Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Chinary Ung: Voices, Oracles, and Spirals

This week, we continue our profile series on June in Buffalo faculty artists with Chinary Ung, a composer the Center is excited to welcome to the festival for the first time.

Chinary Ung playing the roneat-ek
Chinary Ung was born in Tak√©o, Cambodia, where he studied traditional Khmer music and was a member of the first graduating class of Cambodia’s National Music Conservatory.  There he became a skilled performer on the roneat-ek, a boat-shaped xylophone of the Pinpeat tradition (used in the ceremonial music of Cambodian royal courts and temples).  Ung moved to the US in 1964, to study clarinet with Charles Russo at the Manhattan School of Music.  Ten years later, he graduated with a DMA in composition from Columbia University, where he studied with Mario Davidovsky and Chou Wen-chung.  Since 1995, he has taught at UC San Diego, where he is currently a Distinguished Professor of composition.

Ung has received a number of prestigious honors and awards, including those from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Kennedy Center and the Guggenheim, and the Koussevitzky, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations.  In 1989, he became the first American to win the celebrated Grawemeyer Award for music composition.

Ung has developed a reputation for his organic blend Western harmonic techniques with Eastern melodic accents.  The New York Times has said his music bears "an exotic, winding and at times gracefully ornamental character, and its dense textures dance between tonality and atonality.  Those who feel terror at the mention of multi-culturalism might listen to some of Mr. Ung's pieces.  They show that disparate musical traditions can be combined compellingly."  Attendees at June in Buffalo will hear such qualities in a number of performances, such as when Uusinta Ensemble performs 2004's Oracle for pierrot and percussion, a work which takes inspiration from the titular Nechung Oracle consulted by the Dalai Lama before his exile from Tibet (listen here).  

Chinary Ung, Spiral XI: Mother and Child, manuscript
One dramatic feature of Oracle that is common to Ung's music is that of performers vocalizing while playing their instruments.  His wife, violist Susan Ung, has become an expert in this skill.  The composer explains his frequent employment of this technique:
As a child growing up in a small village surrounded by rice fields, I was exposed to this practice as a part of folk music, and would later hear the music of other cultures share this approach.  In contemporary Western music, however, vocalization was most often used as a special effect.  I would eventually seek to incorporate vocalization in a more comprehensive manner that was integral to the work while reflecting a similar timelessness and cultural resonance as in the folk music I remembered.
Susan Ung will join Dal Niente for a JiB performance of Ung's Singing Inside Aura (2013), a piece which require the viola soloist to vocalize throughout.  The composer Adam Greene describes the piece:
[Singing Inside Aura's] notated tempo, forty-three beats per minute, suggests ritual or ceremony, when indeed a strict pulse is audible.  The ensemble texture is gossamer, threads combining into fabric.  […]  The viola and voice parts are inextricable and largely heterophonic, that is, much of the time they’re varied versions of the same melodic line.  That line or double line—matched, on occasion, in some of the ensemble instruments as well—is complex in its detail but as a result flexible and organic, like speech or improvisation.
Speaking/singing performers also appear throughout Ung's Spiral series, a collection of solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces that currently consists of fourteen works.  2007's Spiral XI: Mother and Child, for solo viola can be heard below, in a performance by Susan Ung.  For the composer, according to Greene, "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."

At June in Buffalo's final concert on June 12, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Water Rings "Overture" (1993), a work marked by its expert use of instrumental color and skilled orchestration.  Ung has perhaps been most widely recognized for his orchestral writing—the Grawemeyer being awarded to him for his 1986 work Inner Voices, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for Dennis Russell Davies and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  This earlier piece was described by the NY Times as "[overlaying] a richly colored backdrop of 1960's-style orchestral sound color, flecked with exotic percussion, with Cambodian-flavored melodies, most strikingly from the violas.  […It's an] evocative and engaging and a genuine contribution toward the serious fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions."

These qualities are still present in more recent works, such as Water Rings, as the BPO's JiB audience will no doubt be able to recognize.  We look forward to hearing not only his music, but his insights into composition, orchestration, as well as voices, oracles, and spirals.