Eternity Expressed in Music

Composer Gordon Chin

2018 / June

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell

Gordon Shi-wen Chin, winner of a 2018 National Award of Art, is widely known for his multifaceted compositions. He is not only one of the most important international modern-school composers, he has courageously introduced different elements into his work, and is constantly trying new things, exploring originality in life.

Most remarkable is that he has not forgotten his original aspira­tions. Though he left his native land when he was very young, he never cut the lifeline with his old hometown. He has transformed his love for his native place into a dedication to passing along Taiwanese culture and being robustly productive in Taiwan.



Composing a movement of life

“To create, you inevitably must go through suffering, for only then can you get the sweet fruits.” Gordon Shi-wen Chin, deeply immersed in the surging movements of his spirit, savors the labor pains of artistic creation with a joyful heart. As a composer, Chin’s mind is always filled with endless dancing notes. The pulse that fills his thoughts and demands to be expressed flows out naturally through his fingertips, becoming a expression of spontaneous eternity.

“The origins of my composing can be traced back to my first year in Japan.” Gordon Chin began playing the piano when he was five years old. In fifth and sixth grade, each week he would take the train from Dou­liu in Yun­lin County to Tai­nan, where he studied under his teacher Chen Mei-man. Shortly after Chin graduated from elementary school, his whole family moved to Japan. Not only did he have no friends there, the language was a huge obstacle, and the only consolation for his young spirit was music.

He had never previously interrupted his study of music, but here he was nearly forced to do so, for when his family first got to Japan they had no piano. “At that time I always stayed at school after the end of class, because there was a piano I could play.” With the shock of an unfamiliar culture, and missing his hometown and friends, it was only by drawing support from the invisible wings of music that he could find release for his dejected spirit. As the sun set each evening, one improvised piece after another accompanied Chin as he emerged from his gloomy state, and sparked life into his innate talent for composing music.

Finding truth through faith

“I would often think very deeply by myself.” In his third year of middle school, Chin, who matured early, began to explore the philosophy of existence. “From the moment we are born, it is certain that one day we will leave the world. Since death is inevitable, why should one take so much trouble to stay alive? Where is the meaning in that?” Living at that time in Yama­shita­cho, Yoko­hama’s Chinatown, Chin came to know about Jesus Christ in an overseas Chinese community church. There he saw the meaning of life in the persons of Minister Best and his wife.

“They are among the people I most admire. In them I saw the brilliance of human nature.” The sense of belonging in the interactions of the church youth group gave Chin the feeling that he had attained grace and a joyous rebirth. “A year later I was baptized and ­became a Christian.” The power of faith has enabled Chin to never feel lonely or irresolute again.

Minister Best and his wife enabled Chin to see the bright side of life. “They were always like the sun, conveying warmth.” Sincere smiles, meticulous concern for others, selfless service, and their positive worldview brought Chin out of the darkness. Joy replaced sorrow, and his cup of happiness overflowed.

Determined to return home

“In my second year of high school, I decided that after completing my studies I would return home.” People were astounded at his willingness to give up such a superior musical environment. He says, “I was only fulfilling a promise to myself.” On December 27, 1988, one month after receiving his doctorate, he returned with his wife and children to Taiwan, without ever looking back.

“I don’t in the least regret my choice back then.” Even after 30 years, Chin feels the same attachment and love for this land. “Returning to Taiwan, I felt settled and at peace.” This sense of belonging to his homeland has strongly drawn Gordon Chin. “I want to be like Minister Best and his wife, and devote my life to this piece of land.” Holding fast to this pure and selfless love, Chin has dedicated himself to education, in order to cultivate outstanding talents, and to leading an orchestra, in order to create a legacy. At the same time, drawing sustenance from his native soil, he has given birth to a diversity of creative works.

Writing poetry in music

“That was just the time when Taiwanese music was taking off.” In fact, even before his return home, a special feature of musical creation in Taiwan—using musical notes to write poetry—was already gaining inter­national attention. “Poetry is what sets my creative work in motion, and is one of my important sources of inspiration.” Gorgeous imagery, irregular rhythms and modulating cadences are all transformed by Chin into dancing notes and beautiful melodies.

“I am always seeking that sudden burst of energy, like a flash of lightning or a spark from a flint.” His distinctive compositional style of combining human voices with orchestral music has allowed Chin to skillfully utilize his natural gifts for composing for Western wind and string instruments, revealing his cutting edge through one breakthrough after another. “Every phase is worth treasur­ing.” From conception to birth, each creative work is always the result of blood, sweat and tears, which, given the fermentation of time, achieves exquisite taste.

An inexhaustibly joyful heart

Receiving his trophy at the National Awards of Art cere­mony, Chin’s heart was full of joy and gratitude. Besides thanking his parents, his teachers, people who have commissioned work from him, and his intimate friends, he expressed special gratitude to his wife, who has always quietly supported him behind the scenes. This award, which symbolizes the highest accolade in Taiwan’s arts community, is both an honor and a responsibility.

Gordon Chin believes that “a composer is like a pion­eer, leading the way through the wilderness.” They must have the perseverance to cut a path through the thorny underbrush, for only thus can they reach the flower-filled meadows of artistic creation.

He has also found hope through his faith. For nearly 30 years he has served as the conductor and musical dir­ector of the ­Yinqi Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, investing money, time, and energy with neither complaint nor regret.

Talent is revealed through hard work

Having been lauded as a genius since childhood, Chin has nevertheless realized that “genius is hard work over a long period of time; it is the ability to withstand suffering.” He gives all credit to the God that he worships: “Human abilities are inadequate, so all we can do is rely on the help of God. Faith has been my in­exhaust­ible motive force.”

“Every day I spend at least eight or nine hours composing.” Immersed in his studio, this has been Chin’s daily routine for decades. “You have to be able to put up with loneliness.” The creative process is often an arduous torment, but you have to receive it with a joyful heart. “When I am composing, I often go a month without speaking to anyone.”

Chin fondly recalls the strict instruction at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, which formed his ability to remain calm and steady. “Other people passed their exam at the second attempt, but for my doctorate I had to take it three times, and I got that opportunity only because my professor made an exception for me.”

Chin, who teaches at National Taiwan Normal University, tells his students plainly: “Composing is a lonely and difficult road. You have to get commissions from people in order to survive, otherwise you can’t make a living from it.” Only if your ambitions are firm and clear can you fearlessly proceed on this arduous path. “A composer must have a solid foundation in classical music, and should be familiar with at least one instrument, preferably the piano.”

Horizon of Formosa, blessings forever

To pursue the extreme is a composer’s fate. Each and every work must have innovative and profound content. Only when listeners are intoxicated by irresistible emotion and you have aroused resonance in their souls will a work be kept alive forever.

Austrian composer Gustav Mahler said: “The most important part cannot be written in the score.” Like an iceberg in the sea, there is an enormous hidden part that it takes effort to comprehend. “Music in fact is the depiction of emotions,” says Chin. You can only move your audience if you have love in your heart.

The widely appreciated “Golden Beam on the Horizon of Formosa” is one of a series of suites composed by Chin out of his concern for Taiwan, setting to music his strong affection for his native place. The words for this piece for symphony orchestra and chorus come from a poem in Taiwanese written by Chin’s wife Lu Jia­fen (pen name Ye Yin). “It is real emotion written for us, beautiful emotions; / This Taiwan, who will cherish it? / Sunrise illuminates Taiwan, blessings until the end of time.” This is a heartfelt declaration of Gordon Chin’s profound love for this land of ours.

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