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Celebrating Unsuk Chin

Ji Yeon Lee (University of Houston), Chair and Organizer

On the occasion of her 60th birthday, the special session aims to explore the music of the South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, one of the most exciting and significant composers of our time. In her self-described “cosmopolitan” musical style, critics have often pointed to the influence of Ligeti, Bartók, Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Xenakis, among others. In addition to common modern-classical compositional devices, she also incorporates non-Western musical materials such as the sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and rhythmic adaptation of Javanese gamelan. The resulting compositions prominently feature rhythmic vibrancy, microtonal and spectral harmonies, coloristic texture, timbral variety, and innovative forms. The session intends to position Chin’s compositions as objects of rigorous analytical investigation; the three papers therefore diversify the repertoire of twentieth and twenty-first-century music theory scholarship by focusing on this underexplored, non-Western woman composer.

The session engages with two overarching themes. First, it delves into Chin’s novel approach to canonic Western genres such as etude and concerto through creative treatment of rhythm, formal concepts, and instrumentation. This examination positions Chin’s music within the context of her contemporaries’ diverse compositional techniques in dealing with similar genres while highlighting her distinctive contribution. Second, it holds significance beyond analysis in a narrower sense by emphasizing the dynamic qualities shared among the works chosen for analysis. Each paper addresses Chin’s music as defying fixed, static formal frames: defining musical form as a process of consistent textural and timbral change; tapping into performance-perception oriented temporal analysis; and detailing the circulating energy that creates organically unfolding musical form.

Textural Expansion and Collapse as Formal Processes in Unsuk Chin’s Works

Jung-Min Mina Lee  (Duke University)


Unsuk Chin has often spoken of her passion for astronomy and cosmology, referring to phenomena such as the big bang and celestial light as inspirations for her music. Elsewhere, she has described her compositional process as linear, where the initial musical moment prescribes the course of a work. Taking these remarks as points of departure, this paper explores Chin’s compositional processes in three pieces from various points of her career, including the Piano Concerto (1997), Piano Etude No. 5 (2003), and the Cello Concerto (2013). I argue that the expansion and collapse of musical texture—resembling the life cycle of celestial objects—is a vital element of the formal processes in Chin’s music. 

Like celestial objects, the initial ideas in these works serve as the musical core, around which a sort of anti-gravitational tension is created through textural changes. Such changes include pitch contents veering away from the core, the “composing out” of a harmonic spectrum, or the expansion of rhythm, instrumentation, and dynamics in tandem with disintegration of the pitch centrality. When the “gravitational pull” reaches a certain threshold, the music often collapses onto the initial moment, reintroducing the central pitch or rhythm materials as other musical events subside; these collapses mark significant structural points on both the local and macro levels. I compare Chin’s approach to structural principles in Ligeti’s work to contextualize her use of textural development as structural processes among other recent strategies, as well as to underscore the ethereal and expansive qualities of her music. 

A Perception-informed Approach to Performance of Metric Structure in Unsuk Chin’s Etudes

Imri Talgam (City University of New York, Graduate Center)


Unsuk Chin’s six Etudes build on the rhythmic concerns of Ligeti’s Etudes, especially the use of complex metric structures involving polyrhythm and frequent meter changes. The experimental nature of these rhythms creates significant difficulties for performers, especially in cases where the relation between the composer’s metric notation and possible rhythmic perceptions is tenuous.

I argue that in order to successfully convey the rhythmic organization in performance, it is necessary to disentangle notation from metric perception by considering alternative forms of notation, using existing theories of metric perception. 

I proceed to create a re-notation methodology in two stages. First, I identify rhythmic and grouping cues that create phenomenal accents, using the framework suggested by Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983). With this in place, I propose a distinction between radical and conservative listening, following Imbrie’s (1973) phenomenological analysis. In this model, a conservative listener attempts to hold on to the pulse they recognized despite the appearance of contradictory phenomenal accents (in anticipation of its eventual re-alignment with the music), while a radical listener will immediately shift their metric expectation to adjust to these new cues.

Using this conceptual framework, I examine particularly dense passages in Etudes 2, 5, and 6, offering alternative, though equivalent, re-notations which reflect the metric experience of listeners of both types.

To demonstrate the influence of re-notation choice on performance strategies from a pianist’s perspective, I will use recorded excerpts of my own performances of the Etudes.

Ritual and Rotation in Unsuk Chin’s Šu: Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra (2009)

Yayoi Uno Everett (University of Illinois, Chicago)


In her concerto for sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and orchestra (2009), Unsuk Chin deconstructs the traditional concerto form: while the sheng and orchestral instruments participate in a contest where the latter act as the soloist’s shadow and echo to form organically evolving textures, the contraction and expansion of the metric framework based on the formal proportion of 4+3 generate temporal ruptures that resist traditional forms of development. The proposed paper focuses on the role of ritual and rotation in this one-movement concerto for sheng and orchestra. In Egyptian mythology, Šu is a symbol for air, a concept that refers to the sheng’s articulations and extended techniques in accompanying instruments that cover a wide spectrum from pitch to noise. The circular formation of the main notes introduced by the sheng provides its harmonic foundation as well as the rotational principle that articulates the concerto’s main formal junctures. While using the rotational principle in the sheng’s harmony and changing metric framework and textures as the basis of my formal analysis, I will interpret the organic processes the concerto traverses with respect to Shaministic rituals in Korean traditional music—e.g., the rhythms and energy formation of Samulnori drumming figures prominently in the course of this concerto. In closing, I will situate Chin’s compositional aesthetics and her transcultural identity within the globalized terrain of contemporary music of the twenty-first century and, more specifically, in reference to music by other notable composers of East Asian heritage.