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“Luminous Spirals”: the Music of Chinary Ung, Vol. 2, 2009

Chinary Ung is widely recognized for his special ability to draw together materials, concepts, and sounds from East and West in a music that appears wholly organic despite its disparate components. Although born in Cambodia, Ung developed his compositional voice—his creative fingerprint, as he terms it—as an American, living in the United States since the mid-1960s.

Unique voices come from unique circumstances, it seems, and Ung’s is one of the more unusual stories among the cadre of contemporary composers. Arriving in the U.S. with a quite limited background in Western classical music, Ung took to his studies with alacrity, earning degrees in music from the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University. These studies were extended both by virtue of his heightened interest in learning the craft of the West and as a consequence of the Cambodian holocaust, which prevented his return to his homeland. When the dimensions of that country’s devastation became clear, Ung shifted his attention toward reconnecting with Eastern traditional practices, training on the roneat-ek (the Cambodian xylophone), and learning about instrumental techniques and musical traditions from a range of Asian cultures. Ung’s work with Cambodian music reflects a sense of obligation to preserve traditions that were under direct assault from the Khmer Rouge, but his capacity to open his ears to other cultures is evidence of a wide-ranging curiosity.

The works presented on this disc were composed over a twenty-year period—virtually the entire span of Chinary Ung’s mature compositional career. Although there have been distinct shifts in Ung’s compositional interests over the years, his musical language has been remarkably consistent. Composed in 1985, Child Song is the earliest work presented here. It occupies an important place in the composer’s oeuvre, for it is with this piece that Ung emerged fully from a self-imposed period of creative silence that had seen him compose just one work since 1974. Composing receded into the background when Ung’s work to preserve Cambodian musical culture became the priority. The work’s title has two references: it was written as Ung’s wife, Susan, was pregnant with their first child, and it contains a transcription of a song Ung remembered from his own childhood in rural Cambodia. The song itself is a Cambodian analog of “pat-a-cake” insofar as it accompanies a clapping game. The innocence of this moment in the piece, where dance-like unison rhythms prevail, comes in sharp contrast to the meditative expressive domain that dominates the piece. There is uncertainty and questioning—even foreboding—surrounding the moments of youthful ebullience, as if the composer were considering not only his child’s future, but the futures of those with whom he had played clapping games as a child. How many of them had been extinguished?

The inclusion of actual folk materials from Cambodia (or elsewhere) is a rare occurrence in Ung’s music, but the normative musical language of the piece—featuring modal scalar materials and instrumental behaviors that luxuriate in timbral shadings—is found throughout the composer’s works. Indeed, Ung incorporated some fragments from Child Song into the orchestral work Inner Voices, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1989. Inner Voices would bring the composer tremendous acclaim, but his chamber works show remarkable ingenuity, producing a myriad of interesting sonic events using an economy of means.

The Spiral series consists mostly of chamber works and forms a sort of backbone to his compositional career. It was begun in 1987, and by virtue of the composer’s continued fascination with the basic concept of the spiral (in which return is essential, but exact overlap never occurs) new works have appeared regularly, including an installment in 2008. There are two ideas that figure strongly in the Spirals works, one melodic, one formal. Ung’s melodies often consist of a few notes of a modal scale that are accented with elaborate, expressive figuration. In this regard, the spiral approach is an animating device that imbues a core idea with nuance and dimension. As a formal practice, fragments of musical materials have the tendency to reappear, where they are subject to reinterpretation. In a broader sense, Ung’s capacity to derive new areas of interest from the spiral concept has allowed the series to extend outward to include instrumentation ranging from a solo viola to a full orchestra. Luminous Spirals has a wind part that can be played on shakuhachi, the traditional bamboo flute from Japan. Even played on a western flute (as it is on this recording) there are certain behaviors and sounds that evoke the shakuhachi. This is typical of Ung’s approach to instrumental writing, where a ‘cello might “become” an Indian saranghi or a guitar might become a koto (as it seems to only at the end of Luminous Spirals). Elsewhere—such as in Spiral VI—the entire ensemble resembles a gamelan, particularly with its layers of simultaneously unfolding lines based around a single melodic idea. Remarkably, these instrumental and textural chimeras arrive seamlessly—testament to the unifying force of Ung’s aesthetic.

The disparate sources of Ung’s sound world, while proliferant, are not incorporated for their surface charms; rather, they are linked by deeper spiritual considerations born out of long study of Buddhist practices. While this spiritual dimension is somewhat hidden in the works discussed previously, it appears in plain view in the remaining works on this recording. Consider …still life after death, a work of stunning dramatic impact despite its modest duration. After the soprano recites the provocative title (sometimes spelling out its syllables, perhaps suggesting the dissolution of an earthly existence) the piece invokes a Buddhist funeral rite described in the so-called “Tibetan Book of the Dead” in which lamas chant over a dying person in order to guide the spirit to the next plane of existence. For the main dramatic arc of the work Ung elaborates a series of intense musical phrases, as if to animate the fleeting memories of a waning life. The vocal part consists mainly of syllables of Pali and Khmer origin, chosen as much for their sound as for meaning. On occasion, lines from the Dhammapada (from the Pali Canon) appear intact. The “lifetime in an instant” conceit leads to highly concentrated phrasing interspersed with moments of repose, as if to draw out every bit of energy from a particular idea, no matter how agonizing. Somewhat audaciously, the work ends with a low voice chanting, which is repeated by the soprano. The cycle repeats two more times, with the soprano’s voice becoming weaker and more affected each time.

Oracle is a dramatic work that refers to the state oracle of Tibet, Nechung, who counsels the Dalai Lama. In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama describes his encounters with Nechung at the crucial moments prior to his escape from the Chinese authorities and his exile to India. During these encounters, Nechung goes into a trance-like state and is inhabited by the oracle—an ancient and powerful spirit. The process, as the Dalai Lama describes, is dramatic and frightening—Nechung stops breathing for some time, then begins to hiss. His eyes bulge and he is suddenly swelled in size as the spirit possesses him. All the while, he wears a heavy costume and a giant, ornamental helmet weighing upwards of thirty pounds that amplifies his grand movements. The Dalai Lama mentions being afraid that Nechung might snap his neck as he manipulated the great helmet in what appeared to be precarious positions.

This fantastic spectacle is the inspiration behind Oracle, in which Ung deploys a stunning display of musical creativity. All of the instrumental techniques heard in the other works featured on this recording are employed in Oracle as well, but they are augmented by the use of the performer’s voices. The musicians sing, hum, chant, whistle, and shout, often while simultaneously playing their instruments. Thus, the music makes extraordinary demands of the performers as it takes them far outside of conventional instrumental practices. From Ung’s perspective, however, this approach reaches back toward an ancient music prior to the development of modern instruments and the necessity for specialization. This holistic view is perhaps a fantasy, at least in the sense that the performers here are required to execute highly refined behaviors on their instruments. Still, by employing the voices of people whose voices are not trained professionally, the composer emphasizes their humanity, their connection to one another and to the listeners, making the experience strangely intimate despite its intensely dramatic expressive world.

When Chinary Ung invokes the term musical fingerprint to describe a composer’s identifying characteristics it is not merely a synonym for “style.” Style is a fairly clumsy word, and is often misused in order to categorize an artist’s work, grouping it with that of other, presumably likeminded artists. A fingerprint is both inherent to the individual and it is something made— deposited as an impression of one’s actions. A composer’s musical fingerprint is comprised in part of a collection of sonic predilections, but also of the ideas that animate the music itself. When one considers a fingerprint, one doesn’t dwell on the object itself but rather on the multidimensional being that produced it.

Ung returned to Cambodia in 2002 for his first visit since leaving forty years before. In the process of reconnecting with his homeland he was faced with the problem of how to make an artistic statement that might mean something to the Cambodian people, who had little or no exposure to western classical music, and none to recently composed music. It was apparent to him that part of his project should be to “bring together the village and the concert hall,” where neither dimension is cheated of its inherent richness but is allowed to combine with the other in order to illustrate a broader, more complete musical vision. To some extent, he has managed to engage in this project throughout his career, but Oracle (and the works that followed) represents a new level of achievement in this regard that makes one wonder what the next steps may bring.