In 1985, Unsuk Chin was 24 years old, full of drive and a sense of adventure. And although she had already won several composition prizes, she was determined to get the finishing touches from the new music great, György Ligeti, in Hamburg. But no sooner had the two met for the first time than Ligeti must have once again put on his famous “Motzmiene” (Unsuk Chin) and brought his future student back down to earth: “Ligeti said to me that all my compositions were unoriginal and I’d better throw them away.” That sunk in. For the next three years, Chin could not put another note on paper. Nevertheless, she does not look back on her Hamburg years with resentment. After all, she shared with her unsparing teacher a fundamental doubt about a musical avant-garde that believes in progress: “So many things we think we invented already exist – in early European as well as non-European music.”
Unsuk Chin has not wanted to reinvent the musical wheel with all her might ever since. And yet the South Korean-born, Berlin-born composer has long been one of the most fascinating, imaginative and thus inventive voices on the contemporary music scene. From Simon Rattle to the Kronos Quartet, the most prominent interpreters play her pieces. In 2007, her opera Alice in Wonderland, conducted by Kent Nagano in Munich, was even voted “World Premiere of the Year”. And already three years earlier, in 2004, the composer received the “Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition”, endowed with 200,000 dollars, for her violin concerto.
Unsuk Chin’s cosmigimmicks was premiered by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam in 2012. One year later, in April 2013, the German premiere took place at the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik. The Korean composer describes her composition for seven musicians as a “pantomime”. She was inspired by the instruments of the premiere ensemble. “Plucked instruments (guitar, mandolin and harp) play the main role, while the other instruments (prepared piano, violin, trumpet and percussion) disguise themselves to join in a game of masks and mimicry,” Chin says in her commentary on the work. “Often, all the instruments merge into a single ‘superinstrument’: both the pianist and the violinist mimic the plucked instruments, the former through preparation, the latter through the use of unusual playing techniques. Last but not least, the series of percussion instruments (some of which are also played by the trumpeter) are used to achieve the greatest possible symbiosis of sound with the other instruments. The overall timbre of the piece is metallic and very fragile.”
However, Chin does not want to reveal what is behind the title “cosmigimmicks”. But if you break the title down into “cosmos” and “gimmicks”, for example, you could call it a “universal giveaway”. In any case, Chin got her sense of the nonsensical from her old and extremely strict teacher György Ligeti, to whom she has now also dedicated the third movement “Thall”.
Although the piece officially functions as a “pantomime”, the very first movement “Shadow Play” has nothing to do with this millennia-old form of expression, but is reminiscent of the art of shadow puppet theatre. “It begins with mere noise, from which tones and harmonies gradually emerge. The musical gestures are shadowy. These gestures are enigmatic, intangible and unpredictable like Kafka’s Odradek.” The second movement, “Quad”, is based on two television plays of the same name by Samuel Beckett, which the Irish writer produced for Süddeutscher Rundfunk in 1981. In them, the actors walk a square along geometrically strict paths. In Unsuk Chin’s work, this becomes a strictly rhythmic scene in which every instrument is transformed into a kind of drum kit. Finally, the title of the third movement, “Thall”, is Korean and means ‘mask’. “The guitar is at the centre of this movement, playing a quasi-melody consisting of a few microtones repeated over and over again. In accordance with the changing harmonies of the other instruments, this ‘melody’ changes, similar to a transformation of the facial expression of a mime. The overall character of ‘Thall’ is both slightly sentimental and macabre, describing the psyche of a torn person, illustrating the change in mental states by changing the harmonic language.”