Composed in 1980, Khse Buon occupies a special position in Chinary Ung’s output. While this piece represented a dramatic statement of the composer’s emerging voice, it was surrounded by an emptiness—a hiatus between 1974-1985—that consumed the rest of Ung’s creative energies, thus delaying the moment when he could embrace its implications. Khse Buon appears as a hopeful statement regarding the value of personal expression during a time when Cambodians had suffered tremendous losses. Its voice is plaintive, full of longing, and unabashedly emotional.
Khse Buon means ‘four strings’ in Khmer, referring to the four strings of the ‘cello. One might appreciate a few things about the title. There exists a single string Cambodian lute called the Khse Diev, so perhaps the implication here is to invent a mythical four-stringed Cambodian instrument. The title ‘four strings’ removes the ‘cello from a European cultural context, viewing the instrument as a physical object, a repository of possibilities, a sort of raw material for music making.
Ung has cited numerous influences in his string writing, including Indian saranghi music, which is characterized by drones and slides along with “tails”—flourishes appearing at the ends of phrases. Ung’s work also refers to Japanese koto music along with the solo string playing of Chinese, Indonesian, and Khmer origins (like the aforementioned khse diev). Yet, perhaps remarkably, in Khse Buon Ung’s approach appears fully formed and coherent. No mere patchwork of ecotourist appropriation, it displays a highly wrought, synthetic musical language that is indebted to East and West, but bound by neither. Although this work appears as an island in the middle of the composer’s compositional hiatus, the approach to string writing it displays is still fully a part of his current practice.
Ung’s view of musical time reveals his sympathy for Asian aesthetics even more than does his treatment of pitch and instrumental color. In Ung’s music, one rarely encounters an orderly succession of events that corresponds to the Western tradition of musical time. Rather, one often experiences suspension and silence. The latter is considered sacred space in the Buddhist tradition, while suspension would seem to be a companion idea. Space, or suspended time, is considered to be inherently spiritual, whereas the standard passage of time according to the clock’s progress is of the mortal plane and therefore transitory. When a Westerner speaks of the mortal and the celestial, she often means the real and the fantastic. Buddhist cosmology inverts these realms, so the spiritual, being eternal, is more real than is one’s physical, mortal existence. Such a provocative formulation can be a remarkable ally for a composer, and Ung has addressed it on many occasions throughout his career. —Adam Greene