Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung came to the United States in 1964, but he lost most of his family during the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. During that time, the Khmer Rouge committed genocide, killing an estimated half of the population, including nearly all of the country's educated class.
Ung's work is dedicated to resurrecting musical traditions practically lost in his country, as well as promoting healing. Thursday night, Zeitgeist gave the world premiere of "Spiral XIV: Nimmita," a work of strongly meditative character. The complex musical textures well utilize the ensemble of Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd, percussion, Pat O'Keefe, clarinet, and Shannon Wettstein, piano.
The dense sounds blend Southeast Asian music with Ung's Western classical training, adding traditional percussion instruments to Zeitgeist's usual assortment of xylophone, marimba, drums and gongs. The clarinet seems to sound an ancient chant, while the piano is entrusted with a more dissonant, contemporary Western sound.
This is a difficult work to perform, with the ensemble required to vocalize while playing. They sound like voices from the past, adding another musical and emotional layer. This work is demanding of the listener, but surrendering to its richness yields an experience of transcendence.
Ung will be in attendance at the Saturday and Sunday performances. His presence promises a lively conversation.
By contrast, the central piece is John Cage's "Ryoanji," named after a rock garden in Kyoto, Japan. Cage used tracings of the rocks to create "melodic" lines for O'Keefe's clarinet, while Cudd plays a water drum (a hollowed-out gourd floating upside-down in water inside a larger gourd), representing the surrounding sand.
Cage creates dry sounds, but the strong performances, in a very different way from Ung, still induce a meditative state.
The program concludes with "Double Ikat" by Paul Dresher, referring to a type of weaving in Southeast Asia. For this, violinist Alistair Brown joins Wettstein and Barringer.
The violin's lush melodies play against a percussive piano and Barringer's instruments. The balances are occasionally off, with the violin drowned out. But the second part's lighter textures showcase Wettstein in a lyrical solo.
At only an hour long, the program prevents the listener from being overwhelmed by the rich music. The compositions reward attention with a very satisfying experience.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.