Rain of Wisdom
Prof Chinary Ung discusses the dilemma facing the young Asian composer in his lecture delivered at Burapha University during the IV Thailand International Composers Festival in July 2008
Cambodian American composer Prof Chinary Ung is one of the leading Asian composers today, forming a post Takemitsu-Isang Yun generation that is headed by his teacher Prof Chou Wen Chung to form a sort of informal council of elders towards whom many young Asian composers undoubtedly look towards for guidance.
His presence at the IV Thailand International Composers Festival in July 2008, organised by the endlessly energetic Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen, was an auspicious one. Thailand’s new generation of composers is just now starting to take shape, and Ung delivered a powerful lecture that must have connected with the thoughts occupying every young Asian composer today – identity and voice.
Apart from the 1-hour lecture, which was accompanied by score illustrations and excerpts from his music, the Festival also featured concerts where his music was the centrepiece. Included in the concerts were excerpts from his extensive Spiral series, as well as a piano cycle. Here are extracts from his seminal lecture, simultaneously translated to Thai by composer Anothai Nitibhon.
Voice In The Wilderness
After explaining his early years and some background to his education, Prof Ung went on to give some advice to the many young composers who were present at the festival. His replies were no doubt prompted by the many questions he must have received during his three-day stay at the University.
“Composition is a western tool, so you have to be trained in these tools. But then you have to be liberated from the training. That is the spiritual direction that I propose you should take.”
“And also some words for the teachers, with great respect, please allow the young composers to free themselves and give them the opportunity to become the future generation of composers with great freedom. Art is not about position; it’s about expression and liberation.”
Prof Ung divided his career into 3 phases. Phase 1 represented his youth and his studies, and Phase 2, which he now discusses, is the time when he began to search for his own compositional voice.
“After I was trained I was interested to look for my own voice. It took me 20 years to figure that out. But when I found my voice, it was a running target; it doesn’t stay still!”
“This coincides with one of the principles of Buddhist teaching, that everything is impermanent. I find music is an illusion, but I need music because it’s a vehicle to transport my expression during my stay on this Earth.”
“So [as a composer] you have to consider your body, mind and spirit concurrently. Specifically, what are voices? What does it mean when people talk about “voice” in music composition? Is it just a word, is it something abstract?”
“The answer does not lie on the outside, but on what you can find within yourself in music composition. I cite 2 experiences in my own search: sometimes I find it through struggle and suffering, sometimes it just comes at will.”
Tears For Fears
Prof Chung continued his explanation with an illustration from his own music. “At one point I struggled to set a poem in English by Cummings, and I got stuck on a particular line and didn’t know what to do. “
“My technique and what my teacher taught me couldn’t help me. Then [one day] I saw a child in the corner, crying alone. And an adult went to comfort the child, and touched the child on her back and asked, “Why are you crying?”. And this is what the child responded. “S.o..m…e..one t..o..o..k my c..a..n..dy.” [Here Prof Chung imitates the stuttering speech of a crying child]”
“The text by Cummings was, “The wind has blown the rain away.” And so what I did was … [Prof Chung demonstrates by singing the eventual line he composed, a kind of broken stuttering line ending on a high note]. And I choreographed rests between the notes,” he explained.
The Professor continued his lecture by illustrating other ideas that he used in his search for his “voice” this time using a recent piece of his called Rain of Tears.
“Another idea I developed during Phase 2 was the idea of “In focus and out of focus,” like in an old camera. It can happen alternately back and forth, or happen in time/space simultaneously.”
“For example, if concurrently, you could have a kind of Thai texture in the foreground, and you have a backdrop of Western colour. But if you do that too much you become a Nationalist composer!”
“However, if you reverse the Western texture in front and Thai texture in the background, to me that is a more subtle statement. And you still show love for your own culture.
And there are many ways of doing this. Like, if you take a picture of a flower and it is in focus, and in the background you can see the mountain but it’s blurred. You can do the same thing in music. “
“As an example, a few years ago I was commissioned for a piece of music. For some time I had not started to compose the piece, and [during that time] I took my family for a vacation to the Mexican Peninsula. “
“One evening I had a dream of a huge wave. Our room balcony overlooked the ocean, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet. When I saw this big wave in the dream, looming towards me, in my dream I cried very hard. So hard that I woke up, still crying. ”
“I told my family during breakfast about the dream, and nine days later Thailand, Indonesia and Ceylon were hit by the tsunami. And we all around the world felt great sadness.”
Two years later I still did not write any music. And then one day Katrina hit New Orleans. By then I had only five months to finish the piece. With the dream of the tsunami and Katrina, I decided to construct the piece “Rain of Tears”.
The Professor plays an excerpt from his orchestral commission Rain of Tears and displays the score on the projector, pointing to specific sections to illustrate his ideas.
“The last part of the passage I imagined when, at the end of that day after the tsunami, thousands of spirits took off into the sky. At one point I imagined that their faces would turn and look down and see their bodies.”
“I start the piece by starting from very low register, because the earthquake happened under the ocean – and you will hear also a wave At one point,” he explains. Going back to the passage described above, Prof Ung shows the score where the high winds and low strings are the only the material used.”
“Here you will hear piccolo and flute above, and bass and bass clarinet down in the low register. And I empty the register in between, only the high note above and the low notes below. This represents a major principle in Buddhism called Sunyata, that is Emptiness or Voidness. And once in a while I fill in with some texture, I call it compassionate texture.”
Prof Ung plays the excerpt, and points to the score during a violin solo. “This is the wave. My wave is not three dimensional, it is just an outline. The violin goes up very high and At the end comes down to low G. It’s not like Mahler. Mahler would use the whole chord, mine is just an outline.”
“This idea of two dimensional [illustration] is not a Western idea, you can also find it in Korean art. Like in 15th Century Korea, once when the emperor commissioned a painter, instead of doing a colourful dragon he just did an outline.”
Prof Ung moves on to another orchestral work Aura. “What is the main message here? It’s about how I have gone through my career as a composer and what kind of direction I am taking. My direction is not for you to follow, it’s for you to reject. When during Phase 2 I was looking for my voices, now in Phase 3 I am not interested anymore. I am more interested to be with my friends and my people, to reach out.”
In Phase 3 of his career, as Prof Ung explains, his preoccupation has departed from the search for his own voice, alluding to the fact that either it does not exist because, in accordance with Buddhist principles, human life itself is illusory, or that he had found greater meaning in the act of composing. Here he questions the very motives for being a composer, as he had hinted before. The creation of art, is it for material gain, or is it to express something of and for humanity?
“Here is something to think about. You cannot experience spirituality if you do not have a body in the physical world. Likewise it’s hard to express a musical message without sound. So Aura has something to do with the light that encircled the Buddha’s head during his enlightenment. The light is in six colours,” he explains by way of introduction, then goes on to describe how he employs this Asian principle in approaching his composing technique.”
“In Thailand when you [communicate with] a spirit, you need something to connect to that world. So for the six colours I am asking the musicians to bow the crotale, each pitch representing each of the colours. Yes, so what I am doing is a fabricated art, but I am doing my best to imagine what I can do to represent the Buddha’s Aura. And my [musical] view of Enlightenment is that there is no melody and no rhythm,” he explains, concluding with a musical excerpt from Aura for this particular passage, which shimmers with a haze of variously pitched bowed crotales.”
He then moves on to the final part of his lecture, giving examples to help the composer visualise his philosophy of composition. He plays an excerpt from a piece and describes the two violas which form a significant part of its motif.
“I visited a monument not too far from Angkor Wat. It has a huge pool in the centre, and four pools outside. Each of the outer pools represent the four elements. The middle represents the fifth element, that is the spiritual.”
“What makes the circle perfect are two nagas whose tails intertwine. So I use two violas to represent the two dragons that intertwine as one. This my clearest writing and it sounds very Cambodian,” he explains, illustrating with the relevant section from his recording.”
A snapshot of Chinary Ung’s Spiral IX, which he conducted
during the Festival
The Unanswered Question?
Prof Ung concludes his fascinating lecture by taking questions from the floor. One young composition student heading for further studies in the US asks, “As a young composer in Asia now … even though I am born in Thailand I am a city person, so for me Thai traditional music has really no influence on me At all when I was growing up. So I would like to ask, do Asian composers really need to include Asian music in their compositions to be understood as an Asian composer?”
Prof Ung replies, “As I said before, don’t follow me. But if you intend to stay in Thailand, without smelling the soil, without having some contact with the spirit, and you eat hamburger all the time you are in trouble!”
“Thai cuisine is some of the best in the world, and the culture is so rich. The problem is that we do not gone deep enough to understand the essence of the culture. We only see the ornaments. For example, we see only the beauty of the design of Angkor Wat, but not the essence of it.”
“For example here we have hundreds of stone monuments. Our ancestors built them purposely avoiding a perfect square. A research team from MIT in 1950s found out that the Cambodians [who built the Angkor Wat] added 6 feet on purpose [to one side of the square]. And inside the perimeter the monuments are not symmetrical. They avoided perfection, and avoided symmetry. That is just a small understanding of the foundation of our culture, because beauty is on the surface, and not permanent.”
Composer Anothai Nitibhon takes a break from her role as Thai interpreter and asks, “Could music be perfect?” and Prof Ung replies, “No, the universe is not perfect. In my case, there are 2 categories of imperfections. One, that it is not perfect because of the conditions of nature, and two, on the top of it I go further to make it imperfect. Like in Cambodian court music, they hear the downbeat but they don’t play the downbeat, and so the mind needs to be perfect but the execution needs to be imperfect,” he concludes in his enigmatic somewhat lighthearted manner, drawing deep admiration and applause from the appreciative Thai audience.
6 Sep 08