International Women’s Day 2019. Friday, 8 March.
Two things prompted me to write this blog post: the news that composer Unsuk Chin has been awarded the Hamburg Bach Prize and the approach of International Women’s Day.
Unsuk Chin is, to my ears, one of the most remarkable and talented composers living today: her music is incredibly rich and vivid, but also rigorous, precise and intricate. If you’ve never heard of her, or heard her work, check out some of the listening suggestions below – they’ll be worth your time.
A good place to start is her 2001 Violin Concerto, which is one of the most luminously beautiful works in the contemporary canon. It’s easy to see (and fascinating to unpick) the technical mastery displayed in the piece, but even more striking is the sheer gorgeousness of the sound itself.
I was lucky enough to meet Unsuk, and study with her as part of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s emerging composers scheme (then called the RPS Composition Prize), where her deeply insightful musical judgement was obvious to all. She was gracious, helpful and supportive of our small cohort as we developed our pieces for the Philharmonia’s Music of Today concert series. Because of this I was particularly glad to see that she’d won the Hamburg Bach Prize, which is awarded every four years to a composer “whose works deserve distinction under the high standards set by the namesake of the award”, so Bach himself, which is no small comparison.
As a young composer Chin studied under the great György Ligeti, whose late style can clearly be heard as an influence on the piece which made her name: Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay) from 1991.
Previous winners of the Bach Prize read like a who’s-who of the most influential composers of our time: Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann, Olivier Messiaen, to name just three, not to mention Ligeti himself. It may seem odd to compare these progressive, cutting-edge figures to Bach, one of the touchstones of western music, but while there may be great differences between them the depth of invention and sophistication of technique that they share transcend any superficial stylistic contrast.
Chin is only the third women to receive the prize in its 76-year history, though to give credit where it’s due there has been an even male/female split in laureates since 1999. The voices of non-male composers are today louder than ever, rightly demanding the same representation as their male colleagues. The recognition of Chin as one of our greatest musicians is entirely deserved, and is another step towards the appreciation of the diversity of composers and artists in the modern world – which can only be good for listeners.
Photo: Priska Ketterer / Boosey and Hawkes