Chinary Ung: Spiral

Program Note

Chinary Ung (b.1942)
Spiral (1987)

The work of Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung represents a musical integration of East and West. To a large extent this mixing has been Ung’s goal from the beginning of his career. He has remarked, “If East is yellow and West is blue, then my music is green.” Except for a self-imposed hiatus during the Cambodian Genocide, Ung has been composing consistently since 1970. During his break from composition, he began an exhaustive study of the music of his native land and the integration of Asian and Western ideas.

Ung was the first American composer to win the Grawemeyer Award in 1989, a prize which is sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize for music composition. He has received awards from the Kennedy Center, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Asia Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, Joyce Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Ung is currently Professor of Composition at the University of California, San Diego.

Spiral is the first of Ung’s fourteen works in a series for different instrumentations, using modal melodies and small motifs that reappear, transformed. The idea of a spiral—something that circles back but continues going—proved especially inspirational to Ung. He became so obsessed by spirals he had to force himself to stop, fearful he was falling into a pattern. “I stopped (writing spirals) for eight years,” Ung said. “How did I stop? Our house is on the top of a hill, and we built a 17-foot-diameter sunken patio (in a circular shape). I made the patio not just as something in the middle of my garden in my backyard, but as a mental mark to stop me from composing this spiral.” But his patio was purposely imperfect and left incomplete. “It was calculated that way,” Ung said. “I don’t believe in a complete loop or circle; I always leave room for negotiation—in fight, in war, in love, in teaching, in anything.”