A Primer by Adam Greene


There are numerous recurring ideas in Chinary Ung’s works that manifest themselves in work and section titles, composition series, concepts and approaches. Below are a few of them, along with brief explanations and descriptions.


Chinary Ung wrote his Spiral, for ‘cello, piano, and percussion in 1987 and found so much abundance in the approach he developed that the spiral series soon emerged. The recursive form of the spiral has implications both for melodic development and extension as well as formal processes. Ung himself is elusive when asked about technical procedures, partly because they are not necessarily codified into a fixed form. He has been open, however, in his use of what he calls “spiral form”: an approach to sectional construction where the order in which sections are composed does not correspond to their position in the eventual piece. For instance, in a five-section piece (1,2,3,4,5), Ung would start with the penultimate section, ‘spiraling’ towards the end (4,2,3,1,5). One of the benefits of the approach is to ensure a strong connection between the beginning and ending of the piece.
Though the spiral concept is still ever-present, a new variant has emerged in Ung’s talks: concentric circles.

Susan Ung
Susan Ung, Singing Inside Aura, chamber version
Since 2002, nearly all of Chinary Ung’s compositions feature instrumentalists singing and playing simultaneously. The vocal lines are often quite complex, as are the instrumental parts, so the challenge performers face in learning this music is significant. In describing this practice, Ung often references folk traditions, particularly in Southeast Asia, but whereas folk musicians often accompany themselves on an instrument while they sing, Ung’s instrumental lines are not accompaniment – they are equal partners. Ung’s vocal lines include singing, chanting, and whistling. The ‘text’ used for these lines is not really a text at all, but words drawn from Khmer, Sanskrit, and Pāli, as well as invented words, mostly chosen for their sonic character as opposed to their meaning.


Sometimes called “the void,”or the “bubble,” shunyata is a feature of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Because attachment often leads to suffering, the absence of attachment, or emptiness, is supposed to lead to peace. In Ung’s framing of the concept, he views the shunyata as an opportunity to eliminate suffering. In his compositions, he has often represented this concept via register, with very low instruments (such as contrabasses) countered by high strings, woodwinds, and whistling.


In several pieces, Ung has sections entitled “Space Between Heaven and Earth,” including the massive chorus and orchestra work by that name. In one sense, this is an extension of the shunyata concept in that it also uses register as its main palette. There is also a cosmological representation here – a reference to a traditional Cambodian tapestry that hangs in Ung’s home featuring three distinct strata, or levels of being. The lowest is the physical, mortal level in which we all live. The middle is reserved for sacred dance and other priestly pursuits. The highest level is spiritual, celestial, immortal. Ung has invoked on many occasions the desire for his music to serve as a vehicle for spiritual healing, thus, the space between heaven and earth is where one might engage in acts of healing.

Neak Pean
Neak Pean
NEAK PEAN, or “Intertwining Dragons”

In Siem Reap there is a temple in the middle of five sacred pools that were used for healing. The temple sits on a man-made island and is encircled by statues of two, coiled serpents, or Nāgas, the seven-headed serpents (or dragons) seen throughout South and Southeast Asia that are legendary protectors. Ung is interested in the shape of this image, such as in the piece Neak Pean, that features intertwining lines between the flute and oboe. He is also interested in the fierce nature of the Nāgas, such as in the "Neak Pean" section of his Spiral XIV: Nimitta, a cadenza for two chanting percussionists.
Nāgas illustration, by Stacie Birky Greene, 2015


One of the representations
of the Buddha,
1st-2nd century AD, Gandhara

It was said that when the Buddha reached the state of enlightenment around his head shone a circular shaped light, known in Khmer as chaw pean raingsei. This aura had six colors of light: blue, yellow, red, white, reddish, and diamond. This image has so captivated Ung that he has addressed it in numerous sections of pieces as well as in the works Aura, and Singing Inside Aura .


Singing Kite
The Khleng-ek or singing kite is a large kite fitted with a bamboo reed that is activated by the wind as it flies, producing as many as seven pitches. In ancient times it was used to pray for rain, or to offer thanks for successful harvests, but it also grew to be a practice of social bonding because the sheer size of the kite requires more than one operator. The tradition of the singing kite was lost when the country was under the grip of the Khmer Rouge, but it has seen a resurgence in recent years. Chinary Ung has experimented making field recordings of singing kites to be used in tape parts for concert music, and he plans to incorporate singing kites into large-scale, outdoor musical works he is currently developing.

© Adam Greene 2021, All rights reserved