When Cambodian spirits sing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am


When Cambodian composer Chinary Ung talks music, he speaks not of notes and notation but of symbolism and spiritualism.

'I had a dream,' recalls the 68-year-old professor of composition at the University of California, San Diego, who went through a creative drought about two decades ago. 'In it, I was with my youngest daughter, who was about three years old, and we were standing in a chamber with a high ceiling. There was this giant looking from left to right and we were frightened to death.

'Yet the giant was so peaceful. Then the second scenario began; I was climbing up a spiral staircase alone and then I stopped. I stuck my head out and I was at eye level with the giant. Again, it was very peaceful looking, almost like the Buddha.'

Ung says it was a moment of 'the artist finding his genius', and the symbolic dream gave him a boost in confidence: 'I felt it was time to confront my struggle, to be ready to work again and to stop lamenting that I'd failed.'

The next morning during a car journey he told his two young daughters about his weird staircase dream and, just as he reached the end of his story, the professor looked out the window and there it was - a real spiral staircase standing abandoned beside the highway.

Ung believes everyone has the ability to tune in to their spiritual guide, although 'I think we are losing that, we are not cultivating it. When I'm in a room, composing, there is more, a third [force], in the present.'

A former Asian Cultural Council grant recipient (1970-1974), Ung was recently in town giving classes to students at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. He shared his thoughts on the art of composing, which, for him, has always been more than just jotting down notes on manuscripts.

'[Ung's] music is a combination of Eastern philosophy and Western invention,' the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu once noted. 'It is not a product of pure technical solution but it is a creation of deep spiritual aspiration.'

Born in Cambodia, Ung went to the United States in 1964 to further his studies in music. He received training in New York City, playing the clarinet, and later became a student of composer Chou Wen-chung. He has won many honours including the international Grawemeyer Award for musical composition in 1989. He stayed in the US after the Cambodian civil war broke out in 1970 but began to visit the country again 10 years ago.

In February, Ung joined a host of musicians from around the world at Bayon Temple, in the Angkor temples complex, to pay tribute to contemporary Cambodian composers. Over the past decade, he has been exploring the vocalisation of instrumentalists, which has been a long tradition in Cambodian music. 'In Cambodia, instrumentalists have long incorporated vocalisation, or even singing, in their work. Imagine a concert hall with no walls when [performance] is grounded in the soul,' Ung says. 'After decades of pursuing a career as a composer, after being trained in the West, I am now able to draw parallels between my art and my own culture and traditions.'

He says his compositions explore the creative space, or emptiness, between the top and bottom notes, or heaven and earth, in search of the wisdom in between. He urges young composers today not just to focus on technique, missing the big picture.

'Composition is a Western tool,' Ung says. 'Once you've leant that tool, you use it to liberate ... and it doesn't matter if [your work] is Western or Eastern, the whole idea is to be alive, and I think that's what's been missing sometimes.'