Interview with Narong Prangcharoen for Zeitgeist New Music Ensemble
October 2, 2012, Conducted by Katherine Bergman

Whispering is a response to various natural disasters which have taken place in recent years. Could you talk a bit about the piece and any personal experiences which may have inspired the music?

Whispering is mainly composed for the victims of Cyclone Nagis in Burma that happened in May 2008.  My friend took the sound of the lake close to her house in Burma, so I listened to the sound of the crow and many other sounds in the atmosphere to get an idea of what was going on there.  The idea of Whispering came from the sound of mother earth. She is trying to communicate with all of us, but no one listens to her. So she has to speak loudly about it. The piece is NOT a soft piece like the whisper sound, BUT the whisper sound is also the sound that no one really listens to. [It is] a sound that wants to communicate to only a group of people.  That’s where the title of the piece came from. 

is in three sections, with the third section taking the form of a highly energetic dance. Is that section related to a Thai or Asian dance form? Do any other parts of the piece allude to Thai folk or court music forms?

The idea of three sections is from the inspiration that I had during the process of writing the piece.  The first one is the sound of the earth trying to communicate with people.  It contains a lot of chaotic sound, complex contrapuntal texture, and so on.  

The second section is the most touching section for me.  On the news around that time, there is the boy who draws the picture of a clock.  Well, what is the normal picture our kids draw?  Mountain, house, family.  That boy draws the picture of the clock because that was the last time he saw his parents. Now no more….  So that section contains the sound of soprano saxophone as a boy crying on earth and his mother, played by the bass clarinet, tries to comfort him and speak to him from heaven.  That’s why both instruments are set up as a canon to talk to each other and why the bass clarinet is from back stage.  Also the gong sound represents the sound of temple.  When people die, most of the time they have to do the funeral in temple.

The third section is the celebration section.  No matter how many bad things happen in the world, we all will be able to manage to survive. That’s why the section is a dance-like section.  The main idea is to combine three elements: Burmese Pat Wang ensemble, Chinese Lion Dance, and Northeast dance music of Thailand called Pong Lang.  The Marimba imitates the sound and style of playing from Pong Lang.  You can look at the sample of this kind of music on YouTube. Here is one of them:

You have been very successful in weaving together Eastern and Western musical traditions. What influences from your background help shape your music?
I have a complex family background. My father is Chinese. My mother is Thai. I study music in the western way. So I grew up listening to many Chinese songs that I don’t understand because I don’t speak the language but still remember the tunes. Also many Thai styles of music from my mother’s side.  Then I chose to learn western music in high school, playing in the band and continuing in college.  I don’t have a really solid Thai music education because they have a separate Thai and Western music in Thailand.  So when I write, my music is already mixed from many experiences from my childhood to the time I have lived in US.  I don’t think about nationality as the important matter at all. You don’t have to be labeled as a Thai composer to be successful. I want to myself to NOT be a Thai composer.  I want to be one of the composers in the world, not as a Thai composer in the Western world. The world is now really small, so information goes around quickly. If I only focus on being a Thai composer then [how] am I different [from] other Thai composers in Thailand? So I just focus on being myself, speaking with my own voice, expressing my own idea, etc. 

You began writing music later in life than many composers. What were your career goals prior to becoming a musician? Do those interests come into play in your music?

I started my serious music education very late. I didn’t really get serious until University.  For example, I started my first piano lesson when I was 22, and I started my composition lessons when I was 26. It’s late for many people. I just feel very fascinated with music and writing music. I don’t really think much about career goals at all. I write music because I’m passionate about it. I strongly believe that people with a strong will and passion will be successful in the end. When I write, as I mentioned before, I just focus on being very honest to myself, speaking for myself with my own voice.  I just want to write music that is sincere to everybody, both players and audiences. I don’t want to write music that impresses my fellow composers or shows how smart I am. I want to write music that says something to other people and makes people to feel something. I don’t want understanding in my music from the audience. More importantly, I want a strong feeling of my music from the audiences. 

Your music is very colorful, and displays a well-developed sense of orchestration. As a developing artist, which composers and their music most influenced the trajectory of your musical path?
I have so many composers I personally like. I tend to listen to all kinds of music. But I can say that composers who inspired me strongly are Chen Yi (my mentor), John Corigliano, and Magnus Lindberg for living composers. The great master composers are Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Ravel. Yes, the color is a very strong point in my music. I think from the experiences in my childhood, I have a sound that is different from other people. 
Is there anything else you would like to share?

I just want to emphasize on the point that if you think you don’t understand my music, there is nothing to understand at all. Let the music speak to you by itself. Feel something from the sound that you listen to, rather than trying to understand everything at the first listening. You can’t understand a new language until you have really learned it, so that is the same in music.  You may not be able to understand my musical language when you listen to it the first time, BUT certainly you can feel something from my music when you listen to it for the first time.