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Born in Seoul, Korea, Unsuk Chin was self-taught at an early age. After completing composition studies at Seoul National University, she moved in 1985 to Hamburg, Germany, where she studied with György Ligeti for three years. In 1988 she moved to Berlin, where she is still based, although her career includes commitments to the Seoul Philharmonic, where she still oversees the contemporary music series that she founded, and to the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, where she is Artistic Director of that orchestra’s Music of Today series.
Chin’s music has been commissioned by leading performers, ensembles, and festivals around the world and it ranges broadly over most genres. She won the 2004 Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto, and Gustavo Dudamel opened his first season as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in October 2009, with the U.S. premiere of her Sˇu, a concerto for Chinese sheng and orchestra. She has written the following note about Graffiti, which was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Most of us, when confronted with the term “graffiti,” are likely to associate it with the rather desolate wall scrawlings all over our urban landscapes. However, this is not the whole picture: graffiti is an age-old form of artistic expression, which – unexpectedly, and without ever attempting to be “high art” – can be very creative. No less artists than Klee, Miró, Dubuffet, and Picasso were interested in it (the latter painting examples himself on Parisian walls). In our time, there is the highly interesting and controversial phenomenon of Street Art, which has occasionally wittily succeeded in criticizing the commercialization and uniformization of cities. At their best, street artists have been able to thwart the expectations created by omnipresent mass media and by advertising – one can find some particularly remarkable examples in metropolises such as Berlin, Paris, or New York.
Though this was the initial stimulus for Graffiti, it finally branched into rather different directions: it is only very loosely, if at all, connected to the phenomenon of Street Art (or to the visual arts). The music is not illustrative nor is it programmatic; what remained from the initial creative nucleus is little more than the title and the dialectic between primitivism and refinement, which captured my attention in some noteworthy examples of Street Art. My main idea, at the end, was to compose a music which is not restricted as to time or place, and which offers strong contrasts between different modes of expression.
The movements’ headings give a hint of the changing modes, moods, and structures of the music. The first movement, “Palimpsest,” is polydimensional and many-layered; one can hear allusions to a multiplicity of styles, which have been taken from their original context and juxtaposed in a kaleidoscopic manner.
The second movement, “Notturno urbano,” forms a strong contrast to the hyperactive previous movement. It starts with distant and gradually approaching bell-like sounds, from which the whole movement’s musical material is being derived: from their resonance simple intervallic relations emerge, which are being overwhelmed by more and more instruments. As a result, the music oscillates between simplicity and highly complex micropolyphony. The instruments are often used in an unconventional way: the winds as well as the strings employ extended techniques, which contributes to the aloofness and the mysteriousness of the movement.
The third, highly virtuosic, movement, is a kind of an “urban passacaglia” (the name of this musical form actually derives from the Spanish pasar una calle (to walk along a street). Formally, the passacaglia plays a central role throughout the movement. It consists of eight incisive chords, which are played continuously by the brass, albeit always in a different way. Two worlds collide in this movement: the brass attacks are commented upon by flitting interjections of different instruments, which are highly varied in character and length. These fragmentary comments are constantly interrupted by the brass passacaglia.
As a whole, the musical language of Graffiti shifts between roughness and refinement, complexity and transparency. It is rich in contrast and labyrinthine, neither tonal nor atonal. Graffiti calls for great agility, virtuosity, and constant changes of perspective from the musicians; each instrument is being treated as a soloist.
— Unsuk Chin