UC San Diego's Department of Music

November 04, 2008

  A full house is likely when UC San Diego composer Chinary Ung's "Spiral XII: Space Between Heaven and Earth" has its world premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m., preceded by a talk with the composer at 6 p.m. The Box Office opens at 5 p.m.

"Spiral XII" shares the evening's program with composer Lou Harrison's Eastern-influenced "La Koro Sutro".

Celebrating the vibrancy of Cambodian spirituality, composer Ung and dancer/choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro collaborated on a performance that evokes human cycles of conflict and loss; transcendence and grace. Spiral XII features the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the direction of Grant Gershon, Shapiro's dance troupe, and music performed on traditional Cambodian and Western instruments.

Here is a note on Spiral XII by music critic Thomas May:

"Most composers are, at some level, engaged in the transfer of concept into sound," observes Chinary Ung. This process acquires particular significance in light of Ung's own experience as a practicing Buddhist who finds spirituality and creativity to be intimately related. For Ung, the idea of where a composer's creativity should be focused continues to evolve over his prolific career.

Born in southern Cambodia, Ung came to the United States in 1964 to study music and, as a result of historical circumstances, became an exile and eventually a U.S. citizen. He was finally able, after a prolonged absence, to pay a life-changing visit to his native homeland in 2002. That reconnection inspired Ung to experience what he calls "a renewal of purpose," initiating a reappraisal of his life in music. Its consequences are still unfolding in works such as tonight's world premiere, Spiral XII: Space Between Heaven and Earth. The image of a musical "spiral"-of continually returning to a particular idea within a piece not in repetition but from ever-shifting perspectives-neatly encapsulates both the larger interconnectedness of Ung's musical work and its evolving character. Spiral XII belongs to an ongoing series of spiral compositions (across a wide variety of genres) but also explores entirely new territory for the composer-above all as a large-scale collaboration involving chorus and dancers.

Previously, Ung's appreciation of a spiritual dimension to music had been more personal in nature and, from the listener's point of view perhaps, more aesthetically oriented. His renewed contact with Cambodia-whose culture had been nearly wiped out in the Khmer Rouge's traumatic reign of terror-has allowed Ung to perceive, as he says, "the opportunity to employ my music as an agent of spiritual healing through the aesthetic experience" -music as vehicle rather than as an end in itself.

Indeed the image of music as mediation is central not only to Spiral XII but to other recent compositions by Ung, including 2007's Spiral X (a piece for amplified string quartet written to commemorate the victims of the Cambodian holocaust), this year's Spiral XI: Mother and Child, for solo viola/voice, the chamber concerto Rain of Tears, and Aura. An aspect shared by all of these is what Ung terms the "bridging of the spiritual and physical dimensions in order to achieve a musical expression that is both personal and communal." Spiral XII carries this process still further as a major collaborative effort drawing together the creative energies not only of Ung but of the pre-eminent Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Spanning nearly 45 minutes, the work is a continuous movement consisting of two parts. Part One: Song Offerings consists of the first quarter of Spiral XII. Part Two: Space Between Heaven and Earth is preceded by a prelude.

The scoring of Spiral XII reflects yet another bridging-between Western and indigenous Cambodian traditions. Expanding on the ensemble he used in Aura, Ung calls for three wind players (doubling on instruments), five string musicians, two percussionists and a native Cambodian drummer, and full chorus, along with vocal soloists: two sopranos (one lyric and one dramatic), two tenors, baritone, and bass. Cheam Shapiro's choreography meanwhile enlists seven female dancers along with herself to dance an allegorical narrative in which the oppression of the Khmer Rouge period is seen to represent a universal conflict, as destructive, violent illusions are overcome by the elevating power of reconciliation [see sidebar for story synopsis].

Ung also blurs distinctions between instrumentalists and vocalists-in emulation of Southeast Asian musical practice-by asking the percussionists and string players (in particular the violist) to chant, vocalize, and whistle as an extension of their playing.  Ung's intention is to create an ambience that takes listeners beyond the walls of the concert hall, as if they are participating in a village ritual. Meanwhile, the chorus and soloists sing an idiosyncratic assemblage of phonemes and words with richly resonant connotations from English, Cambodian, and even Pali and Sanskrit (the ancient words for sun or the Buddha's life cycles, for example). Text becomes texture as human voices and constructed instruments blend in a kind of shadow play to create Ung's musical aura.

The remarkable deployment of simultaneous extremes of register-deep growling bass and piquant descant in the piccolo-is a signature of Ung's style, where sonic reality also contains metaphorical significance. As part of the effort to transfer "concept into sound," Ung refers to the key Buddhist insight of shunyata, the "bubble" signifying the emptiness, the void, the impermanence that is the essence of the universe. The outer registers trace the limits of this void, into which Ung introduces a variety of musical ideas he likens to "compassionate textures"-musical lines and shapes that express the compassion aroused by awakening to the reality of suffering, of accepting emptiness.

Spiral XII expands on these concepts by including the physical and visual element of the Cambodian dancers and the drama of a community liberating itself to move forward. The dancers contribute another aspect, in their reenactment of suffering and renewal, to the compassion Ung represents in musical terms. The classical Cambodian dance pose and gestures-with feet pointed to the earth and heads facing heavenward, as preserved in the iconography of Angkor Wat's temple friezes-becomes an analogue for Ung's musical space. It is a space of openness between theses extremes, between earth and heaven, between a traumatic past and a hopeful future, in which Ung expresses an attitude of liberation that courses forward.

Thomas May is the author Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.

Spiral XII Ticket Information: 213.972.7282

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