A homecoming for an accomplished Korean composer

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A homecoming for an accomplished Korean composer

South Gyeongsang province
For Unsuk Chin, hearing her music played by a Korean orchestra on the opening night of this year’s Tongyeong International Music Festival was “a homecoming experience.”
A winner of the 2004 Grawemeyer Award, one of the music world’s most prestigious honors, Ms. Chin has been invited to countless other festivals. Yet for this composer ―raised in a country where contemporary musicians mostly seem to write for each other ― the Korean premiere of her piece “Kala,” before a packed house at Tongyeong Arts Center last Thursday, was another bitter example of a debut by a Korean artist who had to go around the world before being accepted at home.
There was talk among reporters over the weekend that the festival was hoping to make Ms. Chin a kind of successor to Yun I-sang, the late Korean composer (and Tongyeong native) who is the reason Asia’s only contemporary music festival was established in Tongyeong 10 years ago.
Like Ms. Chin, Mr. Yun, who died in 1995, was a Korean composer based in Germany, where he had lived in exile since Korea’s military regimes forbade his return. Mr. Yun wrote about reunification, and about the young dissidents in his homeland’s democracy movement. The theme “Memory” was chosen for this year’s Tongyeong festival to reflect themes of death and exile.
But to the disappointment of anyone hoping for such a connection, Ms. Chin, at her press conference before the festival’s opening night, disavowed the idea that she was “the next Yun I-sang.”
“I am very flattered,” she said. “But for me, music is an abstract form of art. It could not essentially be political.”
Ms. Chin said she was 23 when she first met Mr. Yun in 1984, at a Canadian music venue. The two met again later when she arrived in Hamburg to study music. “But I was too shy to even say hello,” she said. “We were too far apart. He was a musical master, and I was a starting musician.”
Named composer-in-residence at the German Symphony Orchestra in 2001, Ms. Chin has seen her music played in major European concert series. She was recently commissioned to write an opera based on “Alice in Wonderland” for the Los Angeles Opera’s 2005-2006 season.
“Kala,” whose title is a Sanskrit word whose meanings include time, order, eternity and fate, is a 30-minute score for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra. The piece relies on repetition and contrast; it is divided into seven scenes, each describing a different situation or emotional state. The vocals, the axis of the piece, begin with a deep baritone and end with a high soprano.
“Contemporary musicians have peculiar habits,” Ms. Chin said. “They love extremes. It’s either very low or very high. The rest they fill up with chorus.”
Based on modern European poems, the piece is not an easy one to interpret. It explores mortality and the passing of time, through complex arrangements of acoustic sounds. “There is no easy way to appreciate certain kinds of music,” Ms. Chin said. “You just have to keep listening to train your ears.”

by Park Soo-mee
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