Imaginary Folk Music

Recently I got a topic suggestion from my classmate. She has a passionate interest in learning other countries’ culture, and wants me to introduce one of the 20th century composers from my country. Fortunately one best composer came in my mind: Unsuk Chin.

For a very brief introduce about her, she was born in Seoul, Korea in 1961. Since 1985, she has been living in German and studied composition under György Ligeti in Hamburg from 1985 to 1988. She won a number of esteemed composing competitions including the 1985 Gaudeamus Award, the 2004 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her Violin Concerto, the 2005 Arnold Schoenberg Prize, the 2010 Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, the 2012 Ho-Am Prize, the 2017 Wihuri Sibelius Prize.

My first experience of her composition was “Mad Tea-Party” from her opera, Alice in Wonderland played by Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. I was around 17 and the short excerpt was quite shocking in a good way. With the short program note, I can imagine the manic tea-party of the scene in Alice in Wonderland. Because the music made such a huge impression, I can remember the music even though I listen to the music only once ten years ago. If you were wondering what I listened, here is the link! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44InGfrykBw

I would like to talk a little bit about her Gougalōn — Scenes from a street theatre. The music was inspired from her trip to China, Hong Kong and Guangzhou in 2008 and 2009. According to her composition description, she thought China was so similar with Seoul in 1960s when was after the Korean War and when the street was a big stage for street vendors, musicians and dancers, fortune-tellers, and traveling hawker. So she called her music “imaginary fork music.” Unlike Bartok or Liszt, Chin did not use any Asian folk tune, Asian five-tone scale, unique rhythm, or traditional instrument (except for Chinese gongs and Japanese temple bell). The music only depends on her memory of Seoul and Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but does not have oriental aspect.

New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archive — 2013 Apr 5 program note written by Unsuk Chin

In the 20th century class we talked a lot about folk music and plagiarism. Some people might doubt that it’s a folk element, but after listen to this, I think that the atmosphere, the scene, the memory of your own country could be the folk elements. For that reason I agree with and love her use of “imaginary folk music” for this work. I hope you also enjoy 1960s Seoul!

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