Classical CD Reviews

Music of CHINARY UNG: Vol. 3 = Spiral XI : Mother and Child; Spiral IX : Maha Sathukar – Soloists – Bridge

Complex but fascinating music challenges the listener and the performer.

Published on April 26, 2012

Music of CHINARY UNG: Vol. 3 = Spiral XI : Mother and Child; Spiral IX : Maha Sathukar – Soloists – Bridge

Music of CHINARY UNG: Vol. 3 = Spiral XI : Mother and Child; Spiral IX : Maha Sathukar – Stephen Solook, percussion & voice/Lynn Vartan, percussion & voice/Thomas Buckner, baritone & percussion/Susan Ung, viola, voice & percussion/Chinary Ung, cond. – Bridge Records 9368, 47:42 [Distr. by Albany] ***:

Cambodian born composer Chinary Ung produces complex but very interesting music that is steeped in the sounds, mindset and history of his native land. Ung has been writing this very attention-getting type of music for a long time now and his works have always evoked a very “Eastern” sound but with a clearly emotional impact.

I am familiar with his virtuosic and intense solo cello work, Khse Buon, and am also somewhat familiar with Ung’s “Spiral” series, of which two fairly recent additions are heard here. The entire “Spiral” series is characterized by some playing techniques and timbres that have come to identify much of Ung’s output. These two works, like many of the others, call upon the players in the ensemble to sing and play small percussion instruments in places, throughout the score.  Additionally, much of his music (and many of the “Spiral” series) utilizes extremely unusual combinations of timbres – such as soprano with tuba or solo guitar with percussion and the like.

A lot of the resultant sounds have a definitely mystical and improvised feel to them, almost in the manner of John Cage, but Ung has a very unique voice and the music is actually very carefully notated, and does stretch the abilities of the performers, especially in a “flexibility” way, not so much from conventional technical prowess. It is also important to note though that, while Ung’s music is a different listening experience and does revolve around some very difficult themes to absorb, it is not a difficult experience.

For example, Spiral XI : Mother and Child is a mostly quiet, meditative work in which a solo viola plays a long line, very gradually-built melody not unlike a lullaby in its impact. The violist sings a separate line against the viola melody that – at first – seems quite disconnected and eventually comes closer in a sort of bonding with the viola; almost symbolic, like the natural and permanent bond between a mother and her child. This very plaintive work is performed here, wonderfully, by the composer’s wife, Susan Ung.

Spiral IX : Maha Sathukar is, in many ways, quite a different matter. The work opens dramatically with the performers intoning and calling out vocal expressions that – while no direct translation is provided – evoke pleas and calls to a higher order or, perhaps, in an emotional commentary of sorts. The composer explains that this work is based on a Buddhist principle, “Shunyata”, in which a relative void or “bubble” can still contain very complex spiritual meaning. (A major tenet of Buddhism that Ung has expressed in other works, such as his Rain of Tears, is that of finding importance and significance in the apparently very simple)  Spiral XI is a wonderfully ethereal score in which some percussion instruments including vibraphones conjure up very shadowy and diaphanous textures against which the ensemble vocalizes. The performance here is quite compelling, especially that of the very gifted new music vocalist Thomas Buckner. His timbre is smooth and he has an amazingly flexible voice.

Chinary Ung and Susan Ung are important and much respected figures in the Southern California new music scene. Ung is a composition professor at the University of California at San Diego and multiple award-winning composer. There are two other Bridge releases of his music I would like to obtain. This is genuinely fascinating stuff from a composer with a unique voice whose music should be heard. I think all listeners would be engaged in the listening and challenged to try something rewarding and new by hearing this. Congratulations, again, to Bridge Records for continuing to bring forth the unusual but very worthwhile.

—Daniel Coombs




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