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A Heritage Rediscovered

Composer Chinary Ung made his mark with Western music before returning to his Cambodian roots.

September 28, 1997|Kenneth Herman | Kenneth Herman is a San Diego-based music writer

If you can imagine a Javanese gamelan hijacked by an American jazz band, you're already close to the music of Chinary Ung. But it would be a mistake to think that the work of this 55-year-old Cambodian-born, American-educated composer is a simple case of East meets West. Trained in Western music from the beginning, Ung became the epitome of the late-'60s uptown New York City composer. It was only after he had established his credentials with a number of highly abstract, post-Webern gems that he decided to learn his birthright musical traditions and to integrate them into his sophisticated musical technique.

Ung's most recent work, "Seven Mirrors" for solo piano, will be premiered by New York-based pianist Kathleen Supove on Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the La Jolla Athanaeum. "Seven Mirrors" was requested commissioned by four pianists (including L.A.'s own Gloria Cheng-Cochran) and underwritten by a Meet the Composer grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a sign of his popularity among performers. Supove says it was the "combination of beautiful lines and intellectual design" that drew her to Ung's music.

Ung is now a professor of composition at UC San Diego, but it was his proficiency on the clarinet, which he had studied at Phnom Penh's first Western-style conservatory, that provided him his ticket out of Cambodia. In 1964 he won a scholarship to study clarinet at the Manhattan School of Music. Soon after he arrived in New York, however, he encountered the Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung, who had just begun teaching at Columbia University. Ung quickly changed schools and direction. When he thinks back on his life, composition was implicit in some of his earliest childhood activities.

"When I was 3, we lived in a small village, where there were, of course, no plastic toys for children to play with. I sometimes am jealous of my two daughters with their many toys. But we would roll up banana leaves and blow in them to make a trumpet-like sound, or we would fill jars with rain water to hear the different tones they would make. I played a game with my little cousin: we discovered that if we hummed loudly and touched our lips together, we could make interesting buzzing music.

"Later, my brother and I would entertain ourselves locked in our room together, singing and shouting, tapping on the bedpost. We thought it would be interesting to be able to preserve our crazy experiments, but we didn't know anything about [musical] notation at that time."

At Columbia, Ung's goal was "to learn the craft of the West," which at that time in American academic circles meant following the strict doctrines of 12-tone composition as laid down by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. Ung applied himself assiduously, even though at times it went against his instincts.

"When Chou Wen-chung said, 'Bring me a tone row next week', even though I worked very hard, I could only work out 11 [tones]. For me it was always easier to do five or seven or nine, but not the [requisite] twelve."

Ung's "Tall Wind" (1970) for soprano, flute, oboe, guitar and cello (available on "Grand Spiral" (CRI), with its twittering, tiny explosive sounds and snippets of text by E.E. Cummings, is well within that serialist aesthetic. It was political events in Southeast Asia that caused Ung to change directions. With the end of the American war in Vietnam, Cambodia was overrun by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, whose bloody rule forbade all the traditional performing arts of Ung's homeland.

"I knew that our culture was in danger, so I set about to rediscover my own native music, as well as various other kinds of Asian music."

Starting in 1974, Ung put composition more or less on hold and took up the Cambodian xylophone, or roneat-ek, as part of an immersion in Asian music.

"I collected old tapes of roneatek players, as well as new LPs smuggled out of Cambodia. I painstakingly transcribed the music into Western notation and began to practice the pieces."

After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and routed Pol Pot, a wave of Cambodian refugees came to America. Ung sought out those who knew the old court traditions of music and dance.

"I mingled with them, but having lived under Pol Pot's repression, they had forgotten many of the pieces. Since I had memorized this music through my research, we taught each other. From them I learned the appropriate stylistic nuances."

In 1980 Ung broke his silence with "Khse Buon," a solo cello piece that moved his serialist style in the direction of traditional Asian music.

"In ["Khse Buon"] I am looking from the West towards the East in order to understand the spirit and energy behind Asian music." But he was not home yet, and he returned to compiling Cambodian music for Folkways records and conducting summer institutes in traditional Cambodian music and dance for refugees who had settled in North America. Five years later, a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra ended his compositional drought.

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