Unsuk Chin is at a turning point, and the maverick composer is reinvigorated from her turn as Composer-in-Residence at the Bergen International Festival (Festspillene i Bergen) 2019. The festival presented Chin’s command of form from string quartet to concerto, and from June 1-5, 2019, I had the chance to interview Chin and attend multiple events featuring her work and other international artists.
Bergen International Festival’s flexible atmosphere afforded both dedicated composing and collaboration at just the right time in Chin’s creative life. Last year, she completed a lengthy curation and educational project with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, and she is reveling in her newfound freedom by composing and exploring new partnerships. “This festival is very open,” she said in our meeting at the Bergen Public Library. “Not only classical music will be played. All kinds of music are performed, and then collaborations with theater and dance that invites many audiences. For example, the concert on Friday was so well attended… It was amazing!” Chin referred to the Festival’s May 31st presentation of Mimodramas at the Grieghallen Peer Gynt-salen performance hall. Bergen provided her first opportunity to engage a company of dancers, even though she originally composed the piece as a multi-genre theatrical performance. She met the musicians and dancers, including the BIT20 Ensemble and Carte Blanche, the Norwegian National Company of Contemporary Dance, hours before showtime to create a unique scene–but live performance ended up completely different from what was rehearsed.
Not all composers would find this amusing, but Chin has a contagious sense of humor in life and work. Take her string pieces ParaMetaString (1996) and Double Bind? For Solo Violin + Electronics. Both disconnect cause and effect, consigning performers to a bemused partnership with fate. ParaMetaString (1996), performed on June 3 at composer Edvard Grieg’s idyllic home Troldhaugen, required the Oslo String Quartet to mime bowing while a tape played bouncing metallic sounds. The audience chuckled, and the piece cycled through different layers of energy and sonority before abruptly turning away. The sudden ending seemed to catch even the players off guard, but that was just right: Chin’s four-movement form was sandwiched between Haydn and Debussy string quartets and poked fun at tradition. Similar jokes were even more obvious on June 4 in Double Bind? For Solo Violin + Electronics, performed by Peter Herresthal at the Bergen domkirke. Herresthal made admirable efforts at understatement as he shook, swung, and held his violin aloft, lightly bewildered at the alien potential of his instrument.
Chin came to global attention with another scrambled delight. Her 1991 work Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay), inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, disorganizes the English alphabet and applies solfege syllables to the wrong notes (driving every soprano crazy, Chin noted with a hint of pleasure). Following Herresthal and Double Bind?, the Arctic Philharmonic Sinfonietta and soprano soloist Sara Hershkowitz brought Chin’s breakthrough work to life. Tim Weiss conducted a performance of devilish energy despite unfortunate acoustics that swallowed Hershkowitz’s lower register, and the seven segments of meaningless wortspiel enticed the listener to conjure personal tales out of the gloss.
Now, however, Chin’s thematic inspirations are shifting from the whimsy of Lewis Carroll toward physics and psychoanalysis. She sees social consciousness as something that should be developed constantly parallel to art work. Chin is non-religious, but she finds her deep interest in physics and the history of the universe cultivates a kind of religious thinking that develops a way to interpret human life. While she says she never writes to satisfy particular audiences, Chin does want to increase her proximity to the listener and the semantics of her work. “I want to go closer to the audience,” she told me. “It doesn’t mean I will deliver something they expect- it is not like that – but I want to make music that is more communicative to the audience and communicative to the world.”
Bergen International Festival shares this goal with Chin. Founded in 1953, the dramatic Bergen landscapes and historic locale draws audiences to over 400 events in 15 days, emphasizing classical music, theatre, and new music commissions. An astonishing standout event of 2019 was the Scandinavian premiere of SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, a riveting music-theatre work by the South African Isango Ensemble. With spare props and marimbas, the ensemble filled Den Nationale Scene with an astonishing breadth of African and Western colonial a capella styles to tell the story of a 20th century maritime disaster that killed over 600 black soldiers. No attempts were made to rescue the black men.
The actual naval collision and mass drowning was understated and brief: the piece’s slow build emphasized the soldiers’ full humanity and honored their life while lamenting their death. When I saw the piece on June 2nd, my American ears gained fresh appreciation for my proximity to the African-American music traditions that have built my national culture. Other African continental music and languages were unfamiliar and a treat. While I reacted less to the specifically British colonial material, the systematic dehumanization of black people and “a white jury finally finding a white man guilty … license suspended for [only] twelve months” was urgently international. The US military has a racial history that can be further excavated, and when Isango Ensemble comes to the United States SS Mendi is a must-see.
Bergen International Festival’s hybrid emphasis of tradition and new frontiers made Chin the perfect choice for the 2019 Composer-in-Residence. In addition to Chin’s use of Asian and European influences and South Africa’s colonial commentary, Bergen gave the stage to Haitian voodoo rock. A Haitian orphan turned priestess and French jazz rocker, Moonlight Benjamin‘s warm timbral singing led her band through infectious Creole loops that brought the audience to its feet for call and response singing. Red stage lights and spontaneous dancing under a summer tent are not your typical classical music festival fare, but as Chin said, the Festival is open.
Chin’s own desire for attracting diverse audiences stems from a total acceptance and deserved pride of her own path: as she shared candidly at a June 2nd Meet-the-Composer event, she decided to be a pianist at age three but severely lacked educational resources in 1960s South Korea. Determined to be a professional musician, she instead pursued composition and was admitted to university after three consecutive attempts. After graduation, she moved to Berlin and worked obscurely for ten years before Wortspiel blew open the doors to recognition. She noted that before this time, primarily international organizations gave her the opportunity to perform, so now as an educator, she is sensitive to early career concerns like travel costs. Chin is admirably frank about her lack of early training, but reasonably skeptical about the final difference. She and a close friend and colleague, who grew up with unlimited resources in London, have compared their paths, but find it impossible to quantify the difference in their mature work. Now we know Unsuk Chin by a variety of deserved superlatives: one of the most important, prizewinning, internationally programmed composers of our time. Perhaps in her new epoch, the dark side to Chin’s humor and her capacity for psychological expanse will find full release.