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Performance Challenges in the Music of Chinary Ung

Susan Ung with Adam Greene
Published in Music of the Spirit: Asian-Pacific Musical Identity
Edited by Michael Atherton and Bruce Crossman
Published by University of Western Sydney, 2008

This essay concerns matters of performance practice in the music of Chinary Ung, with particular emphasis on his string music. Chinary Ung is a Cambodian-born American composer whose music makes numerous references to non-Western musical traditions, particularly those in Southeast Asia. He is also my husband, and over the many years of our partnership I have been an interpreter of his music, both in solo and ensemble contexts, and I have collaborated with him as his notation developed into the expressive representation of his compositional ideas it is today. Notably, I produced a viola transcription of Khse Buon, a ‘cello work that will be the subject of some discussion in this paper. Recently, particularly after experiences in rehearsal with several ensembles in the preparation of Chinary’s work for performance and recording, it has occurred to me there are some particular points that could be made from the performer’s perspective that would aid others as they engage in the unique challenge of learning his music. While I find that the notation is reliable, there are peculiarities in Chinary’s scores that might be explained with a bit of context. Thus, context is what I hope to offer here: both in regards to some of the cultural origins of the musical materials one encounters in this music as well as the sorts of connections one finds between Chinary’s works. Of course, I offer these observations from a particular context as a performer with unusual access to the composer’s thought and attention.

How Did I Get Here?
Before I met Chinary in January of 1978, I had been involved in the performance of traditional Chinese orchestra and chamber music, Balinese gamelan, and I also learned how to play the treble viola da gamba. Although I was a viola performance major as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, I took part in an active ethnomusicology program under the direction of Han Kuo-Huang, traveling and performing all across the country and to Taiwan and Hong Kong. My training on the Chinese ehr-hu (two-stringed fiddle) was my introduction to Asian string technique.  

I listened to and absorbed the music of many cultures throughout Asia and Indonesia, and since then, I have felt these sounds to be as important a part of our musical universe as the Western music we are trained to play in performance programs everywhere. It did not seem so strange, then, that my passion and interest in playing new music began while I was learning to play Khse Buon.  

Language and Notation
Beginning with Khse Buon, Ung’s solo work for ‘cello written in 1980 (which I transcribed for viola), Chinary has developed a highly personal, yet effective, string instrumental language and notation. Khse Buon grew partly out of our experimentation in regular improvisation sessions, although mainly I think this work was Chinary’s first effort to interpret the instrumental approaches of various Asian stringed instruments. The opening passage (see Example 17.1) is a reference to Indian saranghi music, for example, which includes droning, sliding and characteristic tails at the ends of phrases, which could be described as short, upward or downward moving quarter-tone slides. There are also references to Japanese koto music, and solo string playing of Chinese, Indonesian and Khmer origins. Achieving some understanding of the various Asian idioms from which the music draws makes for a more effective performance.

Chinary typically employs a careful notation of rhythm, dynamics and tempo. Occasionally, indeterminate rhythmic notation is placed within a space on the page. It indicates the relative length of time for a musical event, but allowing for a certain amount of musical freedom. Despite the specificity of the notation there remains for the performer the task of creating the quality of spontaneity2 in the performance.

Example 17.1. Chinary Ung Khse Buon (1980), (page 2, lines 1-23)

There are certain characteristic signature techniques in Chinary’s works for stringed instruments. He pays careful attention to timbre, color and dynamic variety. There are three levels of ponticello, ranging from half ponticello to extreme ponticello. He employs extreme jumps in register and dynamic contrast for dramatic effect, and some grace notes are intentionally prominent and percussive in ways that are unusual for the Western ear, resembling more closely some Asian mannerisms. When several dots appear over a double stop, often with the word jeté, it indicates dropping the bow with a certain amount of force and letting it rebound naturally; this gesture4 will frequently transform into a drone in ponticello. (see Example 17.2).

Example 17.2.Chinary Ung Khse Buon, page 3, line 4)

A signature gesture (which started with Khse Buon and goes through all of his subsequent works for stringed instruments) consists of sliding around on natural harmonics on the upper portions of the strings. Sometimes within the gesture there is a brief rest on a specific pitch, ending as a hold on an indeterminate highest harmonic. There can be some freedom to change the shape of the sliding on those harmonics, and moving lower then higher again, to prolong the gesture, which is somewhat improvisational. Chinary’s use of natural harmonics in the upper registers of the instrument can either be dramatic, or quiet and coda-like. (see Example 17.3)

Example 17.3.Chinary Ung Khse Buon (page 9, line 1) Natural harmonic glissandi.

Glissandi are an integral part of phrasing in Chinary’s music. One of the first things I began learning how to do when I first tackled Khse Buon in 1980 involved traversing fairly large intervals on one finger (see Example 17.4.). This technique is most challenging when it becomes the focus of extensive, expressive passages.

Example 17.4. Chinary Ung Khse Buon (page 11, lines 7-8) Extensive use of glissandi.

In the beginning I experimented with putting talcum powder on my fingertips to help slide around more freely, but I found that after I had played very high harmonics powder residue was left in the area where the bow travels; thus powder got on the bow. Eventually I gave this up and became more comfortable without any assistance.5

Chinary is after a certain style of playing that takes a while to internalize. Hypothetically, given the detailed notation, it is possible to take everything on the page quite literally and achieve the desired musical results. However, many newcomers to Ung’s music would do well to broaden their ears by listening carefully to recordings of various kinds of Asian music. Keeping one’s ear open to different tuning systems and the particular use of ornamentation in string and wind instrument performance in particular will inform many of Ung’s gestures with a rich cultural and expressive context. Other performers of his music have told me that, at first, the notation seemed daunting to them but after working with it and hearing the musical behaviors in context, the score made more sense. My familiarity with Chinese and Cambodian fiddles certainly made it easier for me to grasp some of the concepts and sounds that were indicated in Khse Buon, as well as in all the Ung works that I have played since.

Vocalizations for Instrumentalists
All works Chinary has written since 1996, with the exception of a work for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, include amplified vocalization for the instrumentalists. Vocalizations within an ensemble are certainly a challenge for instrumentalists with no vocal training or who have not previously tackled the hurdle of this combination. Performers in a Chinary work must have a decent natural voice, although he does not want an operatic sound, just a pure vocal quality which is in-tune. In addition, one should have the ability to whistle, if possible. Some rudimentary vocal training for breathing and correct vocal production is useful.

Many traditionally trained instrumentalists will balk at the requirement to use their voices in performance. One must achieve a certain amount of comfort with this idea since effective and dramatic use of vocal sounds are integral to the music. Vocal intonation within the ensemble while playing double-stops in different rhythms requires extra rehearsal above and beyond that which is normally allotted. As string players many of us are trained to hear the sounds we make on our instruments as representations of vocalizations, often phrasing and breathing as a vocalist would. The addition of another simultaneous line—to be sung, whistled, or shouted, in different rhythms, and on different pitches and dynamics—can throw a large 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. Some learning of each part separately is useful, but it is the combination of these lines that is most difficult. Because rehearsal time is generally limited for most concerts of his music, Chinary prefers to hand pick performers for newly commissioned works, or to re-engage performers with previous experience with his music whenever possible.

Example 17.5. Chinary Ung, Spiral XI, “Mother and Child” (2007), Upper line vocal part (page 1, line 4-5)

Chinary recognizes that each person has different strengths and that there should be some freedom for individual performers. As long as the phrase remains musically effective, a change in octave or even a change to a different kind of vocalization is allowed. In Spiral XI5, I have taken the option to change octaves on vocal and whistling lines (see Example 17.5). In some passages I found that my whistling range was either unreliable or not very effective as notated, and because of this I have altered some passages from whistling to humming or vice-versa. I should say here that I have certainly found through many years of experience in the performance of Chinary’s pieces that some things evolve over time. Each time I come back to a piece, I reassess the situation. I find increased flexibility and new ways to approach things all the time. Where technical issues emerge, Chinary believes that the most important thing is to make a passage musically convincing.

Especially in a solo work such as Spiral XI, one has to work toward ways to make the marriage between the vocalizations and the instrumental counterpoint or accompaniment musically compatible. On some occasions I have found that extending a vocal line slightly longer than indicated helps to bridge one event to another. I continue to find ways to vary vocal timbre and volume (non vibrato) without straining my voice. In Spiral XI I felt that some passages needed more depth and drama and support for the vocal line, and I made the decision to add drones (most often open D and G strings). All of these alterations are composer approved, and it is important to note that Chinary would prefer consultation on such changes, even as he allows that individual performers may suggest these kinds of things.

The text, when it does not consist of phonemes, is most often in Pali, Sanskrit, Latin or Khmer. Since these sounds are foreign to most performers I feel that the use of voice in the various modes indicated in Chinary’s scores can be seen as another musical or instrumental parameter. Pronunciation can be difficult. The composer often supplies a tape for singers and instrumentalists so that they can execute exactly how these words sound. Timbre and expression are important. It is useful to know whether the text is meant to be intoned as something like a chant or in a more lyrical line.

Although I always try to adhere to markings very carefully, I have had to take some tempo markings within Spiral XI with a grain of salt. In some cases I simply want to be sure that there is time to hear everything written on the page. In a few years and after several more performances, this will undoubtedly have changed to some extent. This is part of the beauty of learning this kind of music. It continues to become more and more organic as the performer lives with the work. I have found this same process to be true in the larger ensemble works such as Aura, which was premiered by Southwest Chamber Music in 2006. After seven performances and a recording, much of what we were able to do had evolved. Having rehearsed and performed Aura those many times, we had mastered what was on the page and had successfully tackled most ensemble challenges. What was most interesting to me was that although our tempi had varied wildly in earlier performances, we eventually found that the tempo indications in the score were exactly as they needed to be.

Some improvisatory and cadenza-like passages in Ung’s music reflect characteristics of pinpeat, the traditional Khmer ensemble that accompanies Cambodian court dance, among other functions. An accomplished roneat-ek player (Cambodian xylophone), Chinary populates some of his music with gestures whose origins are found in this percussion-dominated musical form. In Aura, Ung utilizes the Ro from pinpeat music. Traditionally, this music accompanies dancers’ entrances and exits—there is no tempo or perceived rhythm among the musicians, only a free flowing line; there is tremolo amongst the percussion, staccato and intermittent drum attacks, and a free, intertwining solo line in the double reed instruments, all of which ebb and flow as needed. One can recognize references to this kind of space in Aura, where there is an entire section entitled Ro. Thus, the sense of time projected in this music is derived from Cambodian tradition.

There is often a ritualistic quality in Chinary’s recent writing. Emphasizing this quality can make it tempting for performers to take slower tempi or to remain in a single expansive tempo throughout an entire work. In larger ensemble works, respect for tempo indications is particularly important. Technical challenges can be exacerbated by a lack of contextual understanding. This, coupled with a disregard for the directions Ung places in the score can easily result in a static and superficial performance. This music always consists of a broad variety of colour, mood and character. The intricacies indicated in the scores are infinitely important, yet there is always a certain flexibility. Because of this it can be easy to misunderstand Chinary’s intentions. There is no substitute for rehearsal time and a chance to live with the music for a while. For the last ten years Chinary says that he has been walking a musical tight rope, making unprecedented demands on performers both technically and musically. He realizes that he is taking a chance, and therefore, so must the performers.

1.Note That there are no bar lines indicated, and often the music is written on two staves, mostly to facilitate the notation of drones.
2. All of Chinary Ung's music is published by C.F. Peters Corporation, New York, and it is reproduced here with their kind permission.
3. The thrown bow (of jeté) motive, along with other characteristic behaviours such as extremely long fermate and quater-tome bends.
4. These attempts to find a technological advantage had precedents: Indian sarangi players use oil on their fingertips to assist with slides.
5. Spiral XI:'Mother and Child' was premiered by Susan Ung at the Music of the Spirit concert, Lennox Theatre, Parramatta Riverside Theatres on 19 April at the 2008 Aurora Festival: Living Music".