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No sleep, no problem for composer Narong Prangcharoen

October 4, 2010

by James Bash

This weekend, the Oregon Symphony under its music director Carlos Kalmar opened its classical series with “Phenomenon” by Narong Prangcharoen. A native of Thailand, Prancharoen is a highly regarded composer whose works have won international awards and are receiving more and more performances in the East and West. The 37-year old composer also teaches at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and is the founder of the Thailand Composition Festival in Bangkok, Thailand, which is now in its fifth year. Because Prangcharoen flew to Portland to hear his work performed by the Oregon Symphony, I was able to meet with him on Friday afternoon at Caffe D’Arte and talk to him about his work habits and his music.

When did you start writing music?

Prangcharoen: I started in 1998. I was 26 years old. I start everything really late. I got my first piano lesson when I was 21. In Thailand, we don’t have a lot of music teachers like you do in the United States. I started piano lessons because I was inspired by a piano concert that had some new music. I couldn’t believe that sounds that you could create on a piano! I wanted to learn how to do that, but my teacher, who gave the concert, said that I had to learn Beethoven and Bach and some of the greats first.

Did you grow up playing another musical instrument?

Prangcharoen: I played trumpet a little bit while I was in high school, but it sort of hurt my voice, and my doctor told me to stop before I damaged it further. I went to college in Thailand to get a music education degree, and before I finished I began concentrating on piano. On piano, I started out with Debussy’s “Children’s Corner” suite, and didn’t know what was difficult and what wasn’t. I’d practice five or six hours every day. I had to pass an exam like you do in the British system to move up, and I accomplished that. Then I began learning a Brahms Rhapsody and spent hours and hours learning it. After a while it I realized that I didn’t have a life. My life was in the practice room with my piano. My friends would ask me to go with them to a movie, but I couldn’t. Or they’d as me to come eat with them, but I would say no.

Eventually, I talked to my teacher and told her that this regimen wasn’t working out, because I was losing my friends. She said that because I started so late, I had to practice more than students who began when they were kids. I asked her if there’s something else that I could do. She replied that I could try composing. That’s the joke, if you can’t perform, you can try your hand at composing.

What inspires you compositions?

Prangcharoen: I’m inspired by nature and what happens in nature around us like the Tsunami that his Southeast Asia. Another big factor is my spirit. I’m referring to the power of the mind. You have to believe that you can do something that’s really challenging like composing. I’ve learned how to hypnotize myself so that I do don’t sleep. When I’m working on a composition, sometimes I don’t sleep for four or five days.

No sleep for four or five days!

Prangcharoen: Well, I did that when I was younger. Now, I can go without sleep for a couple of days. You learn how to tell yourself that you are not tired. Three days ago, I went to Illinois State University and I didn’t sleep, because my flight was at 6 in the morning have to leave my place to get to the airport by 4. But the night before, it’s 11 in the evening before I’m ready to pack for the trip, and I figure that I’ll only get an hour of sleep; so I just don’t sleep at all. I just went straight through until 11 pm the next day.

My teacher Chen Yi sleeps only four or five hours a day, also.

So how long did it take you to write Phenomenon?

Prangcharoen: About a month. I didn’t sleep a lot during that time. But when it was done, I really crashed.

Phenomenon uses a full-sized orchestra. Have you tried playing all of the instruments or do you guess how it’s going to sound?

Prangcharoen: That piece is actually my third or fourth orchestral piece. I had some earlier pieces that I don’t count. I trashed them. So I learn from every piece that I write, and I have friends that I can ask questions about a particular instrument. For example, it’s hard to know how string harmonics work when you are looking for a new sound. I’ve got solo cello piece called Far from Home in which the cello has play a harmonic with the fifth finger and play the melody at the same time. So it sounds like two cellos playing. I showed this idea to a couple of cellists who told me that it was impossible. But then I asked Nick Dinnerstein, who is in the recording, and he figured out a way to do it. So Phenomenon is the same way.

Phenomenon sounds really different.

Prangcharoen: It’s language is different. There’s a sense of energy, and I use a different sense of time. I try to keep the time signature as simple as possible, but the music doesn’t fall on the first beat.

As a composer, I have to push sounds and challenge the orchestras with new things. For example, this piece has a real low part for the first trombone, and in some orchestras, the first trombonist doesn’t want to play that low.

Do you write a piece by using a special composing program?

Prangcharoen: I start my ideas for a piece on paper and then go to the computer. I use the Sibelius program. It’s works well for me. I’ve got lots of deadlines. I used it to compose a piece while on the plane from Bangkok to the US. Or I’ll work in a coffee shop. You have to shut down everything around you. I have noise-canceling headphones that I use.

Is your music influenced by the different kinds of sounds that you heard when you were growing up in Thailand?

Prangcharoen: Yes. I use a lot of imitation of almost anything that I hear. I was born with a half-Chinese half Thai family. My dad came from China and my mother is pure Thai. So I remember my grandmother on my dad’s side listening to older Chinese popular singers and my mother’s side of the family listening to Thai music. But I don’t use a Thai instrument or a Chinese instrument in my music.

In Thai culture, we blend things a lot. For example, there’s a Chinese pagoda in the middle of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. That seems really out of place, but it’s part of our culture. Our language has a tone that we adapted from the Chinese. We have five tones in all; the Chinese have four.

How did Carlos find your piece?

Prangcharoen: A few years ago at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, they wanted to do a “Taste of Thailand” thing, and they need to find a Thai composer. I submitted Phenomenon, and Carlos, who is the music director of the Grant Park Orchestra liked it. It’s great that Phenomenon is the first piece on the Oregon Symphony’s first classical series program.

Prangcharoen: Carlos said a million good things about this orchestra, and we exchanged some email about this first concert. He said that this orchestra will play the shit out of this music! [Laughter!]

I said, ‘Thank you Carlos, that what I want to hear!’