Chinary Ung was born in Takéo, Cambodia, in 1943, when the country was still a French protectorate; Cambodia declared its independence in 1953. Its status as a French colony brought awareness and some training of Western musical traditions. Ung studied E-flat clarinet at the National Music Conservatory in Phnom Penh, where he was a member of the school’s first graduating class. He moved permanently to the U.S. in 1964 to continue his studies at the Manhattan School of Music as clarinetist and conductor, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Turning to composition, he entered Columbia University where he worked with the eminent Chinese composer Chou Wen-chung as well as Mario Davidovsky and was awarded his doctorate in 1974. He has taught at Northern Illinois University, the University of Pennsylvania, and since 1995 at the University of California–San Diego. He is deeply involved in organizations concerned with the preservation of Cambodian culture. Bridge Records is in the midst of a series of recordings of his music.
In some ways following in Chou Wen-chung’s footsteps, Ung in his early works tried to arrive at a fusion of Webern-influenced modernism with Eastern music—although of course Chou’s tradition was Chinese and Ung’s Khmer. The continuing political unrest and violence in Cambodia led Ung to suspend his compositional activities almost completely for a decade; meanwhile he learned that many family members had died during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Ung immersed himself in study of the Khmer musical tradition as a folklorist and performer on Roneat Ek the Cambodian xylophone. His return to composition, Inner Voices, was a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra and won its composer the coveted Grawemeyer Award. This work and its reception brought Ung international recognition. It also represented a natural synthesis of Asian and Western sensibilities that has obtained in all his subsequent works. A pan-Asian philosophy has led him to investigate other Asian musical traditions, such as Indonesian gamelan (such as in Spiral II) and Indian music (Grand Alap). His Spiral series of works (now in the teens) may show the influence of his teacher Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, in that it’s a series, although the Spirals encompass a number of different ensemble types.
For more than fifteen years, Ung has written works that involve instrumental performers as vocalists, singing or chanting a collage of incantatory, powerful words from various languages. Among the first of these works was Grand Alap (1996) for a duo of amplified cello and percussion, with both players being required to sing. His large-scale chamber work Aura (2005) for two sopranos and chamber ensemble requires all the instrumentalists, as well as the conductor, to vocalize. (Ung will lead a performance of Aura at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City this coming April as part of celebrations of his seventieth birthday year.)
Chinary Ung’s wife, the violist Susan Ung, has performed in many of the composer’s works as a singing violist, including Aura, Spiral IX, and a solo work written for her, Spiral XI: Mother and Child. Chinary Ung’s teacher Chou Wen-chung likened the intense demands made on the performer of Spiral XI to the process of attaining enlightenment in Buddhist practice. The text in Singing Inside Aura is “a combination of phonemes, syllables, articulative percussive vocalization such as a pattern of drumming, plus a mixture of languages—predominantly Khmer, Pali, Sanskrit, written in phonetic spelling intended for speakers of American English.” The title has no specific reference, but is shared with one of the movements of Aura; otherwise there is no direct relationship to the earlier piece.
Singing Inside Aura is a substantial single movement of about fifteen minutes’ length. The 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. A sonority of very high with low, which for the composer represents “openness.” (He used a similar texture in his piece Rain of Tears.) This is the “aura” within with the soloist sings. Ung also says the soloist’s part represents “compassion.”
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. Following the soloist’s first long phrase, the orchestra builds a shimmering texture of small moments before the soloist returns. Gradually the music moves to a lighter but more discernibly metrical passage, marked “Singing Inside Aura.” The next episode, marked “Space Between Heaven and Earth,” is accompanied almost exclusively by sustained strings at first, but slowly filling out to a climactic moment. The voice/viola reaches its lowest range, then lifts to its highest as a new sound takes us into a new sphere. —Adam Greene