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Giving voice to modern music

‘More than anything else, I’m worried about classical music in Korea.’
"현대음악에 대한 생각 자체를 안해 아쉬워"
Apr 26,2011
이미지뷰
Unsuk Chin observes a rehearsal at the Sejong Performing Arts Center in this file photo. Provided by the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
Last week two concerts of the six-year-old “Ars Nova” series took place in Seoul. The first, held on April 20, introduced modern chamber music that connects with old music under the “Early & New” theme. Two days later, prodigious German cellist Alban Gerhardt and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra played the Asian premiere of a cello concerto by Unsuk Chin, a world-renowned contemporary classical composer born in Seoul. She gave its first movement a title “Aniri,” which means narrated passages in between the sung elements of the epic tale’s storyline in the traditional Korean musical genre, pansori.

Chin, a Berlin-based composer-in-residence with the Seoul Philharmonic, has been planning, organizing and even providing pre-concert lectures and master classes for the Ars Nova concert series for the past five years. Through Ars Nova, which often refers to new art or technique, the 49-year-old composer has been trying to introduce contemporary classical music to Korean audiences familiar with music from the classic and romantic period who only identify modern music with dissonance.

She may not be a household name in Korea since she has lived in Berlin for over two decades but is already an admired talent in Europe and the United States for her unique sound that is known to marry East and West.

Her compositions, including the popular “Acrostic Wordplay” and “Alice in Wonderland,” have been performed at a number of festivals and concert series. Most recently the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed her Grawemeyer Award-winning violin concerto, “Concerto for Chinese Sheng and Orchestra,” and two other works at the Barbican in London on April 9.

A graduate of Seoul National University, Chin went to Germany as recipient of the German Academic Exchange Service and was under the tutelage of the legendary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti until 1988.

The Korea JoongAng Daily caught up with her at the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra headquarters in central Seoul, two days before this year’s Ars Nova concerts.


Q. What is the Early & New series?

A. The chamber concert has taken place under the “Early & New” title at least once every two years in the past. It allows the audience to discover the traditions in modern music and vice versa.

The ideas behind them are very fresh and easy to understand. What is special about this season is that it features the premiere of a piece by budding composer Kim Texu, who has participated in master classes since the beginning of the Ars Nova series.

You worked at the Electronic Music Studio of the Technical University in Berlin from the late 1980s until a few years back. Are you still interested in composing electronic music?

Back in the 1980s, the ability of computer software to assist with electronic music composition wasn’t high. But because of that, more creative ideas came up. Now, the technology has developed so much that creating sound has become extremely easy. You push a button and the music is there.

As a consequence, it’s become less interesting to compose electronic music. Electronic music created in the 1950s and 1960s, when the technology was highly limited, by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen is much more artistically valuable.

Nowadays most of the music is easy and disposable and so many people have jumped in since they can simply work on it at home. I’m increasingly losing interest (in electronic music composition).

Your music is very creative, which makes me wonder whether you had an unusual way of thinking when you were young?

When I was very young, I was reserved and rarely spoke. I always played alone and enjoyed fantasizing on my own.

But after my adolescence I turned into a bit of a wild child so I had a hard time getting along in Korea. I couldn’t fit into the social atmosphere of the 1970s-1980s (when Korea was under military dictatorship and highly conservative).

You told the audience at the Tongyeong International Music Festival last month that Berlin is a much more artist-friendly city than Seoul. What did you mean?

It’s not necessarily that living expenses are cheaper and government support for artists is better in Germany than in Korea. But it’s much easier to relocate to Berlin than to Seoul because in Germany you don’t really need jeonse (key money) to rent a house. People mostly pay a monthly rent and the deposit is only three times the monthly rent. In that respect expatriates find it easy to live there. Another merit of Germany is that the overall social atmosphere and mentality are so well stabilized that people can concentrate on their inner life, while in Korea everything is flashy and cosmetic. I’ve visited Korea about four to five times a year and I can see the difference. Life in Seoul doesn’t suit me very well so I have to go back to Germany.

Modern music doesn’t seem to be as appreciated in Korea as in Europe.

I think it’s not merely a matter of the audience’s ability to understand and enjoy the music. There are so many modern composers out there but since not many of them have produced quality work, the audience still has a hard time accepting their music.

More than anything else, I am very concerned that the classical music scene in Korea is going the wrong way. It is deplorable that for some classical musicians, the music is not a priority. They seem to want to stand out with non-musical elements - such as their looks or colorful lighting.

Wouldn’t they claim they are trying to make classical music more appealing?

Never! I would say they are almost committing crimes. Of course classical musicians who do music from before the 19th century are increasingly commercializing the music because times have changed, so there are many quality recordings and many talented musicians. But it is totally wrong for musicians like (Chinese pianist) Lang Lang to put on showy performances and outfits. He is such a talented young artist but has been victimized by a commercial strategy and his own vanity. He doesn’t seem to realize how funny he looks. I feel sorry for him. Music is about your inner side. [Twenty-two year-old Korean pianist] Kim Sun-wook isn’t recognized by the world for his looks but his abilities.

How is Europe dealing with commercialization of classical music?

Classical music will crash some day in Europe, too - largely because of the mass production of music and its rapid spread through the Internet. But the timing will be delayed since it is where classical music originated.

Countries whose history with Western classical music is relatively short, such as Korea, need to devise new forms of music. But I don’t think the mass production of musicals as we have seen in Seoul is a good alternative. We need good composers who can transcend the East and the West.


By Seo Ji-eun [spring@joongang.co.kr]

한글 관련 기사 [연합]
"현대음악에 대한 생각 자체를 안해 아쉬워"
分단위로 일정 소화하는 작곡가 진은숙
서울시향, 20일과 22일 '진은숙의 아르스 노바' 공연
진은숙(50) 서울시향 상임 작곡가는 세계에서 가장 바쁜 작곡가 중 한 명이다. 자신의 곡을 연주하는 음악회 등에 참석하기 위해 1년 중 석 달은 여러 나라를 이동하는 데 쓴다. 세계 유수의 오케스트라가 위촉한 작품도 2018년까지 길게 늘어서 있다.

인터뷰를 나눈 지난 18일에도 그는 분(分) 단위로 시간을 쪼개며 바쁜 일정을 소화하고 있었다.

"일주일 전쯤 런던의 바비칸 센터에 갔다가, 지난 금요일 제 곡인 '팡파르 쉬메리크'의 세계 초연이 퐁피두 센터에서 열려 파리에 들렀고, 그리고는 베를린 집으로 돌아가서 가방만 가지고 바로 한국행 비행기에 탔죠. 한국에는 어제 도착했어요. 휴∼"

고개를 좌우로 젖게 만드는 숨 가쁜 일정 속에서도 지난 9일 바비칸 센터를 방문한 이유는 그의 작품 세계를 집중 조명하는 '토털 이머전: 진은숙(Total Immersion: Unsuk Chin)'이 열렸기 때문. '전신 침례'로 해석되는 '토털 이머전'은 바비칸 센터가 오전부터 저녁까지 한 작곡가의 음악회와 강연 등을 여는 현대음악 페스티벌이다.

이날 12시간 동안 '말의 유희' '구갈론', 생황 협주곡, '칼라', 오페라 '이상한 나라의 앨리스' 등 그의 작품이 연주되거나 상영됐다.

"저도 제 작품을 온종일 듣는 경우가 드문데…. 재미있었죠. 오케스트라 연주자나 무대 진행하는 분이나 모두 전문가다운 모습에 깜짝 놀랐어요."

하루의 절반을 보낸 만큼 잊지 못할 에피소드도 있다. 오케스트라는 물론, 합창단과 독창자가 필요한 곡 '칼라'를 연습하다가 남성 성악가 한 명을 급하게 교체한 것.

"10년 전 '칼라'를 초연했던 베이스가 이번 공연에도 참가했는데, 그때나 지금이나 여전히 박자와 음정이 안 맞더라고요. 목소리는 좋은데. 그래서 다른 성악가로 바꿨어요. 다행히 교체된 성악가는 괜찮아서 연주회를 진행할 수 있었죠."

이번에 귀국한 이유는 20일과 22일 열리는 서울시향의 현대음악 프로그램 '진은숙의 아르스 노바' 때문이다. 그는 2006년부터 이 프로그램을 직접 기획해 공연해오고 있다.

특히 22일 열리는 '아르스 노바 Ⅱ-관현악 콘서트'에서는 그의 첼로 협주곡이 독일 출신의 첼리스트 알반 게르하르트의 연주로 아시아에서는 초연될 예정이다. 이 곡은 진은숙이 BBC 프롬스의 위촉을 받아 작곡한 곡으로, 게르하르트가 2009년 프롬스에서 초연했다.

당시 영국의 일간지 가디언은 "첼로 협주곡 주요 레퍼토리에 올릴만한 작품", 타임스는 "계속해서 듣고 싶은 욕망을 강렬하게 불러 일으키는 곡"이라고 호평했다.

"게르하르트는 2002년 우연히 만나게 됐어요. 평소 그의 연주를 좋아해 첼로 협주곡을 써주겠다고 약속했죠. 본래 초연을 2007년 하기로 했는데 바빠서 2009년에야 곡이 완성됐어요. 무려 7년이나 기다린 셈이죠."

그는 '아르스 노바'가 끝나면 잠시 휴식한 뒤 다음 작품 구상에 들어갈 예정이다. 작년 모나코의 피에르 대공 작곡상을 받으면서 위촉받은 곡도 써야 하고 클라리넷 협주곡도 작곡해야 한다. LA 필하모니 오케스트라의 창단 100주년을 기념해 위촉받은 곡도 완성해야 한다.

이러한 '산적한 러브콜'과 '창작의 산고' 때문에 건강도 해쳤다. '말의 유희'를 완성한 뒤 없던 고혈압이 생겨 지금까지 약을 챙겨 먹고 있다고 한다.

그러나 그는 여전히 '아르스 노바' 시작 40분 전 무대에서 '프리 렉처(Pre-Lecture)'를 하면서 관객에게 현대음악을 알리고, 마스터클래스를 통해 김택수와 신동훈, 박정규 등 후배 작곡가를 지원하고 있다.

"한국에서 현대음악이 고전과 낭만파 음악처럼 큰 관심을 못 받는 것은 비단 음악만의 문제가 아니라 사회 전반적인 문제인 것 같아요. 현대음악에 대해 생각 자체를 안 하려고 하니까. 유럽은 클래식만큼은 아니더라도 고정적인 현대음악 관객이 있거든요. 그 점이 항상 아쉬워요. 뾰족한 수요? 글쎄요. 사람들의 관심이 확 바뀔 어떤 계기가 필요하기는 한데…."

현대음악에 대한 그의 애정에 비례해 고민도 계속될 듯하다.