Chinary UNG (b. 1942)
Spiral XI Mother and Child (2007) (1) [17.45]
Spiral IX Maha Sathukar (2006) (2) [29.55]
Susan Ung (viola and voice) (1)
Thomas Buckner (baritone and percussion)
Lynn Vartan (voice and percussion)
Stephen Solook (voice and percussion)
Chinary Ung (conductor) (2)
rec. dates and location not given
BRIDGE 9368 [47.42]
Those who have attended concerts of ‘modern’ and ‘avant-garde’ music will recognise the symptoms. The audience patiently sit through a piece in which trained musicians are asked to do everything except play their instrument normally – here they are asked to chant, shout, whistle, making doodling noises and various other sounds as well as (sometimes) play. The audience sits in polite silence until the end of the piece, then applaud perfunctorily. They leave the hall hoping - probably with great accuracy - that they are never going to have to sit through another performance of the piece.
Chinary Ung from Cambodia is one of those oriental composers who left his homeland - in 1964 at the age of 22, before the real horrors began - and sought refuge in America. He received the Grawemayer Prize in 1986 - usually awarded to composers of established reputation - for his score Inner voices, but apparently stopped composing for a period of seven years or so in order to study native Cambodian music and aspects of improvisation. This hardly argues that the creative imperative is that strong a force within him. Nor is there any evidence, at any rate in this music, that his native Cambodian music has had more than a very peripheral effect on his writing. There are texts (or rather syllables from texts) which are oriental but they are drawn, we are told, from languages as diverse Pali, Khmer and Sanskrit and have no apparent meaning; in any event no texts or translations are provided. There is also one very brief fleck of what possibly sounds like a Cambodian folk theme in Spiral IX (at 15.14) which sticks out like a sore thumb in its context.
Otherwise all the clichés of ‘modern’ music are here: elastic rhythms which fail to move rhythmically, musical lines without purpose or reason, a lack of any sense of personal style. This music may have sounded advanced in the 1960s - if not even then particularly original, if one thinks of Berio or Maxwell Davies for example - but now it merely seems peculiarly old-fashioned. The use of sung and spoken voices by instrumentalists is almost always a mistake. Players are not actors or singers – they receive amplification here, it would appear – and have neither the power of projection or meaningful interpretation. The results here are extremely distracting when they are not actually comic.
An extract from the score of Spiral XI is printed in the insert booklet; the music is very precisely notated. The performers, including the composer’s wife giving a solo tour de force in Spiral XI, seem to be capable. One presumes that the results are what the composer wanted; he is credited with conducting Spiral IX. Despite the substantial credits of the performers – listed in imposing detail in the insert booklet – and their evident enthusiasm and dedication, to my ears they sound uncertain and uncomfortable. The balance is far from ideal even were the music more attractive than it is. The second track appears to conclude with a full minute of silence after a final gong stroke dies away. The disc is short measure. It would be perverse to wish it were longer.
This is the third volume issued by Bridge of the music of Chinary Ung; the previous volumes (9277, 9321) contain earlier pieces dating back as far as 1980, so their style may perhaps be different. The back of the disc shows a picture of performers in front of a very large and resplendent gong, but there seem to be more of them shown than actually perform on this disc.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
The disc is short measure. It would be perverse to wish it were longer.