Unsuk Chin “I don’t believe in art that doesn’t come from difficulty”

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

A beautiful Berlin apartment where the spirit of Bauhaus reigns on the street. In the yard, in the same building, the composer’s workshop. Unsuk Chin welcomes us to his home in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. As a prelude to the Présences festival dedicated to her on Radio France in February 2023, she takes a long look at the amazing journey that saw a poor girl from Seoul become an artist. stages..



Unsuk China, what memories do you have of your childhood and your home country?
I was born in 1961 in Seoul. Korea was very poor at that time. My father was a pastor, we had no money and no food. We lived in a small house with a thatched roof. When I was two years old, my father bought a piano, a German instrument, for his church. It was the first time in my life that I saw a musical instrument! I played a few notes and immediately felt this piano. I knew right away that music would be my whole life.



Were you out of touch with traditional Korean music?
Of course, we played a lot of traditional music, but if we didn’t learn it, we heard it every day. We didn’t play it in my family. It should be remembered that the Korean tradition was interrupted or even banned at the beginning of the 20th century due to the occupation of the great powers and the Japanese occupation. In 1945, after the Second World War, we got a lot of outside influences, especially European music – we knew that before the war. For my part, I liked both traditional Korean music and European music, but above all I had a very strong relationship with the piano. I tried to learn the piano myself, and when I was in elementary school, I heard about European classical music, Mozart, Beethoven… I was very interested! I wanted to be a musician, but we didn’t have the opportunity, my parents couldn’t help me, there were no records or sheet music at home.



Your father was a pastor. Has sacred music left a mark on you?
He was a priest, but not really that religious. My mother, more so. I have always had a big problem with religion since childhood. When I was about six or seven years old, I began to accompany religious services on a small organ in a church. Already at the age of four or five, I knew that all this was not for me. But I liked accompanying because it was a good exercise in learning and deciphering the harmony of European music. Indeed, for religious services, I had to play on the spot without the opportunity to rehearse beforehand. And of course I had to adapt what I played and change it to suit what people were singing! It was not easy.



How did you get acquainted with the classical repertoire? With the radio?
Later, at the age of eight or nine: we had a small radio at home. And friends had little portable record players. As I was ashamed and did not dare to say a word, I waited for hours, sat, prostrated myself, dared to want to listen to a piece – this is how I discovered. Tosca Where bohemian. When I was eight years old, I saw George Cukor’s Huntress with Ingrid Bergman. Poor Sonata by Beethoven. I didn’t know Beethoven or Beethoven “Pathetic”, but it was so beautiful that I spent a couple of years looking for what it could be! I helped my mother with the dishes and cleaning so that I could save a little money. Sonatas by Beethoven.



How did you know you would become a composer?
When I was twelve or thirteen years old 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 Mozart then asked me to put it on paper. When I wrote it for five voices, he told me that I have a good ear, I should be a composer! He taught me harmony and writing.



How was this profession and this gift received in your family?
It was very difficult for me between the ages of twelve and sixteen. In fact, the period was difficult for everyone: Korea was then a military dictatorship. The atmosphere was brutal, people were hanged, executions took place. Nobody cared about me. I was the second daughter of four children, my parents did not want me to study, I had to learn a profession and earn money. But I didn’t want to. My father became seriously ill and died when I was sixteen after a poison gas accident. In Korea, when the father died, he was the breadwinner for the family, even if he didn’t make much money. We found ourselves without resources. It was out of the question that I could take music lessons, work on music theory or piano. I tried to enter the university, I failed twice in a row, I didn’t know anyone! During those two years I was a social failure; luckily I was third time lucky because there were few candidates and I was accepted!



Could this path strewn with pitfalls and the way you overcome them explain part of your independent nature and loneliness?
This is possible. But I regret it: I feel that if I had had the chance to take music lessons, I would have been a better composer if I hadn’t taught myself. But all the difficulties we went through made a great impression on me. My attitude towards music and art is different: I don’t believe in art that doesn’t come from difficulties.


(The full interview with Unsik Chin can be found in the festival’s Présences program book)


Interview at Unsuk Chin in Berlin, October 24, 2022 by Arnaud Merlin, assisted by Virginie Varlet for translation from German


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