Composer Chinary Ung, Professor of Music at UC San Diego and the first American recipient of the international Grawemeyer Award in 1989, was kind enough to answer our 5 questions after a recent Chicago concert featuring his works.
Your early compositions during your studies at Columbia are often described as “post-serialist.” How has your compositional aesthetic evolved from that point to the music you are creating now?
I studied and trained at Columbia University and obtained my doctoral degree in 1974. Definitely you can say that my first works were post-serialist in nature. A good example is Tall Wind, which I think of as somewhat Webern-ist. Then in 1977, I took my first teaching position at Northern Illinois University. This was also the time of the devastating war in Cambodia and that motivated me to immerse myself in studying my native music. The next 11 years were quite busy for me – establishing my academic career at NIU and pursing my interest in Cambodian music. I stopped composing completely except for Khse Buon, a solo cello piece I wrote for my former NIU colleague, Marc Johnson of the Vermeer Quartet. That was the first step towards my later music, which is much different from the post-serial style, incorporating both Eastern and Western musical ideas.
In weaving Cambodian musical themes and sounds into your music, references have been made to the color spectrum. You have been quoted saying “If East is yellow and West is blue, then my music is green.” Can you tell us more about how this plays out in your compositions?
That idea dates back to 1990. It was a kind of metaphorical way to explain to the general audience how my music integrates elements of both cultures. But as I further developed my musical approach, I changed my thinking about this. I don’t believe it is such a useful metaphor anymore.
You were quoted last year in the San Diego Union Tribune that you ask your students “What are you missing?” as they strive to develop their composition capabilities. We are wondering what you yourself found to be that missing ingredient in your pursuits as a composer.
I always tell my students that great intelligence, hard work, and talent put together is not enough. You still need something more to make it click. I think that missing element for me is heart, humanity, friendship, understanding, respect for nature, and so forth. I think that is what makes the difference in composing really effective music. I don’t mean to say these qualities are more important than the others. Only that this emotion and feeling are essential.
There has been an explosion of interest in contemporary music in recent years. What do you feel has changed in the contemporary music scene since you began teaching composition?
Contemporary music has transformed and is so different from the period when I attended Columbia in the early 70’s. We have the influx and increasing intensity of influences from so many different cultures. We have the fusion of contemporary classical music with many elements of pop and jazz and other genres. This crossover has increased the variety in contemporary music tremendously. During my time at Columbia, you studied serial music. That’s the way it was, and you toed that line. I am not saying which approach is better. I am saying that this is the way the music has evolved. This is just the truth.
We understand you are serving as the Music Advisor for Season of Cambodia, a festival of Cambodian Arts and Culture, to be held in New York during April and May of 2013. Can you tell us a bit about your plans?
Many plans for the festival are still in development. One event already scheduled is a musical performance at Le Poisson Rouge on April 16. My wife, violist Susan Ung, and I will both perform, along with other musicians. I will be conducting the New York New Music Ensemble in the New York premiere of Aura, for two sopranos and ten instrumentalists. The other events we are planning include symposiums and presentations of various elements of Cambodian culture such as dance, sculpture, painting, traditional music, and so on.
[ Ed. An excellent recording of Aura by Southwest Chamber Music is available. Also, you can read Mark Swed’s Los Angeles Times review of the 2006 world premiere.]