Chinary Ung

Biography

Born: November 24, 1942; Takeo, Cambodia  
Composer Chinary Ung emerged from relative obscurity in 1989 when he was given the highly coveted Grawemeyer Award for his 1986 choral work, Inner Voices. A meteoric ascent followed, bedecked with prestigious commissions and frequent performances of his works. It seemed an unlikely reception for an immigrant composer whose expressive language was progressive and often challenging for the listener, not least because of its occasional blending of Read more Western and Far Eastern sonorities. But Ung's music has attracted a wide following over the years: even at its most intractable, it is colorful and full of invention, rife with a sense of individuality. Ung's vocal writing often calls for vibrato-like and other effects; his instrumental works sometimes feature exotic (i.e., Cambodian or Far Eastern) instruments, and his orchestral and chamber music often exhibits layering techniques. Yet, works such as Grand Spiral (1990), for symphonic band, are Impressionistic in character and relatively accessible. Ung's works are available on a variety of labels, including Bridge, Composers Recordings, Albany Records, and New World Records.

Chinary Ung was born in Takeo, Cambodia, on November 24, 1942. His first advanced musical studies were at the Ecole de Musique Phnom Penh. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1964, he enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music for clarinet studies, but transferred to Columbia University to study composition with Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung.

Ung achieved success with his first significant compositions, Mohori (1970) and Tall Wind (1974), both for vocalist and chamber ensemble. But between 1974, the year of his Columbia graduation, and 1985 he virtually abandoned composition, producing but a single work, Khse Buon (1980), for solo cello or viola. Ung used the decade-long hiatus to aid relatives and artists escape the murderous and oppressive Khmer Rouge regime, then in control of Cambodia.

After winning the Grawemeyer Award in 1989, Ung enjoyed a string of successes, including Spiral VI (1992), for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano; Antiphonal Spirals (1995), for orchestra; and Seven Mirrors (1997), for solo piano. In 2002 Ung returned to his native country for the first time since 1964. There he performed in several concerts of his music. Ung has remained active as a composer in the new century, producing such pieces as the 2008 choral work Spiral XII: Space Between Heaven and Earth. He also teaches at the University of California at San Diego, where he has been professor of composition since 1995. Read less