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Present Composed

by Simon Hatab

Portrait of the composer Unsuk Chin written with Seong-Hwan Lee for the Conservatoire Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris.

The 2023 edition of the Présences festival honours Unsuk Chin. In a dozen concerts, conferences and masterclasses, this event – created by Radio France and of which the Conservatoire is now a partner – offers a complete portrait of the South Korean composer. A second-year composition student, Seong-Hwan Lee shares the bill with her for an evening: the world premiere of <L’Oiseau dans le temps II> rubs shoulders with electronic pieces by Chin for the occasion. He talks to us about what this major artist means to him, whom he met during a competition and with whom he has since continued dialogue from a distance.

We had agreed to meet in Crimée, thinking we would find a quiet café not far from the metro. But, in this month of June, the cafes that were too full or too noisy forced us to change plans. After walking along the Canal de l'Ourcq and crossing the Parc de la Villette in search of a haven of peace that does not exist, we ended up settling at the brasserie L'Horloge located on the other side of Avenue Jean-Jaures. This long improvised walk under a blazing sun with the impossibility of landing is a bit like the life of Seong-Hwan Lee. Born in South Korea, he spent part of his childhood in New Zealand before returning to Korea, which he finally left at the age of 14 to live in the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland then in France. So that at 26, he has already lived in 6 countries and on 4 continents.

At his age, composer Unsuk Chin had just left her native Korea. Born in 1961, she grew up under the Chung-Hee Park dictatorship, in a battered country isolated from the world. She discovered Western classical music by chance on night radio programs, before learning the piano and then taking lessons with composer Sukhi Kang at the University of Seoul. In 1985, a prize from the Gaudeamus Foundation for her piece <Spektra> for Three Celli opened up her frontiers: she received a scholarship that allowed her to study with György Ligeti at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg. She moved to Germany, where she still resides today, working in the electronic studio of the Technical University of Berlin.

Since then, Unsuk Chin's music has travelled to dozens of countries, often performed by prestigious ensembles such as the Ensemble intercontemporain, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Orchester de Paris, Musikfabrik, the London Sinfonietta, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group… In 1991, her piece <Akrostichon-Wortspiel – seven scenes from fairy tales> for soprano and ensemble – was performed in fifteen countries.

In 2021 Seong-Hwan won a competition whose prize was commissioned by the Tongyeong International Music Foundation, the main South Korean foundation dedicated to contemporary music. His piece <Rituel au Tombeau d’Isang Yun> was premiered by Ensemble TIMF and Ensemble Modern. It was on this occasion that he met Unsuk Chin, who had just taken over as head of the foundation: “I was very nervous, impressed by his stature. He explains that in London, where he studied at the Royal College of Music, Unsuk Chin enjoys considerable influence, as a composer and as artistic director of the Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today series: "She has done a lot for the contemporary music, in particular by supporting a new generation of young composers whom it has helped to discover. Like the Taiwanese composer Chia-Ying Lin – also programmed in Presences – or the South Korean composers Donghoon Shin and Texu Kim. The latter, who is now making a career in the United States, took part in one of the masterclasses that Unsuk Chin leads each year in Seoul. In 2006, the composer returned to South Korea to be in residence at the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

According to Seong-Hwan, Unsuk Chin occupies a special place in the musical landscape: “Since I have been in Europe, I have listened to a lot of so-called contemporary music. Under this expression are hidden very different realities. Sometimes I find certain compositions interesting on a technical level. But Unsuk Chin's music goes beyond that: it touches me and upsets me. She is a genius in dramaturgy. In her Cello Concerto – considered one of her masterpieces – she develops a relationship of incredible complexity between the instrument and the orchestra, embracing all the possible relationships between soloist and ensemble, from the love to hate, from fusion to rupture… It's so incredible that I can't explain it with words. »

The composer admits having had a shock when he discovered this piece because of the exceptional nuances of the orchestration. The words colors and light are important in the work of Unsuk Chin. She says that her music is a reflection of her dreams whose visions of blinding light and incredible magnificence of colors she tries to transcribe. For musicologist Laurent Feneyrou, the dream also involves the distortion of time and the search for rare timbres, unusual to Western ears. She evokes the heady breath of the mouth organ at the beginning of Šu, her concerto for Chinese sheng and orchestra: “She has a unique way of taking her time to enter into the sound. "Music of dreams, sometimes, Unsuk Chin's compositions also make us think of a playground: in 2007, she created her first opera with <Alice in Wonderland>, inspired by the surreal atmosphere of Lewis Caroll's novel.

One of the keys to the emotion one feels when listening to her music lies in intuition: "During an interview she gave in Korea, continues Seong-Hwan, she singled out the composers architects and composers musicians. The former – including Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti – build systems. The latter have a more intuitive approach, from the sound point of view. Like Unsuk Chin, Seong-Hwan falls into the second category: “I remember that at the time, reading her words liberated me. For me, composition is a matter of intuition, a dialogue, a constant coming and going between sound and self. It is remarkable that, in the first category, the composer ranks György Ligeti. Laurent Feneyrou notes the distance that Chin has taken over time vis-à-vis the man who was her master, just as he notes the delicate irony with which she sometimes likes to revisit her work and her systems. For her part, the composer insists on the critical spirit that Ligeti intended to instill in her students: “He always told us to listen to the music with our own ears, to question things, to refuse ready-made solutions. »

Alongside his composition studies, Seong-Hwan studied directing at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in the United States, Michigan. He has also shot short films and documentaries: “As I started with music for the image, I have a very cinematographic approach to composition. I like to see music. However, I find that there is something very visual in Unsuk Chin. For example, at the beginning of the Concerto, when the cello joins the harp on this G sharp, it is impossible for me to see anything other than a landscape in the mist. I don't know if she would agree with me..."

The pieces that will be presented during the evening have the particularity of being electronic: among others, there will be ParaMetaString, a study in four movements for which Unsuk Chin plays with the sounds of string instruments recorded on tape. Seong-Hwan explains that electronics moves composers, shows a different face of their creation by placing intuition on another level: "When I compose, electronics allows me to edit sound sequences to get a precise idea of the result. There are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the result is exactly what I want. The downside is that the result is exactly what I want. (Laughs.) Understand that performers usually take the material and make it evolve in surprising ways: “When I compose electronic music, I have to find other ways to surprise myself. For example, by trying to imagine the journey of sound: I can go far in the exploration of sound matter and its setting in space. »

After the TIMF commission, Seong-Hwan kept in touch with Unsuk Chin. He saw her again last year in Paris, when she came to attend the Présences festival dedicated to Tristan Murail: “She is very simple and very open. She is in tune with the times. With her, I can talk about music as well as the movies I've seen or the latest fashionable series. Seong-Hwan is passionate about cinema, especially the work of Kim Ki-duk, who died of Covid in 2020. He says that three years before his death, the director had been accused of sexual violence, causing the start of a MeToo in South Korea. He recommends the film 봄 여름 가을 겨울 그리고 봄 whose title is translated into English by Spring, summer, autumn, winter and spring: the story of a disciple and his master who maintain a small Buddhist temple over the seasons in the mountain far from civilization.

The passage of time is at the heart of the piece that Seong-Hwan will present during this evening: “Five years ago, I composed <L’Oiseau dans le temps> for oboe and ensemble. The composer was then interested in what he calls the polarity of time. How time takes on our perception, how it seems to us sometimes long, sometimes short, how it winds around the moment we are living or, on the contrary, flies away and escapes us: "I imagined a bird that would fly and would transcend the timeline. After creating this piece, he decided to return to it every five years, as an appointment that he would give himself in the journey of his own existence. On February 12, <L’Oiseau dans le temps II> will take off: “Electronics allow me to work on the notion of wake, the trace left by time and the movement of the bird. But all of this is still a work in progress for the composer, who also says that he is very interested in the text. Recently, he set to music a phrase from the Italian poetess Alda Merini: Spazio, io voglio tanto spazio / From space, I want a lot of space…

This appointment made every five years makes us want to ask him two questions. Where was he five years ago when he composed the first opus of <L'Oiseau dans le temps>? Answer: “I had just finished a documentary on funeral rites in Korea. With my film crew, we had traveled across the country. He says he is interested in what happens after death. On his website, he presents his piece based on Alda Merini's poem as an attempt to translate a funeral scene into music... And in five years, where does he see himself? Impossible to answer: “Five years ago, I would never have imagined coming to France. I would like to stay a little longer in Europe, to continue discovering contemporary scenes. I am open to what will happen. As I left Korea very young, when I come back, people take me for a foreigner because of my accent... So maybe it's my destiny to travel. »

Acknowledgments Laurent Feneyrou

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