Songs Without Words: Flamenco Guitar, Indie Rock Drive, and Cambodian Roots Speak onKmang Kmang’s debut Drifting
“The most important thing is that it’s viscerally powerful,” states Barmey Ung, the classically trained guitarist and composer behind Chicago’s avant acoustic rock collective, Kmang Kmang.“I don’t like to intellectualize things too much, and don’t like to attach meanings where there doesn’t have to be meanings. I just want the music to be aesthetically powerful.”
For Ung, the power comes from a slowly distilled mix of his musical passions: the subtle force of the classical guitar tradition, the sounds of Spain and Brazil, his emerging understanding of his roots as a Cambodian-American. The results engage and scintillate on Drifting(March 30, 2012), a post-rock, jazz-inflected dismantling of indie songwriting to create emotional, complex songs without words.
Ung’s vision flows through pieces composed in dialogue with a carefully recruited group of diverse Chicago musicians, finding expression in pensive and grooving instrumentals, work with dancers, visual arts pieces—and even the occasional rock song.
The band’s multifarious, multifaceted creativity will be in full force March 31, 2012 at the Painted Door for a multisensory album release show. The core of Kmang Kmang will be joined by the boundary-challenging chamber brass of the Gaudete Brass Quintetwho will also premiere a new commissioned work composed by Ung. The event will also feature a video collaboration between Ung and contemporary dancer Kate Puckett, and creative, locally-minded cuisine of the Chicago co-op Edible Alchemy.
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Ung grew up stuck in between. As a Cambodian-American, he found fitting in to American high school life a challenge. He found a sanctuary in unexpected places: the sometimes gentle, sometimes intense strains of classical guitar. Ung dove into the repertoire with a deep zeal.
In it, he heard something absolutely compelling. “I just fell in love,” Ung recalls. “It was something I’d never heard before. The guitar had a range of sounds that not a lot of people know about, sounds that could stretch into all these different media and influences.”
After years of passionate pursuit of classical technique and perfection, Ung found himself one day performing in a guitar festival in the Czech Republic, but felt unsatisfied. Although he was immersed in the art that he loved, he still felt no sense of belonging. Later that year, in a suburb of Madrid, Barmey immersed himself in the flamenco world, a style that he’d devoted years to studying and performing in the U.S. After taking lessons from Flamenco veteran Oscar Herrero, Barmey similarly felt tired and lonely.
Ung reflects: “I think I had exhausted the inspiration that drove me to learn about the classical guitar and its history. I had always wanted to create my own voice. After Spain, I knew it was time to do my own thing.”
He came home from Spain, suddenly elated and free.
Ung’s newfound freedom led him to compose for everything from orchestra to surround-sound electronics. He turned to samba and capoeira, to his own roots in a quiet, exploratory way, and to rock, as a vehicle for self-expression. “After being in school for classical guitar and composition, I got into indie rock, and a lot of the songs I wrote had vocals and lyrics that were very angst-ridden—and not very good. I liked the melodies and decided to just leave it at that.”
Pieces hatched from these songs that were instrumental at heart, even when Ung felt the lyrics could stay. The result was driven compositions with balance of catchy hooks and more expansive, improvisatory moments, polished with musicians Ung scouted at local Chicago shows. Ung brought together a core of players who can handle everything from thrash to manouche jazz, from Sinatra to Zakir Hussein.
“Drifting” moves from shadowy prog rock exuberance to a brighter, softer waltzing feel. Highlighting violinist Brandi Berry‘s uniquely keening, soaring sound, “Lullaby” rocks with a solid, sinuous bass (Sam Filip) and drums (jazz veteran John Fortin), while the guitar jumps between rhythmic rattles and resonant textures. The artfully arranged “Sulpa” takes a fresh, bassy look at a traditional Cambodian welcoming song, a piece Ung had often heard but experienced in a new way thanks to Chicago-based trumpet innovator and Cambodian music explorer, David Young.
There’s a tension and development that stems from classical training, yet a focused freedom and playful looseness Ung and his colleagues have nurtured (the band’s name means “children” in Khmer, the main language of Cambodia). It suits Ung to a tee.
“My composition process is all instinctual,” explains Ung.“I’ve tried to develop a connection with my unconscious. I’m listening to myself and my body, about what the contour of the music should be.”
<< release: 03/30/12 >>
Written by FlipSwitch, LLC