Amember of the first graduating class of the Ecole de Musique Phnom Penh music school in his native Cambodia, Chinary Ung emigrated to the United States in 1964 to study clarinet at the Manhattan School of Music. He went on to receive a doctorate in music at Columbia University, where he established himself as a composer of great promise. After completing two large-scale works in the early 1970s, Ung took a break from composing for over a decade, focusing on rescuing family members from Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge dictatorship and on the revival of his country's musical traditions.
Ung reemerged in the 1980s with a new focus on music that melded the sounds of East and West and explored the music of his native Cambodia. He has been recognized for his work with numerous awards, including the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1989. "If you can imagine a Javanese gamelan hijacked by an American jazz band, you're already close to the music of Chinary Ung," Kenneth Herman observed in 1997 in the Los Angeles Times.
Ung was born on November 24, 1942, in Takeo, Cambodia. He did not even hear Western music until he was a teenager. His father played several Cambodian instruments, and his family often performed together informally at home. Even as a child, Ung was interested in the art of composing, but he did not learn musical notation until he was older. "When I was 3, we lived in a small village, where there were, of course, no plastic toys for children to play with," Ung told the Los Angeles Times. "But we would roll up banana leaves and blow in them to make a trumpet-like sound, or we would fill jars with rain water to hear the different tones they would make."
Ung studied at the Ecole de Musique Phnom Penh, learning to play the only instrument available to him there, the E flat clarinet. After becoming a member of the school's first graduating class, Ung moved to the United States to begin studies at the Manhattan School of Music on an Asia Foundation scholarship. After arriving in New York, his interest in composition was heightened after he met Chou Wen-Chung, a Chinese-American composer teaching at Columbia University. Ung soon transferred to Columbia and set out, he told the Times, to "learn the craft of the West." His studies yielded two noted compositions, Mohori and Tall Wind, both of which were performed and recorded by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Ung received his doctorate from Columbia, earning a degree with distinction, in 1974.
Following the completion of his degree, Ung took an extended hiatus from composing. After the end of the Vietnam War, the Communist Khmer Rouge dictatorship had come to power in Cambodia, beginning a nightmarish period of genocide and cultural tyranny in Ung's home nation. Ung sought to undermine the Khmer Rouge's suppression of native Cambodian arts by recording native instrumentalists, smuggling records out of the country, connecting with refugees schooled in traditional Cambodian music, and learning to play the roneat-ek, a Cambodian xylophone. "I knew that our culture was in danger, so I set about to rediscover my own native music, as well as various other kinds of Asian music," he told the Los Angeles Times. He compiled and annotated the two volumes of the recording Cambodia: Traditional Music for the Folkways label, both of which were released in 1977, and he founded the Khmer Studies Institute, which laid plans to release a third volume of the collection. He accepted his first teaching position that same year, at Northern Illinois University.
Beginning in 1980, Ung discovered that half his family—three brothers, a sister, and several nieces and nephews—had been killed in Cambodia, and he directed his efforts toward rescuing his remaining relatives. He also began playing music with Cambodian refugee musicians and dancers, touring the United States and once performing at the White House. Ung composed only one piece between 1974 and 1985; Khse Buon was written in 1980 on commission from Vermeer Quartet cellist Marc Johnson. It was in this piece that Ung began to develop a more sophisticated and abstract approach to composition. He developed several invented techniques based on images of geometric shapes, and he incorporated into his music numerous indigenous Asian instruments, including the Iranian ut, the Japanese koto, the Cambodian tro, and the Indian saranghi. Khse Buon also demonstrated a newfound interest in improvisation.
Ung further developed his new synthesis in 1986's Inner Voices and 1987's Spiral, both of which rely heavily on broken lines, juxtaposition of straightforward melody and abstract sound, and the use of visual imagery to create, in the words (quoted on the University of California at San Diego website) of Ung's wife, violist Susan Ung, "emotional focal points."
Ung's work gained international recognition after he received a prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1989, for Inner Voices. Ung seemed to have come out the blue to win the award, which had previously been awarded to well-established European composers such as Wi-told Lutoslawski, György Ligeti, and Harrison Birtwistle. Ung's upset win prompted New York Times writer John Rockwell to imagine two possible scenarios. "One was that the good people of Louisville [where the Grawem-eyer Award is based] had gone completely off the deep end," he wrote. "The other was that Mr. Ung was … an undiscovered gem." Rockwell concluded that the latter was the case.
While he remained strongly interested in the music of Cambodia and the rest of Asia, Ung has said that in Inner Voices and the rest of his oeuvre he did not consciously meld the sounds of the Eastern and Western hemispheres. "I don't believe when I use some sound that I say to myself, 'This is from the East and this is from the West,'" he was quoted as saying on the website of the American Composers Orchestra, which performed Inner Voices. "If you get into that kind of thinking, you can't produce any music…. In the simplest form, I just lump all sounds together as external influences. It's the interaction within yourself, between the self and the external elements, that is the main thing."
After receiving the Grawemeyer, Ung was offered numerous commissions and continued to compose works for large ensembles. In 1990 he wrote Grand Spiral: Desert Flowers Bloom for symphonic band, and in 1995 he completed Antiphonal Spirals for orchestra. Perhaps surprisingly, he remained daunted by the idea of composing for piano, and it was not until 1997 that he composed Seven Mirrors, a solo piano piece. "I always had this fear of writing for the piano," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It looks so simple but it is so complex. … That piano commission stood there like an intimidating white canvas daring me to write." The piece was his first with text subtitles in the score; they included quotations from the Sufi poet Rumi and the twentieth-century Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. This was not the first time that Ung had incorporated poetry into his work. Tall Wind, from the 1970s, drew on lines from the poetry of e.e. cummings.
For the Record . . .
Born on November 24, 1942, in Takeo, Cambodia; married Susan (a violist); children: two daughters. Education: Diploma, National Music Conservatory, Cambodia; attended Manhattan School of Music; DMA, Columbia University
Moved to United States to finish education, 1964; composed first works, Mohori and Tall Wind, 1970s; commissioned by Marc Johnson to compose Khse Buon, 1980; received Grawemeyer Award, 1989; composed Grand Spiral, 1990; composed Antiphonal Spirals, 1995; composed first solo piano piece, Seven Mirrors, 1997; returned to Cambodia for first time since leaving in 1964, 2002.
Awards: Grawemeyer Award for Music, 1989; Fried-heim Award, 1989; Barlow Foundation Award, 1991, 1992.
In 2002, Ung returned to Cambodia to perform. It was his first trip back to his native country since he had left in 1964. In 2003, the CRI label released a collection of Ung's compositions titled Grand Spiral. In addition to composition, Ung has continued to teach, taking positions at Connecticut College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Arizona State University. He became Professor of Composition at the University of California at San Diego in 1995. But it is composing that sustains him, he told Symphony magazine in 1996: "Composing is necessary to me, because without composition, life is boring." Ung has high aims for his work. "Composing is more than writing a pretty piece," he told ASIA: The Journal of Culture and Commerce."Myjobistocreate, to understand this sacred time and space."
(Compiler and annotator) Cambodia: Traditional Music, vols. 1 and 2, Folkways, 1977.
Inner Voices, American Composers Orchestra, Argo, 1995.
(With others) Grand Spiral, CRI, 2003
Tall Wind (for soprano, oboe, cello), 1970.
Mohori (for soprano, chamber orchestra), 1974.
Khse Buon (for cello, viola), 1980.
Inner Voices (for chorus), 1986.
Spiral (for piano, cello, percussion), 1987.
Grand Spiral (for symphonic band), 1990.
Antiphonal Spirals (for orchestra), 1995.
Seven Mirrors (for solo piano), 1997.
ASIA: The Journal of Culture and Commerce, October 10, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1997, p. 57.
New York Times, June 4, 1989, section 2, p. 21.
Symphony, May 1992, p. 55.
"Chinary Ung," American Composers Orchestra, http://www.americancomposers.org (January 20, 2004).
"Chinary Ung,"The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., http://www.grovemusic.com (January 13, 2004).
"Chinary Ung," W.W. Norton/Sony Classical Essentials of Music, http://www.wwnorton.com/classical (January 20, 2004).
Susan Ung, "Background on Chinary Ung and His Music," University of California at San Diego Music Department, http://www.zsearch.org (January 13, 2004).
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