Composer Chinary Ung, 71, was last week awarded the John D Rockefeller award for 2014 from the Asian Cultural Council in the US. The award, given to those who have made a radical difference in their field, is worth $50,000. Ung was born in Takeo province but won a scholarship from the Asia Foundation to move to the United States in 1964 where he studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, majoring in clarinet and, later, composing. Today he works as a professor of music at the University of California, San Diego. He spoke to Emily Wight about his experience as a refugee in the US and his plans to further the careers of young composers in Cambodia.
What are your earliest memories of being exposed to music?
I remember one afternoon in the dry season, at some point in the mid-1940s where I grew up in Takeo. A pinpeat [group that traditionally played the music of the royal courts and temples of Cambodia] ensemble musician marched across a vast rice paddy and played. Looking back to that experience, I felt that my whole body and soul were washed and cleansed by it. Perhaps the best phrase to use is “heaven-on-earth sensation”. I also remember when my grandfather invited a travelling wedding ensemble to our house to play a few pieces. One was called Kasaing Krahorm [Scarlet Scarf] and it moved me so much that I asked my grandfather to let me travel with them. Because I was only 2 or 3 years old he discouraged me from this, and I cried.
Is there a clear musical talent in the family?
Yes, I believe so. I was told that my great grandfather on my father’s side was an elephant master. As part of the tradition, when he travelled a long distance from village to village, he played the sneng, an ox-horn wind instrument traditionally used to call elephants. My father also enjoyed playing numerous Cambodian instruments including the roneat eak [a xylophone-like instrument]. At times, I heard him perform with village ensembles during ritual ceremonies at Buddhist temples.
The clarinet is a Western instrument. How did you end up specialising in this instrument rather than one of its Cambodian counterparts?
In 1960, Cambodia received a huge gift of musical instruments from a foreign government. These went to a national youth organisation to form a wind ensemble. I was one of the three students from Phnom Penh’s L’Ecole Nationale de Musique who were late to pick up the instruments. When we arrived at class, a French conductor was waiting for us. Apparently, he had picked three straws near some banana tree nearby. Then, he asked each one of us to pull a straw. I got the shortest one, and, he handed out to me a shortest clarinet – a piccolo clarinet. Now, I mainly play the roneat eak.
What happened to your family when you moved to the States?
I went to the United States alone – there were hardly any other Cambodian students there – but during the civil war in the 1970s numerous members of my family were able to escape to Thailand and finally ended up in the US or Australia. I felt isolated in New York, but my intense schooling kept me occupied.
How did you connect with Cambodian people in the US?
In the summer of 1980, Cambodian communities in the US established the Khmer Studies Institute – a summer school program for Cambodian refugees in the States. Activities included the preservation of the performing arts such as music and dance. I was president at the institute and also dean of the faculty. I worked there until the late 1990s.
You are working on the creation of a roving Composer’s Institute in Asia. What will that entail?
The Composer’s Institute, or the Nimitta Institute in Pali, is a new project with an idea to connect Cambodians via exchanges to other Southeast Asian musicians and institutions. The aim is to train young Cambodian composers in tradition and innovation in the world of composition. This hasn’t been put into place yet, but I have approached a variety of institutions in the region which are interested in participating in the programme. I am hoping to open it by July next year.
Do you believe there is a need to protect and promote traditional Cambodian music? Do you see it as heritage under threat?
This isn’t an issue unique to Cambodia, but to all countries in the region. I feel that in Asia, the compositional training and the curriculum isn’t from the grassroots but from the West. Asia needs its own voices.