By Thomas May
This evening’s program brings us the highly anticipated culmination of the Master Chorale’s ongoing “LA=World” project with the world premiere of Cambodian American composer Chinary Ung’s Spiral XII: Space Between Heaven and Earth. Ung’s unique fusion of East and West, instrumentalists and singers, and music and dance (with choreography by the celebrated legend of classical Cambodian dance, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro) is inspired by a vision that music can not only please but transform the listener. In his Esperanto setting of a key Buddhist text, La Koro Sutro, maverick Lou Harrison expresses his universalist, peace-centered worldview and also seeks a deeper engagement through music.
Lou Harrison: La Koro Sutro
The untiring, open-eared curiosity that characterized Lou Harrison (1917-2003) kept him literally tuned in to a vibrant array of cultural sources. His travels to Asia in the 1960s deepened his long-standing fascination with non-Western traditions, which had been nurtured decades before by his studies of world music with Henry Cowell. One result is the choral cantata La Koro Sutro, composed for an international conference of Esperanto scholars and first performed on August 11, 1972 in San Francisco.
In La Koro Sutro, Harrison sets the text of the Buddhist The Heart Sutra, as translated into Esperanto by Bruce Kennedy, in a sequence of seven strophic sections, which are framed by an opening homage and a concluding mantra. The Heart Sutra (also sometimes known as The Heart of Wisdom Sutra) is an especially significant collection of scriptural aphorisms from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition—often chanted—that distill the essence of Buddhist teachings on emptiness, wisdom, compassion, and enlightenment.
Several of Harrison’s musical preoccupations dovetail in La Koro Sutro, where we find an amalgam of Eastern and Western sonorities, a prominent role for tuned percussion, a unique approach to tuning, and even the physical construction of instruments (Harrison once said, “I’m more of a craftsman than a philosopher”).
His incorporation of Asian influences is highly personal, not a mere imitation. In addition to large mixed chorus, organ, and harp, Harrison’s score calls for a percussion ensemble that evokes the Indonesian gamelan orchestra, with its interconnected set of metallophones and other percussive instrumentation. Harrison had already built his own gamelan with the help of his life-partner, William Colvig, who had a knack for acoustics, and experimented with it in his earlier puppet opera Young Caesar. Harrison and Colvig used a variety of metal objects, from tin cans to aluminum slabs, and labeled their assemblage an American gamelan (giving it the nickname “Old Granddad”) to underscore the fact that it is a unique adaptation of
the East Asian source.
Harrison disliked the conventions of Western equal-temperament tuning, along with the one-size-fits-all mechanization it implies. Instead, he applied various kinds of “just intonation,” as in his tuning of a D Major scale for the American gamelan. The subtle differences in the adjustment of its intervals result in a “purer,” more sensuous sound (major thirds in particular sound wider and brighter). Harrison brilliantly contrasts the gamelan tuning with chromatic notes from the chorus that weave in and out of the former’s boundaries in beautifully undulating linear shapes.
The music of La Koro Sutro displays Harrison’s penchant for flowing, rhapsodic melody, which threads through the voices and gamelan like a sunlit river. But there is great variety and contrast as well. Listen, for example, to the shift from the opening ceremonial call to attention to the hypnotic patterns of the first strophe, and then to the quasi-medieval austerity of the second or the richer harmonies, silvered by bells, of the fifth strophe. The percussion adds a mysteriously archaic flavor in the sixth strophe (where the choral writing is especially chromatic) and builds to a joyous tintinnabulation for the final mantra—which remains untranslated from the Sanskrit—with its summation of the illuminating wisdom of awakening.
Chinary Ung: Spiral XII: Space Between Heaven and Earth
“Most composers are, at some level, engaged in the transfer of concept into sound,” observes Chinary Ung. This process acquires particular significance in light of Ung’s own experience as a practicing Buddhist who finds spirituality and creativity to be intimately related. For Ung, the idea of where a composer’s creativity should be focused continues to evolve over his prolific career.
Born in southern Cambodia, Ung came to the United States in 1964 to study music and, as a result of historical circumstances, became an exile and eventually a U.S. citizen. He was finally able, after a prolonged absence, to pay a life-changing visit to his native homeland in 2002. That reconnection inspired Ung to experience what he calls “a renewal of purpose,” initiating a reappraisal of his life in music. Its consequences are still unfolding in works such as tonight’s world premiere, Spiral XII: Space Between Heaven and Earth. The image of a musical “spiral”—of continually returning to a particular idea within a piece not in repetition but from ever-shifting perspectives—neatly encapsulates both the larger interconnectedness of Ung’s musical work and its evolving character. Spiral XII belongs to an ongoing series of spiral compositions (across a wide variety of genres) but also explores entirely new territory for the composer—above all as a large-scale collaboration involving chorus and dancers.
Previously, Ung’s appreciation of a spiritual dimension to music had been more personal in nature and, from the listener’s point of view perhaps, more aesthetically oriented. His renewed contact with Cambodia—whose culture had been nearly wiped out in the Khmer Rouge’s traumatic reign of terror—has allowed Ung to perceive, as he says, “the opportunity to employ my music as an agent of spiritual healing through the aesthetic experience” — music as vehicle rather than as an end in itself.
Indeed the image of music as mediation is central not only to Spiral XII but to other recent compositions by Ung, including 2007’s Spiral X (a piece for amplified string quartet written to commemorate the victims of the Cambodian holocaust), this year’s Spiral XI: Mother and Child, for solo viola/voice, the chamber concerto Rain of Tears, and Aura. An aspect shared by all of these is what Ung terms the “bridging of the spiritual and physical dimensions in order to achieve a musical expression that is both personal and communal.” Spiral XII carries this process still further as a major collaborative effort drawing together the creative energies not only of Ung but of the pre-eminent Cambodian choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Spanning nearly 45 minutes, the work is a continuous movement consisting of two parts. “Part One: Song Offerings” consists of the first quarter of Spiral XII. “Part Two: Space Between Heaven and Earth” is preceded by a prelude.
The scoring of Spiral XII reflects yet another bridging—between Western and indigenous Cambodian traditions. Expanding on the ensemble he used in Aura, Ung calls for three wind players (doubling on instruments), five string musicians, two percussionists and a native Cambodian drummer, and full chorus, along with vocal soloists: two sopranos (one lyric and one dramatic), two tenors, baritone, and bass. Cheam Shapiro’s choreography meanwhile enlists seven female dancers along with herself to dance an allegorical narrative in which the oppression of the Khmer Rouge period is seen to represent a universal conflict, as destructive, violent illusions are overcome by the elevating power of reconciliation.
Ung also blurs distinctions between instrumentalists and vocalists—in emulation of Southeast Asian musical practice—by asking the percussionists and string players (in particular the violist) to chant, vocalize, and whistle as an extension of their playing. Ung’s intention is to create an ambience that takes listeners beyond the walls of the concert hall, as if they are participating in a village ritual. Meanwhile, the chorus and soloists sing an idiosyncratic assemblage of phonemes and words with richly resonant connotations from English, Cambodian, and even Pali and Sanskrit (the ancient words for sun or the Buddha’s life cycles, for example). Text becomes texture as human voices and constructed instruments blend in a kind of shadow play to create Ung’s musical aura.
The remarkable deployment of simultaneous extremes of register—deep growling bass and piquant descant in the piccolo—is a signature of Ung’s style, where sonic reality also contains metaphorical significance. As part of the effort to transfer “concept into sound,” Ung refers to the key Buddhist insight of shunyata, the “bubble” signifying the emptiness, the void, the impermanence that is the essence of the universe. The outer registers trace the limits of this void, into which Ung introduces a variety of musical ideas he likens to “compassionate textures”—musical lines and shapes that express the compassion aroused by awakening to the reality of suffering, of accepting emptiness.
Spiral XII expands on these concepts by including the physical and visual element of the Cambodian dancers and the drama of a community liberating itself to move forward. The dancers contribute another aspect, in their reenactment of suffering and renewal, to the compassion Ung represents in musical terms. The classical Cambodian dance pose and gestures—with feet pointed to the earth and heads facing heavenward, as preserved in the iconography of Angkor Wat’s temple friezes—becomes an analogue for Ung’s musical space. It is a space of openness between these extremes, between earth and heaven, between a traumatic past and a hopeful future, in which Ung expresses an attitude of liberation that courses forward.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.