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What’s the best way to turn Chinary Ung’s ‘living notation’ into cello sounds? I called him to find out.

March 14th, 2014

By James Jaffe, interim principal cello: William & Joan Houghton Chair

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How much should we as musicians know about a composer in order to bring his or her music off the page?

This past summer, I met a composer who told me something unexpected: he doesn’t think his own perspective on his works should influence how musicians perform them. In other words, he would prefer that the performers and audience form personal ideas about the works as self-contained entities, unbiased by knowledge of the composer’s life.

I found that fascinating. Much of our training as performers encourages us to devour everything we can about composers’ lives and times, folding all of that knowledge into our interpretations of their music. These ideas are tough to reconcile: on one hand we can think exclusively of the composer’s influences and intentions, on the other we can think only about the instructions written on the page, and of course what happens on stage usually falls somewhere between the two. Such is life—a question illuminates a spectrum of possibilities, and the easy black-and-white answer we had hoped for is nowhere to be seen. (Certainly I’m not the first to go down this road; countless art and music critics have debated the value of isolationism vs. contextualism.)

OK fine, but throwing up our hands and calling it a gray area isn’t good enough either!

I’m deep into preparations to play Chinary Ung’s amazing solo cello piece Khse Buon. (That’s Cambodian for “strings four.”) And no matter how many questions I would love to spend years resolving, I will be there every night March 12–16 sharing the work with CityMusic audiences. So how to move forward? I did what everyone who has ever played Beethoven has hopelessly dreamed of at least once: I called the composer.

Recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer award, Chinary Ung has also been honored by entities such as the Kennedy Center, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a Distinguished Professor of Composition at UC San Diego, an important center for new music. Fortunately for my nerves, I looked up these details after our phone call.

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On the phone, Mr. Ung is warm, animated, and passionate. He offered quite specific advice for executing musical details, but the largest impression I got from him was that he treats his compositions as living things, trusting the performer to coexist with them. Several times he referred to the marks on the printed page as “living notation.” I commented that the score is visually beautiful, and he agreed, noting that in 1980 when the piece was written computer music typography had not advanced far enough to do justice to his extended methods of notation. Everything was done by hand, by a skilled copyist at the pace of about one page per day.

I was struck by how he seemed more concerned with my relationship with the piece than with my understanding of its origin. He mentioned that vocal sounds and an Indian bowed instrument called the sarangi served as inspiration for the sound world, but he saved his most colorful language for describing how I should feel playing the work. He told me the piece was designed as “an arena for [the performer] to walk around in,” and that instead of creating sound, I should feel as though I’m taking flight.

After we said goodbye, I thought about the moment of trust that must occur when any creator in the performing arts—composer, playwright, screenwriter, director, choreographer—steps back and leaves the rest to the performers. Looking ahead to these performances, I still feel the pressure of wanting to do justice to Mr. Ung’s work, but I also feel inspired by his enlightened attitude toward that moment of trust.

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