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A perfect score

July 04, 2007

Friendly, approachable and talkative. One often expects the opposite of a serious orchestral composer, but Narong Prangcharoen belied his formidable status as one of Thailand's few orchestral composers and offered a warm greeting and showed a ready eagerness to talk.

His openness extends to his audience, as well as to the media. "Before an orchestra performs my music, I like to speak to the audience for a few minutes to give them some of the background to my compositions, and they usually enjoy the concert more," he said. "I want to be a more accessible, more reachable composer."

His name may raise quizzical eyebrows among fans of orchestral music in Thailand, but in the US, Narong is more than well-known. He has been recognised by many as a promising young orchestral composer. The Los Angeles Times even called him "a composer with a gift for creating orchestral colour", and his work has been performed at many prominent events, including the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago last week.

Yet, his music is rarely heard in his motherland.

"The orchestral music scene in Thailand is relatively small, and started a bit late. So we tend to listen to the 'old school' repertoire of composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, while in America people have started to appreciate the work of new composers," Narong reasoned.

Fortunately, Thai audiences will have the chance to sample his music at a tribute concert for His Majesty the King, to be performed by the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra this December.

Narong, 33, is currently building his career by regularly submitting his work to various composition competitions, while still studying for a doctoral degree in composition at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

In many competitions where the winner is decided by popular vote, Narong has proved a darling of the audience. Among his victories are first prizes from the the Pacific Symphony's American Composer Competition and the ACL Yoshiro Irino Memorial Prize, Asian Composers League, both in 2005. He is currently a finalist in the Annapolis Charter 300 Young Composers Competition.

The extent of his success would probably have been beyond his wildest dreams when he first chose to study music at Srinakharinwirot University after learning to play trumpet during his high school years at Horwang School.

Not until his third year did Narong shift his interest to piano, when US piano teacher Kit Young paid a visit to the faculty as a guest speaker.

"I saw him playing modern pieces and was so fascinated by how the piano could sound so varied. So, I asked him to teach me,"

Narong spent six hours a day practising the piano, and in just one year he gained a Trinity Guildhall Grade 6 certificate, followed shortly by a recital certificate. That was nothing short of amazing, and a true inspiration for latecomers to any musical instrument.

Despite his concentrated efforts and his ensuing success, Narong then took rather a surprising decision. He quit.

"This was not the life I wanted. I had to practise for many, many hours a day. It robbed me of my time and my life. I couldn't hang out with my friends or relax," he admitted.

So as an alternative his professor suggested that he try learning music composition with Narongrit Dhammabutra, a prominent composer in the orchestral genre. Narong wanted to study the theory of composition first, but Narongrit recognised something extraordinary in the pieces that Narong composed on his own, and gave the go-ahead for his new student to undertake composition lessons. After two years under Narongrit's tutelage, Narong was convinced that composition was more challenging than playing piano, and applied for a scholarship to study for a Master of Fine Arts degree in Composition at Illinois State University. Although he failed to meet the English proficiency entry requirements, Stephen Taylor, a music composition professor at the institution who saw Narong's work, insisted the university had to accept him.

Narong didn't disappoint. After he finished the two year master's degree programme, he received offers to study for a doctoral degree from both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC). This was a crucial decision because choosing a music instructor is like choosing a future partner. If the relationship clicked, it could shape both one's style and one's career.

"Some professors told me that my compositions had a similar accent to that of Chinese composer, Chen Yi, and if I had a chance to study with her, we would be a perfect match," he noted.

So Narong chose UMKC where he could study under Chen.

"What I really gained from her was her experience. She taught me how to write for each instrument properly, considering both its limitations and the proficiency of the orchestras. I could fix mistakes before the piece was played by an orchestra,"

This kind of advice, Narong added, helped earn him tremendous professional recognition.

"There are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 orchestral composers in America. Imagine how competitive it is to get your pieces performed. So it is very important to be well prepared and professional," he explained. "It wouldn't look good if I had to change parts of my composition in front of the orchestra."

For some, writing music is supposed to be about consciousness and intuition, but Narong's method of composition is rather structural and well planned.

First, choose the subject. When he composed Sattha for Strings, Piano and Percussion, which was commissioned by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra after he won the Pacific Symphony's American Composer Competition, the tsunami of December, 2004, in South Asia was still very much in the news, so he chose that as his subject.

His next step - adapted from the practise of John Corigliano, who composed the soundtrack for The Red Violin - is to find a piece of blank paper on which he will create the structure of the song. The paper is divided into sections, each representing 15 seconds of music. Narong then draws a "graph", representing the intensity of the music, including dynamics and tempo. The last process is putting in the notes and other musical details.

"This way, I know what will happen in the next two minutes. The music may be louder or softer according to my calculation of how long listeners can take intense sound," explained Narong. "It's like building a house. You have to draw the plan first and put the furniture and other interior design details in later. It may take a month to draw, but only a few weeks to add the notes and other details. I believe that if the structure is good, then everything else is likely to turn out fine," he said.

The structure of his piece Sattha (meaning faith in Thai) follows research he conducted on the nature of tsunamis. The first part is quiet, representing the surface calm masking the underwater threat. Then the music gradually increases in intensity, resembling the waves of the tsunami, and finally subsides in the final part, portraying the end of the disaster.

For Thai listeners, the familiar tune of the Kab Hei Rua, or royal barge song, can be found in Sattha. This added Thai accent, the composer explained, is intended to remind listeners that in times of crises, Thai people can turn to His Majesty the King for moral strength.

Like Sattha, most of Narong's recent compositions have been commissioned by the organisers of the many competitions he has won.

"They are made-to-order compositions, just like khao pad [fried rice]," Narong laughs. "They tell you what they want, such as the length, the instrumentation and how skilful the musicians are. Sometimes they even give me the subject matter."

To immortalise his music, the energetic Narong is currently producing his first album, The Respiration of the Sun, to be released by Albany Records, a classical music label. The composer will have to travel to the Czech Republic to record the album, which will be able for sale on the Internet. He is also having to drum up financial support to cover the production costs.

The young composer also wants his compatriots to benefit from his professional success. Part of his task in this all too brief visit to Thailand was to prepare the third Thailand Composition Festival, a seminar-cum-concert at Srinakharinwirot University, where he occasionally lectures. As the event's artistic director, and a veteran of the international orchestral music industry, Narong will be bringing in many of the world's leading composers and musicians to participate in the event. They will also supervise a workshop for music students. Although he admits that composing does not pay the bills on its own, Narong hopes that this event will be a stepping stone for aspiring young Thai composers.

"Some say we should wait until Thai people are more open to orchestral music, but I think we can't afford to do that. We must push them, help them prepare for the international world of orchestral music," he insists.

Among the many roles he has experienced, pianist, conductor and composer, Narong feels the latter somehow gives him more intimacy with an audience.

"After the concert, the audience may praise a pianist for his performance, but if they're not experts, they can't go into the details. On the other hand, they can tell if they like the music, and even which parts they like. They don't have to think the same as I do. I'm glad my music can fire an audience's imagination. I love this kind of interaction."