Each year, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awards mid-career fellowships to 200 applicants in fields ranging from choreography to plant sciences. Two of the 2013 fellows are Kansas City locals: Mike Sinclair, architectural and fine art photographer; and Narong Prangcharoen, UMKC alumnus and teaching assistant of composition and piano, and freelance composer. Prangcharoen's fellowship is in music composition.
Narong Prangcharoen says he composes music that crosses cultures, combining influences from western and Thai music, as well as styles from other countries in southeast Asia.
"It's different cultures, different spheres, crossing between two worlds," he says. In fact, his project for his stint at the Guggenheim is to compose a concerto using the suona, a Chinese woodwind instrument similar to an oboe.
From Bangkok to Kansas City
Prangcharoen was born and raised in Thailand, attending Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok, earning a degree in music education. Afterwards, while still in Thailand, he met Stephen Parsons, director of the school of music at Illinois State University, who urged him to get a master's degree from the school. Towards the end of his master's, Parsons played for Prangcharoen a recording of a composition by Chen Yi, professor of music composition at UMKC.
"[Parsons] told me, 'if you study with this person, it will be a perfect match...go and do a DMA with her.'" says Prangcharoen. "Our music is a similar taste. I don't care if the school is well-known. I don't care if the school is Juilliard. I care about the person I work with...and that she will help me to grow a lot."
The Power of Nature, the Power of Mind
Prangcharoen says he draws inspiration from the powers of nature and the mind, which are exhibited in two pieces he submitted in his fellowship application: Illuminations, and Anatman (to hear more of his music, visit Prangcharoen's website). Inspired by Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar in 2008, Illuminations evokes "the sound of light, [imitating] the way nature creates light. Wood cracking on fire burning."
Anatman, Prangcharoen says, has to do with the power of the mind: "reflecting on the power when the mind tells you what to do, and when you react." "Anatman" is the state of mediation. The word means "no self, selfless" in Bali Sanskrit.
"You are not you anymore," says Prangcharoen. "Nothing lasts forever. Everything must go. You get older and die. Plants get older and die. Eventually, that's non-self. The structure of the piece is building up from that idea."
In Anatman, Prangcharoen exhibits this idea by using primarily the E-pitch, or "mi" on the major scale, with every note focusing on "mi." He says he uses "mi" to signify "me, myself." And at one point in the piece, all of the instruments, including the cello, swell up, "then just before the cadenza, the cello is the only piece left, representing that emptiness."
"All of the notes are leading to E," says Prangcharoen. "E, E, E all the time. How you are focusing on yourself all the time, and eventually there is no self. It does disappear."
Goals for the Guggenheim
Besides focusing on his Guggenheim project, Prangcharoen says he also hopes that he has the opportunity to do more research on Thai music, and to trace his roots. And on a practical note, he says he's relieved not to focus on earning a living, since the fellowship is paid.
"As a freelance composer, when I don't have music to write, I feel very stressed because I know in a couple of months I won't have a check coming in," says Prangcharoen. "I write one piece a month, which is mad. It's unhealthy for a composer because you need space to create something deeper. Now, I can be very calm and...create new good pieces."
Prangcharoen's compositions have been performed across Europe, Australia, southeast Asia, and the United States by the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, among others. Next, his compositions will be performed by the Oregon Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony.
Illuminations premiered at the Beijing National Center for Performing Arts; Anatman premiered at UMKC. For the fellowship application, Narong Prangcharoen also submitted Dawn of Darkness, a saxophone concerto that premiered with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra.