Spiral X: “In Memoriam” (2007)
Grawemeyer Award winning composer Chinary Ung was born in Takeo, Cambodia. For a young boy living in a small village, toys were scarce, and Ung recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “we would roll up banana leaves and blow in them to make a trumpet-like sound, or we would fill jars with rain water to hear the different tones they would make.” His family played traditional Cambodian instruments at home, and it was not until he was a teenager that Ung finally heard western music for the first time. In 1964, after studying the clarinet at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, he immigrated to the United States. He studied at Columbia University with Chou Wen-Chung, receiving his doctorate in 1974. In 1977, sensing the imminent disappearance of an entire musical tradition at the hands of the Cambodian dictatorship, Ung produced two LPs of Cambodian traditional music on the Folkways label. His own compositions came to international attention in 1989 when he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his orchestral piece Inner Voices. He holds the position of professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.
Genocide is not an easy theme to acknowledge in music, but for Ung, whose studies in Buddhism have led him to express compassion for human suffering, it had become a necessity. In 2007, when he was awarded a Koussevitsky Commission to write a work for the Del Sol String Quartet, Ung decided to compose a tenth work in his “Spiral” series that would commemorate the Cambodian holocaust perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Among the 1.7 million people killed in Cambodia during those years were half of Ung’s family members and many of his close personal friends.
The cries and shouts emanating from the four members of the string quartet as Spiral X (Spiral Ten) is performed present a tremendous challenge. The players intone nonsensical phonemes and sing in raw village style, very explicitly scored. In addition, various members are asked to sing and whistle, often while playing completely different material. Much of the work appears to be a dialogue between very different individual personalities until the conclusion, with its shamanistic unison shouting directed at dispelling the suffering of the victims, living and dead. Spiral X was premiered by the Del Sol Quartet to a standing ovation on October 19, 2007, in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, with the composer in attendance.
*Recording available on Ring of Fire (Other Minds, 2008)