Born in Seoul, South Korea, composer Donghoon Shin studied composition at Seoul National University with Sukhi Kang and Uzong Choe and is currently studying for his PhD with Sir George Benjamin at King's College London. The recipient of 2016's Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize and a previous Apprentice Composer-in-Residence to Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, he has been specially-commissioned to compose a concerto for the Chinese sheng and large ensemble. 'Anecdote' will be performed on 21 March by sheng virtuoso Wu Wei and BCMG.

Full programme note on 'Anecdote' can be found here

What did you find most challenging and/or interesting about writing a piece for this ancient instrument?

The mechanism of sheng is very complicated, and fingerings are not very logical. Generously, Wu Wei has lent me one of his shengs, so to understand the instrument, I had to spend enough time with the instrument.

The most interesting thing while I was writing the piece was the great timbral potential which the instrument has. Sheng has very particular timbre, but it combines very well with every western instrument, such as horn, clarinet and also harmonics sounds of strings. One of my goals while working on the piece was how to drag out the timbral potential of the instrument and combining it well with the western instruments so that the whole ensemble sounds almost like a huge sheng.


Having previously attended a masterclass by Unsuk Chin, how does it feel to have written a sheng Concerto to be performed by Wu Wei for whom Unsuk Chin has also written a concerto?

Unsuk Chin has been an important mentor for me over ten years and perhaps she is the first composer who wrote a large-scale concerto for sheng and orchestra. Of course, Unsuk Chin’s sheng concerto was one of the important references for me while I was working on Anecdote, but I tried to keep a distance from her sheng concerto. 


You have mentioned in a previous interview that there are jazz influences in some of your music. Have any elements of western composition permeated your sheng Concerto?

It’s true that I’ve been influenced many different genres of music from the experimental Jazz music of the ECM labels especially in 70-80 to the British Rock and Roll, but I consider myself as a composer who writes music in the Western Classical Music idiom. I’ve studied analysing the Western Classical Music and 20-21stcentury music over 10 years and am studying with George Benjamin now. The contrapuntal concept in my writing is definitely derived from the Western Classical Music. In Anecdote, I tried to collapse the border between two different linear writing concepts - polyphony and heterophony.


As a Korean composer who has been taught on different continents, do you actively look for ways to combine traditions in your music?

For a long time, I declined to adapt the influence from the Korean traditional music into my music, since I didn’t want to be confined as an “Asian composer”. As a composer, building a jail and imprisoning myself is the most unwise thing which I can imagine. But recently I started to think that perhaps I can be inspired from and use some elements of traditional Korean music, as I have been inspired from and have toyed with the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges many times. While composing music, the most important thing for me is always freedom. I can go anywhere with good reason.


The world premiere of your sheng concerto marks the end of your residency with BCMG. What have you enjoyed the most from your experience as BCMG and Sound and Music's Apprentice Composer in Residence?

Over the past two years I have been privileged to work with the BCMG, one of the most important new music ensembles in the music scene. Of course, I’ve learnt many things from them, especially the workshop which I had with the ensemble and Wu Wei a month ago was crucial for my writing and gave me much food for thought.


Do you have any advice for young musicians who would like to pursue a career in composition?

The freedom and the courage to be free.

Sheng soloist Wu Wei, one of the world's best players of the Chinese instrument, will be performing the world premiere of Donghoon Shin's Sheng Concerto in a glimmering concert embracing music dissolving borders on 21 March

Sheng soloist Wu Wei, one of the world's best players of the Chinese instrument, will be performing the world premiere of Donghoon Shin's Sheng Concerto in a glimmering concert embracing music dissolving borders on 21 March

Donghoon Shin's residence with BCMG as Apprentice Composer in Residence is part of the Embedded programme from Sound and Music, the national charity for new music, in collaboration with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

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