Unsuk Chin was born in 1961 in Seoul, Korea. She began to teach herself piano and music theory at a very early age and subsequently studied composition at the Seoul National University with Sukhi Kang.
Chin appeared as pianist at the Pan Music Festivals. In 1984 her composition Gestalten (Figures) was selected for the ISCM World Music Days in Canada, and in 1986 for the UNESCO ‘Rostrum of Composers.’ In 1985 Chin won the first prize of the Gaudeamus Stichting with Spektra for three celli. In 1985 she moved to Europe when she received a DAAD grant to study in Germany, and until 1988 took composition lessons in Hamburg with György Ligeti, who encouraged her to look beyond the aesthetics of the current avant-garde. Since then, Unsuk Chin has lived and worked in Berlin. In 2004 Unsuk Chin won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her Violin Concerto.
Chin’s music is modern in language, but lyrical and non-doctrinaire in communicative power. The colour of her music might perhaps be explained by Chin’s affinity for non-European music and by her occupation with electronic music. Chin’s fascination for polyrhythmic virtuosity is reflected in a series of Piano Etudes as well as in a series of instrumental concertos and in her orchestral/ensemble works. In her orchestral work Miroirs des temps, Chin employed compositional concepts of medieval composers, such as Machaut and Ciconia, in an original way.
The texts of Chin’s vocal music are often based on experimental poetry, and occasionally self-referential, employing techniques such as acrostics, anagrams, and palindromes, all of which are also reflected in the compositional structure. Playful aspects predominate also in Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland. Theatrical actions are employed in some instrumental pieces as well, including Allegro ma non troppo for percussion and tape, Cantatrix Sopranica for voices and ensemble, and Double Bind? for violin and electronics.
Unsuk Chin’s compositions have been performed at numerous festivals and concert series in Europe, the Far East, and North America. She achieved her breakthrough with Akrostichon–Wortspiel (1991–93) for solo soprano and ensemble, which has been programmed in 15 countries to date by such leading ensembles as Ensemble Modern conducted by George Benjamin, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Simon Rattle, the Nieuw Ensemble of Amsterdam, the Asko Ensemble, the Ictus Ensemble, and the new music groups of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Other works include Trojan Women for three female singers, female chorus, and orchestra, based on Euripides’ play, Fantaisie mécanique, Xi, and Double Concerto, all three commissioned by Ensemble Intercontemporain, ParaMetaString, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, a Piano Concerto commissioned by the BBC for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Miroirs des temps, commissioned by the BBC for the Hilliard Ensemble and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2000, Piano Etude No. 6 (Grains) was commissioned by the Southbank Centre on the occasion of Pierre Boulez's 75th birthday. Kalá for soloists, chorus, and orchestra was co-commissioned by the Danish Radio Symphony, the Gothenburg Symphony and Oslo Philharmonic Orchestras, and premièred under the baton of Peter Eötvös in March 2001. In addition, Unsuk Chin has been active in writing electronic music. She worked for years as a freelance composer at the Electronic Music Studio of the Technical University of Berlin. In 2000, Chin was rewarded first prize at the Bourges International Competition for Electroacoustic Music for Xi for ensemble and electronics. Her latest piece in this genre, Double Bind? for violin and electronics, was conceived at IRCAM and premièred in 2007.
Chin was composer-in-residence with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in 2001/02, culminating in the commission of a Violin Concerto, premièred in January 2002 with Viviane Hagner as soloist and Kent Nagano as conductor. The concerto has since been performed in ten countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. Other recent works include snagS & Snarls (2003–04) for soprano and orchestra, commissioned by Los Angeles Opera, Cantatrix Sopranica (2004–05) for two sopranos, countertenor, and ensemble, which was co-commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, the St. Pölten Festival (Austria), Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Ensemble musikFabrik, as well as Rocaná for orchestra (2007), jointly commissioned by l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1993 Chin was awarded first prize at the Competition for Orchestral Works to Commemorate the Semicentennial of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and in 1997 first prize for Contemporary Piano Music at the Concours International de Piano d'Orléans. She was awarded the 2005 Arnold Schoenberg Prize, and in 2007 the Heidelberger Künstlerinnenpreis and the prizes of the Kyung-Ahm and Daewon Foundations.
Chin has been composer-in-residence with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra since 2006, where she also serves as Artistic Director of the Contemporary Music Series. In 2007, Chin was the featured composer at the festivals in Manchester, Umea, Turin/Milan, and Strasbourg. Her opera Alice in Wonderland received its world première on 30 June 2007 at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich as the opening performance of the Munich Opera Festival. The production, directed by Achim Freyer and conducted by Kent Nagano, was named ‘World Première of the Year’ in the annual survey of opera critics published in the yearbook of Die Opernwelt. Recent projects include a Cello Concerto for Alban Gerhardt, a Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra commissioned by Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zaterdagsmatinee Amsterdam, and the Essen Philharmonie, and new works for Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Intercontemporain, the latter in collaboration with IRCAM. Chin is also one of the composers taking part in the project “into” sponsored by Ensemble Modern and the Siemens Arts Program.
Chin’s music can be heard on a Deutsche Grammophon disc containing Akrostichon-Wortspiel, Fantaisie mécanique, Xi, and Double Concerto performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain; Alice in Wonderland is available on DVD (Unitel); the Violin Concerto and her most recent orchestral composition Rocaná were released in a new Analekta recording with Viviane Hagner and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by Kent Nagano.