The Story of Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto

By Jung-Min Lee

Unsuk Chin, born in South Korea and now based in Germany, has only occasionally engaged with traditional Korean or Asian music. Among a handful of examples is the last movement of Akrostichon-Wortspiel (1991), titled “Aus der alten Zeit,” described as “an ironic commentary on the traditional Korean court music” (it is left to the listeners to determine which features are based on Korean music and why they are “ironic.”)<1> She also wrote for the traditional Chinese instrument sheng in Šu for sheng and orchestra in 2009. She emphasized, however, that her motivation to write for a traditional Asian instrument was the new sound possibilities revealed in the playing of the virtuoso sheng player Wu Wei, rather than a broader interest in mixing Asian and Western music. The first movement of Chin’s Cello Concerto, written in 2008 and revised in 2013, is a rare case in which she refers to specific element of Korean traditional music, with the subtitle “Aniri.” Yet Chin has not explained what that subtitle means, or how it relates to the movement, leaving it up to listeners and performers to make their own interpretations.

Let me first introduce the term aniri, before offering a reading of how it may explain a structural aspect of the first movement of the Cello Concerto. Aniri is an element of the Korean traditional vocal genre pansori, a narrative epic drama performed by a vocalist, soriggun, and a percussionist, gosu. The vocalist tells a story through singing (sori), speech (aniri) and theatrical gestures (nuhreum). One may understand pansori as a solo opera, and aniri as a recitative.

Aniri in pansori serves specific functions. First, it drives the narrative forward by connecting different episodes of sori. In the sori (singing) parts, the performer details specific moments within the story or sing a monologue, often indulging in, much to audience’s amusement, various delicious onomatopoeias and mimetic words, which are rich in the Korean language. During aniri, the omniscient singer provides backgrounds to those moments elaborated in sori, thereby helping audiences understand the overall storyline. For example, the singer can act as a narrator and inform a change of scenery or temporal space. Or, taking on the roles of various characters, the singer may explicate their emotional states or enact dialogues. Serving sometimes as a bridge between sori episodes, aniri helps audiences place themselves in the luxuriously elaborate storytelling. Second, aniri provides a resting point for both the singer and spectators. Such a breather is necessary because a pansori performance can last hours—sometimes up to eight hours (in modern performances vocalists choose certain parts of a story).<2> A singer can rest his or her voice during aniri, while the shifts between rhythmless aniri and rhythmic sori helps refresh the attention of the spectators.


Singer Sook-sun Ahn, drummer Hwa-young Chung; the performance starts with aniri at 00:38. From Sugung-ga [Song of the underwater castle], tale of a rabbit who flees a sea king’s palace using his wit after being lured to go underwater by a turtle, a servant of the palace looking for a rabbit’s liver to use as medicine for his ailing king; the scenes in the video clip are conversations between the rabbit and the turtle (00:38-7:07) then between the rabbit and the sea king (7:11-end)An interesting connection can be made between the role of aniri in pansori and that of the pitch center in the first movement of the Cello Concerto. Each of the three movements of the Cello Concertois organized around a single pitch center, with another pitch of secondary importance. (Chin has previously employed a similar strategy in her vocal chamber work Akrostichon-Wortspiel). In the first movement, the pitch center is G#, and the secondary pitch is Bb. The pitch centrality is apparent from very beginning: G# is the first sound of the movement, ringing mysteriously in the harps and then reinforced by the orchestra through the rest of the movement. The G# is also often the starting and ending points of the solo cello parts as well as a marker of change in texture.

Above all, the pitch center serves as a seed from which musical energy germinates. Take, for instance, the beginning of the movement. The harp plays G# with pizzicato; the cello adds a layer by momentarily playing Bb, the secondary pitch, and then converges onto G#. Soon join the percussion and the double bass, which plays G#2 in harmonics to create shimmering, ethereal timbre that is characteristic of Chin’s music. The layers of sound centering around the pitch center form the ground from which the cello can soar and plunge into an abyss. Also, the anchoring pitch, reverberating warmly and mysteriously, creates room for the cello to revel in the magic of different musical moments—just as a pansori singer can relish the details of memorable moments of a plot during sori because aniri provides the backbone of the storyline.

As mentioned, the pitch center appears in between different musical episodes, each defined by distinct texture, rhythm, or tempi. Much as aniri connects various sori sections, the pitch center is the bridge of each transition in the Cello Concerto. Tracing the recurring pedal on G# reveals the form of the movement, which can be understood as vaguely following sonata form: an introduction of the central idea, development, (cadenza), and a restatement of that idea. Here, the central idea is the pitch center that is only minimally “developed” in the first two statements (up to measure 40). And then, through five different episodes, the music explores distant places; after each excursion the G# returns, reminding listeners that that is where we began and where we ought to return. (Ironically, the movement ends with a dissolution of that central pitch: after a lengthy drone on G#, the cello line free-falls through a long glissando, then the entire orchestra explodes, playing sfffffz, against which the cello plays a semi-aleatoric passage. The effect is like countless shimmering starlets after a big bang; the movement ends in pppppp.)

Despite similarities with traditional sonata form, there is an important distinction: the pitch center of the Cello Concerto remains unchanged and returns regularly, and a sense of development is conveyed mainly through an increasing intensity of each episode. There is no departure from or recovery of the “home pitch.” Such regular recurrence of a single pitch echoes a certain linear quality of Korean traditional music, which is driven melodically and rhythmically, rather than by the logic of harmonic progression. Also, the sequential arrangement of each section of the first movement of the Cello Concerto resembles the alternation between sori and aniri of pansori. In both cases, because of this linear structure, there is a sense of openness that almost seems to allow flexibility of the length of a performance (in fact, a pansori performance can be lengthened or shortened extemporaneously).

Finally, thinking of the Cello Concerto and its use of the pitch center in connection to pansori, we may imagine that, maybe, Chin conceived the work as a sort of a story. But even if that was the case, we won’t know what the story is, because Chin is often not keen on revealing her stories. She likes her audiences to imagine. Even in her vocal works, she intentionally creates texts that are not meant to be understood, but rather are intended to be experienced, so we should “not try to understand.” (This was her explicit request to the audience at one performance of her Akrostichon-Wortspiel.)<3> Often drawing from multiple cultures in a single work—as she did in Kalá (2000; uses literary works in German, French, Danish, Finnish and Latin), Miroirs des temps (2001; employs a Portuguese poem and Ciconia’s works),<4> or Cantatrix Sopranica (2005; draws from American and German literature, and a song from the Tang dynasty)<5>—she avoids attaching specific messages to the texts. This tendency may also arise from her Bhabha-esque belief in the untenability of the notion of “pure” culture. “Cultures evolve through the process of exchanges and interlaces,” she notes. “I think that no society has an absolutely pure, uninfluenced cultural root.”<6> Chin’s uncontextualized use of the term aniri, given without an explanation of what it is or how it is used in the Cello Concerto, evokes our imagination. Her terse hint opens the door to multiple imaginative readings, one of which is explored here.

You can listen to Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto here:

Performed by the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra; Alban Gerchardt, cello; Myung-whun Chung, conductor, recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon, August 2014

<1>Unsuk Chin, “Akrostichon-Wortspiel. Sieben Szenen aus Märchen für Sopran und Ensemble (1991–1993)” [Acrostic Wordplay, “Seven scenes from fairy-tales for soprano and ensemble (1991–1993)”], in Im Spiegel der Zeit: Die Komponistin Unsuk Chin, ed. Stefan Drees, (Mainz: Schott, 2011), 60.
<2>Robert Koehler and Ji-yeon Byeon, Traditional Music: Sounds in Harmony with Nature, eds. Jin-hyuk Lee and Colin A. Mouat (Seoul: Korea Foundation: Seoul Selection, 2011), 56.
<3>The performance took place on November 11, 2015 in the “Beyond Darmstadt” concert by Curtis 20/21 Ensemble, of which Chin was composer-in-residence for 2015–2016. A video clip of this performance is available on YouTube: “Alize Rozsnyai, Soprano “Akrostichon Wortspiel”—Unsuk Chin,” YouTube video, 21:10, posted by “Alize Rozsnyai,”– aZw6r2-wM (accessed 12 February 2016).
<4>See Program Note on Boosey & Hawkes’s website: “Chin, Unsuk: Miroirs des temps,” Boosey & Hawkes, last accessed February 23, 2018,
<5>Chin adapts literary works by novelist Harry Mathews and German dramatist Arno Holz in this work. “Chin, Unsuk: Cantatrix Sopranica,” Boosey & Hawkes, last accessed February 23, 2018,
<6>Unsuk Chin and Patrick Hahn, “Honjae doen jŏnchesung kwa ŏnŏ yuhhŭI” [Mixed Identity and Wordplay], in Stefan Derees, and Hŭi-kyŏng Yi, Chin Ŭn-suk, miraeŭi akporŭl kŭrit: ‘Arŭsŭ noba’ Chin Ŭn-suk, hyŏndaeumakŭl ‘ŭmak’ ŭro mandŭlda [Unsuk Chin, drawing the score of the future: ‘Ars Nova’ Unsuk Chin turns contemporary music into “music”] (Mainz: Schott, 2011), 58-59. See Homi Bhabha, Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Jung-Min (Mina) Lee has recently earned her PhD from Duke University with a dissertation on Korean National Identity and Modern Music after World War II. She has taught at the Montclair State University and Baekseok Arts University in Seoul; next year, she will teach courses on Music in Modern Korea and K-pop at the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department at Duke University. Her study on Korean composer Chung Tae-bong has been published in a collection of essays by the Seoul National University Press in 2017. Current research interests include Isang Yun’s early serial music as well as the reception of Béla Bartók in South Korea in the post-WWII decade.