Sounds Heard: Narong Prangcharoen—Mantras
While there have been many composers who have explored combining Western musical forms and orchestrations with elements from the art music of China, Japan, Iran, India, and Indonesia, very few have attempted a similar rapprochement with the music of Thailand. But the music of a Thailand-born composer now based in Kansas City, Narong Prangcharoen, has perhaps been the most effective thus far in seamlessly weaving Thai and Western classical idioms.
For centuries, Western classical music has incorporated elements from beyond its original geographical borders (think of the orientalism of Rameau or Mozart), but only more recently have people who have actually grown up in all corners of the world created music within a Western classical music framework which incorporates elements of their own indigenous musical traditions in a way that is authentic. The seemingly inexhaustible musical traditions of the vast continent of Asia have proven to be particularly effective fodder for new solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire as composers from nations whose own music dates back millennia have forged an extremely effective synthesis from the syncretism of East and West.
Perhaps the greatest flowering of such music has occurred here in the United States where there has never been a dominant musical tradition; our traditionlessness has made this country the ideal environment for creators who shun all traditions as well as those who embrace various combinations of them. While there have been many composers who have explored combining Western musical forms and orchestrations with elements from the art music of China, Japan, Iran, India, and Indonesia, very few have attempted a similar rapprochement with the music of Thailand. Eua Sunthornsanan (1910-1981) started blending elements of classical music and jazz into Thai musical idioms in the 1930s. More recently, S. P. Somtow (b. 1952), who in additional to composing music also writes horror and science fiction novels, has composed operas in the Thai language based on Thai themes. But the music of a younger Thailand-born composer now based in Kansas City, Narong Prangcharoen (b. 1973), has perhaps been the most effective thus far in seamlessly weaving Thai and Western classical idioms. His 2009 debut album on Albany, Phenomenon, is an exciting collection of six works scored for solo piano, solo cello, orchestra, and symphonic winds. Albany’s just-released 2012 follow-up, Mantras offers another six works—one for solo viola, an additional band piece, and four chamber music compositions—revealing the depth and breadth of Prangcharoen’s unique sound world.
While the compositions featured on his earlier disc demonstrate how comfortable Prangcharoen is with the sweeping gestures of orchestral music and how the subtle application of extended techniques on various instruments can help to convey a world very different from that of the Western orchestra that is playing it, the more intimate medium of chamber music showcased on the new CD arguably serves Prangcharoen’s aesthetic gambits even more effectively. In Whispering (2010), a quartet scored for soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion, the winds weave pentatonic figurations around clacks from the piano—played both normally and prepared—and a wide range of other percussion instruments, of both precise and indeterminate pitch. The work, presented here in a performance by the newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, is a deeply moving response to various natural disasters that have occurred in the last decade—Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar, and the earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province.
While Between Heaven and Earth (2009) is a duo for flute and piano (herein performed by Jonathan Borja and Christopher Janwong McKiggan), the music often feels like two completely independent yet co-existing solos, largely due to extensive passages in the first part of the composition during which only one instrument is playing at a time. One of the boundaries between Thai and Western traditions that seems insurmountable is tuning—Thai music is based on an equidistant seven-tone scale which shares no intervals in common with Western 12-tone equal temperament. Prangcharoen’s always practical orchestral music strictly adheres to 12tET; it probably would be nearly impossible to get it performed by most orchestras otherwise. But while the piano in Between Heaven and Earth remains standardly tuned, the flute’s intonation is frequently altered with various pitch bends to take it out of Western listeners’ comfort zones. When the two instruments finally come together toward the end, it makes for some visceral clashes. (Unfortunately, there are no program notes for Between Heaven and Earth in the CD’s booklet; it would have been interesting to learn more about the inspiration for this extremely effective piece.)
The brief Antahkarana (2010) also explores a wider pitch continuum than that of standard 12tET. The unfretted solo viola, technically capable of producing an infinite gradation of pitches, is the ideal vehicle for Prangcharoen’s explorations. The work also very effectively exploits harmonics, which are expertly rendered here by violist Michael Hall; such techniques inevitably conjure up the mysterious, the exotic, and the sublime. According to Prangcharoen’s program notes, Antahkarana is an ancient symbol used as a tool for healing and meditation.
The overall serenity of Antahkarana is shattered by the frenetic opening of Bencharong (2002), a trio for flute, cello, and piano in five short movements. But the seeming anxiety of the first movement doesn’t last very long (slightly over a minute). The other relatively short movements conjure other moods from stillness to rapture to calm to anticipation. Prangcharoen has written that the work is inspired by the traditional five-color porcelain that was made for the royal courts in Ayutthaya and Bangkok in the 18th and 19th centuries. (For the performance on the present disc, flutist Borja, who also performed Between Heaven and Earth is joined by cellist Ben Gitter and pianist Brendan Kinsella.)
The work that follows, Verdana (2011), is also a trio but is a single continuous movement. Scored for violin, French horn, and piano—a combination that has inspired a broad range of composers, including Johannes Brahms, Ethel Smyth, Lennox Berkeley, György Ligeti, and Yehudi Wyner—Prangcharoen’s contribution to the genre (here performed by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble) is as different from these works as they are from each other. Largely an exploration of sonority, the melody from which the piece’s pitches are derived does not appear in full until near the end.
The disc closes with Mantras (2009), which is a concert piece for solo soprano saxophone and symphonic winds. The grand gestures familiar to listeners who have heard Prangcharoen’s previous disc on Albany make a triumphant return in this virtuosic showcase performed here with élan by saxophonist John Sampen accompanied by the Bowling Green State University Wind Symphony conducted by Bruce Moss. Like many composers of our era, Prangcharoen proves that the wind band is as capable of nuance as a symphony orchestra; through his assured navigation of the combinatorial possibilities of this large ensemble which build to a tumultuous climax, Prangcharoen creates an exciting and very effective listening experience.