Brimming with atmosphere, dark humour, and hidden allusions, Unsuk Chin’s compositions reveal an astonishing range of techniques and influences.
Like her erstwhile mentor Gyorgy Ligeti, Chin pushes the envelope every chance she gets. From Alice in Wonderland to esoteric poetry and topics further afield, her references – and her inclination to shake things up – help to shape her multifaceted and modern work.
It’s fitting that since 2011, she has been in charge of Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today series, as Artistic Director. In October 2017, Chin won the illustrious Sibelius Wihuri Prize, adding her name to a list of renowned composers and former winners, including Ligeti, Stravinsky, Britten, and Messiaen.
This April, the composer returns to Southbank Centre for the European premiere of her work Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles (The Song of the Children of the Stars), performed by orchestra, mixed choir, children's choir and organ. Her previous Southbank Centre premieres include Miroirs des temps (1999) and Cantatrix Sopranica (2005).
The Song of the Children of the Stars brings a panoply of mystical, otherworldly sound to the renovated Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of a season of works to mark the reopening of this singular venue, which has always been a home for new music. We spoke to the composer about the heady cosmic and literary influences of this new work, the performances of her compositions she’ll never forget, and her musings on what lies ahead for classical music.
You’ve had multiple premieres of your work at Southbank Centre. How do you approach a new commission? What are you thinking about in the run-up to the first performance of a new piece?
I only accept a commission if I feel it fits my compositional plans and musical preferences. Sometimes that takes a long time: I planned to write a Cello Concerto for Alban Gerhardt in 2000, but the premiere only materialised in 2009 because I wanted to be absolutely sure about my approach. But once I accept a commission I feel pretty free about it and I get lots of abstract ideas, like colors, visions, and sounds. There are always difficulties though, and the compositional process can be quite complex and excruciating. Once it’s finished I feel free again, and lucky to be performed by some fantastic artists and orchestras.
As a composer, and as the Artistic Director of Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today series since 2011, what do you hope the future of music will look like?
To be frank, I am worried: in our media-saturated and short-lived times the patience for so-called ‘art music‘ is becoming more scarce. Complex musical creations, including new works of classical music, can exist only if a society is ready to support works that aren’t immediately ‘usable’. Without a belief in the immaterial worth of complex music, the output of Beethoven would not have been possible. After all, he was considered an arch-modernist by most of his contemporaries!
For the Music of Today series I have been attempting to present glimpses of the variety of new music and its styles. In particular, I‘ve been hoping to foster more exchanges between the various cultures of new music, as there tends to be very little contact between the scenes of different countries. At Music of Today, we usually have at least one UK premiere in every concert, and most works have not been recorded, so the series is a rare chance to get acquainted with something new.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing The Song of the Children of the Stars ?
I’ve been interested in astronomy and physics for a long time and that resulted in both the composition The Song of the Children of the Stars and Chorós Chordón (recently premiered by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic). Both works reflect on natural phenomena and our physical relationship with the cosmos. The title of The Song… comes from the idea that 'humans are stardust’; and that almost everything in the universe was formed in cosmic explosions billions of years ago. Even our bodies are made of remnants of stars. Accordingly, The Song of the Children of the Stars is based on poems about natural and cosmic phenomena from the Baroque to our time – texts by Henry Vaughan, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Octavio Paz, Fernando Pessoa, Inger Christensen, and many others.
Which of your works have you most enjoyed seeing performed at Southbank Centre?
There have been a number of memorable performances, like those with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and by Nicholas Collon. The world premieres were, of course, of special significance: the first one was Akrostichon-Wortspiel in 1993 (with George Benjamin as conductor and Penelope Walmsley-Clark as soloist) – that was a breakthrough piece for me. Then there was Miroirs des temps with the Hilliard Ensemble, the London Philharmonic and Kent Nagano; Cantatrix Sopranica with the London Sinfonietta and George Benjamin; and most recently, my orchestral work Mannequin in 2015 with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Ilan Volkov. Southbank Centre has played an important role in my musical life.
The Philharmonia Orchestra's performance of The Song of the Children of the Stars at Southbank centre has now passed.
However, there are hundreds of opportunities to enjoy classical music at Southbank Centre in Royal Festival Hall and the recently reopened Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room.
interview by Meredith Olson