The works of Korean composer Unsuk Chin will be the centrepiece of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival this year. Here she talks about studying with Ligeti, her influences, and what she’d tell young composers now.

Unsuk Chin, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, MetropolisUnsuk Chin. Photo courtesy of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

What did you learn from studying with Ligeti as a young composer?

Independence of mind. Ligeti’s classes were completely unconventional – we’d analyse new music (with a special preference for outsiders), jazz, traditional music from outside Europe, Renaissance music, Mozart, even pop music, and he’d talk about literature and the natural sciences. He was an extremely strict teacher, but his approach was open-minded. I learnt from him that it is possible to create something new without turning one’s back to tradition, and how crucial it is to be self-critical and never to start copying oneself.

Who have been your strongest influences as a composer?

It’s very difficult to say. Of course, I am a composer trained in the so-called Western classical music, with a particular emphasis on contemporary modern styles, but it’s very difficult to single a particular composer out. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of time as much as possible, but the tradition all the way from the Renaissance to our time is also very important to me. Besides, knowledge of musical history is very important for a composer in order to avoid involuntary imitation.

But musical influences can come from very different sources, both from the whole Western tradition but also from non-European traditional musical cultures. We live in a global world and I think it is crucial to try to think outside of the box as much as possible and to have the openness to let something foreign and new influence oneself. Even if one is rooted in a certain culture, it only develops further with such a kind of interaction. And of course, there are lots of influences from outside of music – my recent works have been influenced by various sources ranging from physics and cosmology to street art and pantomime, and of course to literature.

Your work is being celebrated in Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival. What do you hope audiences will take away from the three pieces being performed?

The festival features very different works of mine from different phases of my life as a composer. There’s Rocaná, an orchestral work which was inspired by physics and by the amazing installations of Olafur Elíasson. As for vocal music, soprano Allison Bell will sing a vocal suite from my opera Alice in Wonderland. And then there are two very different instrumental concertos: my violin concerto and Šu, a concerto for sheng and orchestra. The sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, is an absolutely amazing instrument.

Why did you decide to tackle one of the most cherished texts in literature for your debut opera, Alice in Wonderland, and how has it been seeing it come together over the years?

Because there was no opera based on Alice in Wonderland (at least as far as I know) and because the book corresponds to my thoughts about contemporary opera. The stories in the book are non-linear, labyrinthine and crazy dream stories, but at the same time it also contains a very strong dramatic aspect. Another aspect that fascinated me with the source is that it appeals to so many different groups of people throughout the world, including literary experts, lay readers, scientists, philosophers, and children…

What are you working on now?

Just now, I am working on a violin duo, which was commissioned by Anne-Sophie Mutter, and which will be premiered in Berlin in Autumn. After that, the next premiere is in April 2019, it’s a large-scale orchestral work, and the first performance will be with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

What advice would you give to an aspiring composer at this point in your career?

It’s very difficult to give advice since it is rather a peculiar profession: it is back-breaking and requires continuous hard work, you have to accept solitude, and you find yourself in a crazy situation that you sort of compete with the giants of music history in a sphere and time where even the most successful are hardly known. And I am not even speaking about the financial prospects and about the proverbial horror of the blank sheet. Nowadays, I’m in a lucky situation where I’m able to live from composing, but I had to overcome long periods of hardship in my life. So, I always say to young composers that they must think twice about whether they really want to dedicate their life to composing. If they can’t resist it, they should go for it and I wish them all possible luck, but I always say that there are no shortcuts and that one has to be quite resilient.

You’re at a time when your body of work is being celebrated in a concert format. Does this feel like a milestone to you?

I am really happy to be able to finally travel to Australia and it is a great honour to have such a focus on my work at the Metropolis New Music Festival. The Melbourne Symphony performed the Australian premieres of my works Graffiti and Mannequin in recent years, and I am very grateful that the collaboration continues. And I am also very much looking forward to working with the Elision Ensemble who performed my works in Shanghai last year.

Unsuk Chin’s works will be featured in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis New Music Festival, on April 19 and 21