Unsuk Chin “I do not trust art that does not arise from difficulty”

Wednesday 23 November 2022

On the street, a beautiful Berlin apartment, where the Bauhaus spirit reigns. On the courtyard, in the same building, the composer’s studio. Unsuk Chin welcomes us to his home in Berlin, in the Charlottenburg district. As a prelude to the Présences festival, largely dedicated to her in February 2023 on Radio France, she retraces at length this surprising journey, which sees a poor little girl from Seoul transform into an artist today unanimously celebrated on the biggest stages. .

Unsuk Chin, what memories do you have of your childhood and your hometown?
I was born in Seoul in 1961. Korea was very poor then. My father was a shepherd, we had no money and nothing to eat. We lived in a cottage with a thatched roof. When I was two my father bought a piano for his parish, a German instrument. It was the first time I saw a musical instrument in my life! I played a few notes and immediately got a feel for this piano. I knew right away that music was going to be my whole life.

Have you had no contact with traditional Korean music?
If, of course, we’ve played a lot of traditional music, but haven’t learned it, we’ve listened to it on a daily basis. We didn’t play it in my family. It should be remembered that the Korean tradition was interrupted, and even banned, at the beginning of the 20th century due to the invasions of the great powers and the Japanese occupation. In 1945, after the Second World War, we received many outside influences, especially European music, which we knew even before the war. For my part, I liked both traditional Korean and European music, but above all, I had a very strong relationship with the piano. I tried to learn to play the piano by myself, and when I was in elementary school, I heard about European classical music, Mozart, Beethoven… I was very curious! I absolutely wanted to become a musician, but we didn’t have the means, my parents couldn’t help me, there were no records or sheet music at home.

Your father was a shepherd. Has sacred music marked you?
He was a pastor, but he wasn’t really very religious. My mother, more. I, have always had a big problem with religion, since my childhood. Around the age of six or seven I began to accompany religious functions, in church, on a small organ. I already knew, at four or five years old, that all this was not for me. But I liked to accompany, because it was a good exercise for learning the harmony of European music and deciphering it. Indeed, for religious services, I had to play on the spot, with no possibility of rehearsing first. And of course I had to tailor what I was playing and transpose based on what people were singing! It wasn’t easy.

How did you get to know the classical repertoire? On the radio?
Later, at the age of eight or nine: we had a small radio in the house. And friends had small portable record players. As I was shy and didn’t dare to say a word, I waited for hours, sitting, prostrate, to dare to ask to hear a piece – that’s how I found out Tuscany Where is it Bohemian. When I was eight I saw a George Cukor film with Ingrid Bergman, Hantise, in which you hear the Pathetic sonata by Beethoven. I didn’t know Beethoven or the “Pathetic”, but it was so good that for a year or two I searched for what it could be! I helped my mother with the dishes and cleaning, scraped together some money, penny by penny, and managed to buy myself twenty sonatas by Beethoven.

How did you know that you would become a composer?
When I was twelve or thirteen, in college, I had a music teacher, who was a composer. He also gave me piano lessons, but I had to stop because we couldn’t afford it. One day he made me listen Some night music by Mozart, then asked me to write it down on paper. While I was writing it for five voices, he told me that I had a good ear and that I had to become a composer! He taught me harmony, writing.

How was this vocation and this gift received in your family?
It was very difficult for me, between the ages of twelve and sixteen. In truth, the period was difficult for everyone: Korea was then a military dictatorship. The atmosphere was brutal, people were hanged, there were executions. Nobody was interested in me. I was the second of four children, my parents didn’t want me to study, I had to learn a trade and earn money. But I didn’t want to. My father became very ill, following a poison gas accident, he died when I was sixteen. In Korea when the father dies, even though he didn’t earn much money, he was still the one who fed the family. We found ourselves without resources. It was out of the question that I took music lessons and could work on music theory or piano. I tried to get into University but failed twice in a row, I didn’t know anyone! In these two years I was in a situation of social failure; luckily the third time I was lucky, because the candidates were few, and I was accepted!

Could this path littered with pitfalls and how you overcame them explain part of your independent character and uniqueness?
It’s possible. But I have regrets: I feel that I would have become a much better composer if I had the opportunity to take music lessons, and not be self-taught. But all the difficulties we went through made a big impression on me. My attitude towards music and art is different: I don’t trust art that doesn’t arise from difficulties.

(find the complete interview with Unsik Chin in the Présences festival programme)

Interview in Unsuk Chin, in Berlin, October 24, 2022, by Arnaud Merlin, with the help of Virginie Varlet for the translation from German

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