, she spent her formative years working at a Berlin Electroacoustic music studio. Currently composer-in-residence at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, she is also the artistic director of the Philharmonia’s ‘Music of Today’ series

Unsuk Chin

The process of composing is unpredictable. There can be the horror of the blank page, hesitant starts and setbacks. Still, there are also sudden breakthroughs. When I start writing, things tend to go very quickly, though it’s always possible that I’ll have relapses. I never write at the piano or with the aid of a computer – for me, composing music is an abstract process that takes place in my mind.

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I grew up less than a decade after the Korean War. South Korea was an impoverished country then; like most other families, we were broke. The first time I encountered the piano was when my father, a Presbyterian minister, bought a small one for his church; I was two years old. Two years later, I started to play and was absorbed. My father taught me the rudiments of reading music and, when I was seven, I began to accompany his services on a small organ.

Moving to Germany was a liberation. There were virtually no career opportunities for composers in South Korea. However, with its avant-gardist camps, Germany’s music scene was locked at the time – as an aspiring female composer from abroad, I felt there were only glass ceilings. So, although I’ve now lived in Germany for 35 years, my career here started about 15 years later than in other countries.

Ligeti’s classes were completely unconventional. We’d analyse new music, jazz, Mozart, even rock music; and he’d talk about literature and the natural sciences. He was a rigorous teacher, but his approach was open-minded. I learnt from him that it is possible to create something new without turning one’s back on tradition.

For every new commission, there must be a raison d’être. After I composed my Violin Concerto, I couldn’t imagine that I would write another one. It was the artistry of violinist Leonidas Kavakos that prompted me to write a second. We owe our existence as composers solely to the interaction with performers.

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Read all BBC Music Magazine‘s reviews of Unsuk Chin recordings here.