Narong Prangcharoen, Pacific Symphony's artist-in-residence
The new work ‘Beyond Land and Ocean' finds inspiration from the sounds and people of OC
The classical symphonic canon includes a number of pieces inspired by geographical areas. Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” Overture comes immediately to mind, as does Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” and Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony.” As far as we know, though, no one has ever tried to compose a symphonic work about Orange County as a place or an idea. Until now, that is. A man named Narong Prangcharoen has done it. The piece is called “Beyond Land and Ocean” and the Pacific Symphony will give its premiere as it opens its season the first week of October.
The Thai composer serves as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence and wrote the work on the instigation of conductor Carl St.Clair, its music director. “He said he would like to have an anthem for Orange County,” the friendly Prangcharoen said recently, on the phone from his home in Kansas City.
It didn’t turn out that way. The piece, which will share the program with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, went through a long gestation period that included more than a year that the composer spent exploring the county and visiting its residents, gleaning information and discovering inspiration. What Prangcharoen initially envisioned as an anthem for soprano and orchestra turned into a purely instrumental work, 20 minutes in length and more programmatic in nature.
His year of research took him all over the county, visiting bars, senior centers, beaches and canyons. He got stuck in traffic. He watched and listened to dawn in Newport’s Back Bay. He recorded the sound of waves at night in Laguna Beach. He drove to the house of Helena Modjeska. Disneyland and Christ Cathedral were also on the itinerary.
The Pacific Symphony elicited contributions from the public as well. Hundreds of artifacts were sent in – personal stories, recordings, paintings – that helped define life in Orange County. Not all of it ended up in the work, at least not directly. The composer visited San Juan Capistrano’s Swallows Inn to “talk to the cowboys of Orange County.” One of them wasn’t much in the mood to be interviewed. “Instead of talking to me about his feelings for Orange County, he asked me if I was here illegally,” remembered Prangcharoen, who speaks with a decided accent. When the composer said no, the man demanded to see his green card.
Born in Uttaradit, Thailand, in 1973, Prangcharoen became interested in Western music playing trumpet in his school’s marching band, which played mostly American music, he said. After college – he earned a bachelor’s in music education – he developed an interest in the piano and began to take lessons from an American teacher in Thailand. He improved rapidly on the instrument, learning to play some pieces by Debussy in only a year, and everyone told him he was so talented that he should be a pianist. But Prangcharoen had a secret.
“Actually, what they didn’t know is that I practiced six hours every day,” he says, laughing. “That’s why I don’t think I’m so talented in piano because I believe if you’re talented you don’t have to practice that much to get things done.”
The heavy practice regime began to take its toll. “My friends gradually stopped asking me to go with them because they knew that I’m not going to go.” With the help of his piano teacher, he switched to composition, studying first with an American-trained Thai musician, then coming to this country for graduate work at Illinois State University and doctoral studies with Chinese American composer Chen Yi at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
Prangcharoen first came to the attention of local audiences in 2005 when he won the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Competition, an event adjudicated by the audience. The prize was $5,000 and the commission of another piece, which the Pacific Symphony performed the next season. That piece, called “Sattha,” was part meditation on, part musico-graphic depiction of the 2004 tsunami that hit Thailand, among other countries.
Capturing a wave in music is one thing, but how do you capture sprawling suburbia? “I kind of like visualize the sound,” Prangcharoen says. “I imagine what kind of sound that the orchestra can play to remind people of those sounds that I experienced.”
And so “Beyond Land and Ocean” begins in the dark – “It’s like really dark, before the dawn.” The composer is putting his experience in the Back Bay into music. “Then the sun starts to
rise, the birds start to sing and you hear the birds singing and the shape of the piece kind
of rises up.”
Prangcharoen’s experiences here weren’t only of the natural environment, though. “There is the sound of traffic in the piece,” he says. The traffic is represented by honking horns, though he says that’s more common in New York than Orange County, where we have “manners.” But without the honking, traffic sounds a lot like the ocean, he says.
When he’s in the car here, he listens to the radio, usually KUSC, the classical station. In the piece, he quotes a few bars from “Finlandia” by Sibelius, a favorite composer of his. The “Finlandia” tune turns into the closely related hymn “Be Still My Soul,” to represent Orange County’s connection to the church. Our musical driver also does a little channel surfing while stuck in traffic, sampling mariachi, Chinese and Vietnamese music before heading back to classical.
Not all of his experiences got into the piece, of course. The green card-demanding patron at the Swallows Inn, for instance. “That is just a funny memory of the place,” Prangcharoen says. But talking to Orange County residents of all stripes did give him lots of ideas. “The talking part actually made me understand more about the culture and the spirit of the county,” where, he says, people are proud to live.
“Beyond Land and Ocean” is ultimately a celebration of diversity, its composer says, but also of how that diversity somehow unites us. “We are not so different because we think of Orange County in the same way.” Prangcharoen hopes that listeners will come to his work with an open mind and not with any preconceived notions about what a piece about Orange County should sound like. “I get inspiration,” he says, “and then I translate that inspiration into the music, into my music.”
Pacific Symphony, Copland, Prangcharoen, Beethoven, October 1-4, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa,
714.556.2787 :: pacificsymphony.org