Unsuk Chin explains why classical music in Korea isn’t thriving

Unsuk Chin
Unsuk Chin

There’s a fascinating interview with the hugely talented composer Unsuk Chin in the Joongang Ilbo today. LKL has been an unashamed fan of Chin since the world premiere of her Cello Concerto in London in 2009, and we braved a 12-hour marathon session of performances of her music at London’s Barbican Centre earlier this month.

Anyone seeing the flood of Korean musical talent in Europe and America might question a pessimistic view that “the classical music scene in Korea is going the wrong way”. But maybe it’s because things are not healthy in Korea that musicians are moving abroad.

From key money (the up-front deposit payable on an apartment rental which tends to price impoverished artists out of the market) to commercialism, Chin sites a number of problems with the classical music industry in Korea and why Korean musicians might find their musical lives better elsewhere.

“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.”

She cites as an example the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who has become unnecessarily flashy: “He is such a talented young artist but has been victimized by a commercial strategy and his own vanity.” This is not unique to the classical music world. In the popular music industry according to singer-songwriter Younee, the pressure is to appear on TV shows: the message is clear: if you’re easy on the eye your music doesn’t have to be of particularly high quality.

Another possible cause, not highlighted by Chin but suggested to me by a friend in the classical music business in Germany, is that there are far too many classical musicians produced by the Korean conservatoires, so that there’s not enough room for all of them: moving to Europe or America gives them more opportunity to find an outlet for their talent.

What are the alternatives? “I don’t think the mass production of musicals as we have seen in Seoul is a good alternative.” Judging by the London performances of Korean musicals The Last Empress and Another Sun I would agree. But then, I’m not a big fan of many Western musicals either.

Chin suggests that Korea needs “to devise new forms of music… We need good composers who can transcend the East and the West.” Perhaps an example of such “new forms” might be the creative traditional music of Kayageum master Hwang Byungki or the atmospheric but challenging fusion compositions played by Baramgot, led by percussionist Won Il. Certainly Baramgot received a warm reception at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last year, even as Chin herself seems to be embraced wherever her music is performed.

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