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The Music of Chinary Ung, Vol. 3, 2011

When Chinary Ung set out to compose Spiral IX: Maha Sathukar, he established a union between the two series that had dominated his output for decades. The Spirals series began in 1987 and includes a variety of instrumental combinations—some of them idiosyncratic (such as Spiral II for mezzo-soprano, piano, and tuba)—ranging in scope from solo guitar to orchestra, but its last installment was in 1997. With that eighth piece, Ung figured he had exhausted this particular resource. Meanwhile, another series of works developed in which musicians were asked to perform vocal behaviors and their instrumental parts simultaneously—no small feat considering that the combination of acrobatic gestures and subtle timbral shadings that populate Ung’s scores is enough to engage the abilities of most performers. To ask them to do something for which they haven’t studied and practiced to perfection—singing, humming, whistling, chanting—requires a leap of faith on the part of the composer and the performer. Nevertheless, an impressive body of works emerged and, through their experience in playing them, there also grew a repertory of performers who developed a degree of comfort and facility with its extraordinary demands. The performances on this disc are evidence of this project’s success.

What does it mean, though, to place these new demands on a performer? The question has practical and philosophical implications. From a historical standpoint, there is nothing new about singing and playing; it is common in folk idioms around the world. It is decidedly less common in the realm of western classical music, of course, where performance practice is a matter of specialization. Still, there are many pieces in the recent literature with some vocal demands, such as Crumb’s Black Angels or Takemitsu’s Voice, however neither of these works uses the voice as extensively as does Ung in his recent music. From a practical standpoint, the musician has to come to terms with a vast gulf between her hard-earned, refined, and expert instrumental technique and her relatively raw, unrefined vocal abilities. She has to rethink the most basic thing: breath. The violist Susan Ung (the composer’s wife) notes that “a simultaneous [vocal] line—to be sung, whistled, or shouted, in different rhythms, and on different pitches and dynamics—can throw a wrench into the whole concept of string performance. We are forced to use different parts of our musical brains, and at first this can be daunting.” The issue of language (and pronunciation) compounds the challenge as the text consists largely of syllables taken from the Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer languages.

Although formidable, these are technical matters, and the example of the last 60 years or so of contemporary music indicates that any reasonable technical challenge can be met by a suitably motivated and able musician. From a philosophical perspective, the practice is a critique of the hyper-specialized model of western classical instrumental approaches, and an homage to the folk traditions of Southeast Asia. It is no mere coincidence that Ung developed this approach largely after he began making regular trips to Cambodia, from which he had been exiled for forty years. Whereas Ung’s music before 2002 seemed to draw energy and from a variety of Southeast Asian traditions in order to form a new music for a western concert setting, his music after 2002 increasingly seems to be directed towards Southeast Asia, and Cambodia in particular. The large chamber work Aura (2005) is the chief exemplar of this new direction. Aside from featuring extensive vocalization in the instrumental writing, the work features a veiled transcription of the Sathukar, a piece of music played at the beginning of important ceremonial occasions. Traditionally, this music is a song without words featuring a shared, “hidden” melody. Ung’s version is characteristically idiosyncratic and personal, but it taps into the DNA of the traditional source in an effort to reach into the Cambodian musical consciousness. Ung revisits the Sathukar in Spiral IX: Maha Sathukar, but expands it substantially into a work lasting approximately thirty minutes (maha means “grand,” or “great” in Sanskrit). Whereas the Sathukar was an identifiable element in Aura, in Spiral IX it has swelled beyond recognition. Aside from architectonic elements, the chief piece of the traditional model that shines through in Spiral IX is the sense of ritual, of deep spiritual intent. Indeed, this spiritual resonance is a consistent feature in Ung’s work, made all the more present by the use of the voice. The voice has a powerful effect on the listener’s experience of the music. In Spiral XI: Mother and Child, for viola, the performer draws us into an intimate space. She begins to play a languid, lyrical passage full of longing, dominated by the rich sounds of the viola’s lower registers. Then, she starts to sing. The vocal line is at once wedded to yet independent of the viola line—they are in the same hemisphere but take slightly different paths towards a single expressive goal. It is a highly unusual scenario for a work that is classified ostensibly as a solo, but the overall sense one gathers from experiencing this music is not its newness or strangeness, but rather its unity, its intimacy, and its timelessness.

Spriral XI: Mother and Child excerpt


Ung’s mentor and friend of more than 40 years, the composer Chou Wen-chung, had this to say regarding the recent work:


Given Chinary’s family experience during those years of extraordinary political and social upheaval in Cambodia, inevitably the urge for a modern reincarnation of the ancient practice of chanting would propel him to evolve over the decades a methodology for synchronizing such musical events as: conventional, extended, or newly invented instrumental techniques, including percussive sounds on chosen objects; versus a rich repertoire of sung, spoken or otherwise vocalized sounds—all of which come together in a cohesive flow of invented as well as traditional sonic events.

Naturally, the practice of accompanying one’s own voice with something as simple as hand-clapping has been around as long as human history. But in Spiral XI (2007) for viola solo, the virtuosity demanded of the soloist is in the intertwining of the performer’s two “voices,” as if they were the two “vehicles” for attaining enlightenment in Buddhism.


Clearly, the interpretational demands of this music are not only technical. Ung draws the performer’s voice into the work in order to gain something more, something greater than the instrument alone can provide. Chou’s interpretation—that the voice and instrument represent different means or traditions towards a common goal: enlightenment—is particularly striking. He amplifies further:

I have the feeling that when Chinary began using vocal expressions of performers there was a spiritual urge to use another means to produce sounds that would be even more personal in feeling than anything that can be achieved by manipulating an instrument. When a singer sings, the vocal chord becomes one’s instrument. But when a performer sings while playing on an instrument, simultaneously or alternately, it seems there are two layers of emotion, one being maneuvered extra personally and one directly from one’s heart. I do not believe Chinary was thinking of something equivalent to the same person playing two instruments. Therefore, subconsciously perhaps, he was trying to express in his music what a Buddhist would describe as two “vehicles,” one to be heard and one to be felt.


It is an apt assessment; after all, Ung has invoked Buddhist concepts elsewhere in his music, and always in a decidedly non-doctrinaire manner. For instance, the extended periods of relative stillness that emerge in Spiral IX refer to the Buddhist principle of Shunyata, a complex idea meaning a void or bubble, but which can be interpreted as spiritual openness. Ung first explored this concept in the 2006 work Rain of Tears, where the bubble was expressed as a broad registral space. In Spiral IX the instrumentation did not support the same approach, thus the space that opens is temporal. Ung believes the purpose of this openness is to invite compassion, giving this music a broader purpose: to dispel suffering. The startling array of behaviors and colors Ung creates are construed as “textures of compassion” in which the listener becomes immersed.

A concept as rich and broad as the Shunyata accommodates myriad interpretations, so it is no wonder that Ung has chosen to revisit it. Return is a central theme in Chinary Ung’s compositional practice. When Ung composed the earlier installments of the Spiral series he viewed the concept of the spiral primarily as a means of describing technical processes he had developed for dealing with pitch and large-scale form. Over a period of years Ung internalized these techniques to such a degree that the spiral concept no longer carried any force. In order for it to become relevant again, the spirals needed to open wider so they could merge with the metaphysical issues that had captured Ung’s imagination. Could a longer coil of a spiral suggest the Shunyata? Could enlightenment be the final link of a seemingly infinite spiral?

Ung has the remarkable ability to invite big, unanswerable questions through his work, and they are invoked here in the context of a recording featuring just two compositions with only a few performers. Nevertheless, these are works on an epic scale. They are micro-epics, intimate odysseys; they transport us listeners far while drawing us into their rich, distinctive sound worlds. The performers’ voices establish a frame of reference that is inherently humane even as the instruments (and the performers’ whistles) access ethereal planes. The spiral is no longer simply coiled but can be configured to accommodate an overarching trajectory, such as that of the viola in Spiral XI, rising from its initial low C to the culminating high Charmonic.