Khse Buon for cello solo
Roots to Branches – concerto for hand percussion with orchestra and narrator
prologue (roots to branches)
i. with only sorrow
ii. a place beyond time
iii. spirit our souls across
iv. black days
v. now my voice is heard
Commissioned by CityMusic Cleveland for percussionist Shane Shanahan with assistance from
Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, National Endowment for the Arts, Drs. Ali and Sawsan AlHaddad.
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op.55, Eroica
Allegro con brio
Marcia funebre (Adagio assai)
Scherzo (Allegro vivace)
Finale (Allegro molto)
KHSE BUON FOR SOLO CELLO
Until he won the 1989 Grawemeyer Award, widely considered composition’s most prestigious prize, Chinary Ung was virtually unknown. Born in 1942,
Ung came to the United States in 1964 on an Asia Foundation scholarship to study clarinet at the Manhattan School of Music. His family was musical,
and often played traditional Cambodian instruments together at home, but his first exposure to Western music did not come until he was in high school.
An Asia Foundation scholarship allowed him to study in the US on the condition that he return to Cambodia upon completion of his degree. Ung’s interest
in composition grew and he formed a relationship with Columbia University’s Chinese-American professor of composition, Chou Wen-Chung, but it seemed that
he would have no choice but to return to Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge was already beginning to consolidate its power.
He happened, however, to find himself in an elevator with a former official of the Asia Foundation, and this person was able to help Ung obtain a scholarship
to Columbia. Ung returned to Cambodia briefly and then came back to complete his doctorate (with distinction) at Columbia. Ung says, “If I did not take that
elevator at exactly the perfect time, I would have been sent back to Cambodia…Life is so delicate. It is so scary when you look back at that.”
As an intellectual, Chinary Ung would certainly have been a target of the Khmer Rouge, whose particular brand of socialism sought to make Cambodia into a
purely agrarian society free of “capitalists” – namely, all professionals and nearly everyone with an education. Approximately two million city-dwellers were
taken to the countryside and forced to perform agricultural work, told what to wear and with whom to speak, and controlled in every way. Children were taken
from parents and taught communism and torture methods; as part of their indoctrination, children were given roles in the torture and execution of “capitalists.”
Eventually the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge arrested, tortured and executed anyone with ties to the old government, anyone from an ethnic or religious
minority, and all professionals and intellectuals. In an absurd example of the regime’s bloodthirsty lunacy, some people were labelled “intellectuals”
simply because they wore glasses. Between one and two million people – about 20 per cent of the population – perished in the Cambodian genocide. About half
of them died in the horrifying Killing Fields, where prisoners were executed with pick axes to save bullets and then buried in mass graves. Among the victims
were Chinary Ung’s three brothers and a sister, as well as several nieces and nephews.
Deeply shaken by the events unfolding in his homeland, Ung stopped composing and began doing everything in his power to save his remaining relatives, and to
save Cambodian music. He spearheaded recording projects, tours and other performances, and founded the Khmer Studies Institute. During this time, from 1974 to
1985, he composed only one piece: Khse Buon for solo cello, heard in this concert. It was his first attempt to combine the traditional music of his homeland
with the Western classical music and 20th-century compositional techniques he had studied in the U.S.
Rebecca Schweigert Mayhew © 2014
ROOTS TO BRANCHES
“I have lost my roots but gained many branches; my family tree flowers once again with the promise of opportunity, and in my turn my greatest hope is to
give back to this great country that has given my family a new chance to blossom.”
Cleveland was built on the stories of immigrants, and today’s diverse refugee populations likewise tell tales of escaping persecution, incredible journeys
through the unknown, and exhilaration at the promise of freedom. In working with CityMusic Cleveland and Grammy-winning percussionist Shane Shanahan on a new
work that would weave together the stories of the many refugees who have made the long journey to settle in Cleveland, I was inspired by those who fled great
hardship and oppression for the promise of a new life in the U.S.
In turns hair-raising, offbeat, and joyous, Roots to Branches features percussion instruments from around the globe, gives expressive voice to these refugees’
experiences, and paints a portrait of a population that is already giving back to the community that offered them the chance of a better life.
Rather than devoting individual movements of the concerto to any one culture or refugee, I made the decision to organize the concerto’s narrative in light of
the many common points of reference that all the refugees interviewed for this project seemed to experience: fleeing persecution, the perilous journey to an
unfamiliar land, and finally the challenges and exhilaration of taking root in a new and more hopeful community – a universal journey, which constantly blends
influences from the many refugee subcultures in the Cleveland area.
The concerto’s prologue features a plaintive solo on the bansuri (Indian natural flute) against a halo of sound created by glasses of water tuned to
various pitches, as well as ankle bells and the tambourine-like instruments known as the riq. The first movement (with only sorrow) features low drums
of African origin (the djembe and its close cousin, the doumbek) against an unfolding backdrop of string counterpoint and tells the tale of the harsh
conditions most refugees faced in their homelands. The second movement (a place beyond time) refers to conditions in the refugee camps that represent a
kind of limbo or purgatory where many refugees are left to linger and wither away, and features melodic passages for the bell-like Miltone.
The third movement (spirit our souls across) is about the sometimes perilous journey across the ocean to America, and fittingly features assorted water
percussion as well as the other-wordly of the kalimba, or thumb-piano. The fourth movement (black days) is about the challenges of fitting into a newfound
life in America, where both hardship and hope run high and raucous music for homemade instruments keeps spirits high (featuring frame drums, the Iranian daf,
and even all manner of body percussion); finally, the 5th movement (now my voice is heard) is about the catharsis that many refugees describe when finally
integrating with their new environment, and the joy of seeing new branches of their family tree be born and come to thrive in a country that they now call
their own, and seek to contribute to with pride and purpose. A meditative section for another natural flute (this time of Chinese origin) and resonant temple
bowls brings the rhythmic work to a serene conclusion.
This project would not have been possible without support from the Refugee Services Collaborative and the travelling multimedia exhibit Voices Worth Hearing,
Art Worth Sharing, and most of all from the stories, songs, poetry, and interviews provided by the many refugees who shared their unique tales with me for
this project. Thanks also to CityMusic executive director Eugenia Strauss for her vision and commitment in bringing this work to life, and to Rebecca Schweigert
Mayhew for her generous assistance in collecting the many quotes and stories that make up the concerto’s narration.
Dan Visconti © 2014
Illustration by Charles Krenner © 2014
BEETHOVEN’S EROICA SYMPHONY
On the surface, Beethoven was an unlikely hero – unattractive, quarrelsome and uncompromising – but his patrons among the Viennese aristocracy recognized his
musical genius. They encouraged him to disregard conservative criticism and to write music that was bold and audacious – ambitious works shaped by powerful
dramatic forces and echoing the fundamental qualities of heroism: conflict and strength. Music like the Eroica Symphony.
The Eroica was revolutionary. For audiences in 1805 it was twice as long as any symphony by Mozart, monumental in scope and rich in ideas. It was also the
first of Beethoven’s symphonies to carry a title, ‘Sinfonia eroica’.
The inspiration was Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and at first Beethoven saw in the First Consul of the Republic an apostle of new ideas and perhaps a
little of his own uncompromising will. But when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, the dedication was scratched out and replaced by
‘Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.’
With this gesture the conflicts of the symphony became idealized; the Funeral March, supposedly prompted by the rumor of Nelson’s death in the Battle of
Aboukir, grew in significance, ‘too big to lead to the tomb of a single man.’ The hero is not Napoleon – he had shown himself to be ‘nothing but an ordinary
man’ – or any other individual.
In one sense the Eroica’s battles are entirely musical and music is the hero. When asked what the Eroica meant, Beethoven went to the piano and played
the first eight notes of the symphony’s main theme. This simple but powerful idea – outlining the main chord of the symphony – is developed into a vast but
detailed opening movement (marked Allegro con brio ‘fast with life’). The second movement, a funeral march (Adagio assai ‘very slow’), draws on the rhetoric
of revolutionary music and spoke powerfully to the first audiences.
Following this expression of intense grief, the third movement (Allegro vivace ‘fast and lively’) is blessedly playful and humorous, a Scherzo by name as
well as by nature.
The Finale (Allegro molto ‘very fast’) is based on a theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1801) and the connection with another
(mythological) hero cannot be accidental. The theme is simple and impulsive, but in this final version Beethoven transforms it into a hymn to the generous
sentiments of the Revolution: freedom and equality.
Beethoven lived in an age that celebrated the individual, innovation and sublime expression. This, together with his astonishing musical vision and the
tragic affliction of his deafness, conspired to make him the supreme Romantic hero. In a tormented and troubled world, Beethoven gives us music that springs
from conflict, in which disorder resolves into order. He wrestles with Fate and triumphs; he believes in Freedom. ‘Beethoven is, above all things, the poet
of heroism.’ And from that perspective, who can the unnamed hero of the Eroica be but the composer himself?
Yvonne Frindle © 2014
Illustration by Charles Krenner © 2014
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