A  silk fabric shop in Hanoi.

A silk fabric shop in Hà Nội.

One city casts a spell of identity crisis shared throughout Asia, a complicated emulsion of external anguish married to secret admiration. In visiting Asia over the last decade, to fall in love with Việt Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Japan or the French Concession in Shanghai, I’ve had to acknowledge the ghosts of Paris and France. Over time, my intuition, married to serious study, helped me piece together the terrible results of extractive colonialism juxtaposed with the persistent Asian fascination for, in most cases, a former brutal oppressor.  In order to begin a new chapter making “something wonderful happen,” as I had promised Loi Trinh Le, I knew a great deal of effort would be needed to make sense of the cultural possibilities of the 21st century. But things could not get worse than the horrors of the 20th century wars.

Chinary Ung talking with Cambodian musicians maimed and blinded by the Khmer Rouge.

Chinary Ung talking with Cambodian musicians maimed and blinded by the Khmer Rouge, Banteay Srei Temple, February 2004.

Paris seems much larger than it really is because of the infinite number of mirrors that duplicate its true space.” — Carlos Fuentes

Asia and Paris have a complicated relationship.  The City of Light incubates the careers of Zhou En Lai, Pol Pot, Deng Xiao Ping, and Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho cooked for Escoffier.  Before the 55,000 casualties the U.S. lost in Việt Nam, Paris sacrificed over 100,000 French soldiers before Ho Chi Minh’s 1954 victory at Dien Bien Phu. The loss of life in Việt Nam, Cambodia, and Laos still staggers the imagination, years after the fighting ending, and still demands tremendous humanitarian investment.

Every journey begins with a single step.  Mine in Southeast Asia began in Siem Reap, Cambodia in February 2004.  After 24 hours of air travel and time change and dateline adjustment I was dazed. Checking into the hotel was the end point of a long journey. The tropical heat was searing but cooled by an iced tropical drink brought to me by a Cambodian woman dressed in silk pastels, offering me my drink and then greeting me with a deep bow, her hands brought together touching her heart.  The open air lobby was pierced by the chants and drones of an ever present Buddhist funeral taking place close to the hotel.

A forest temple in Cambodia.

A forest temple in Cambodia.

I am now prepared for massive jet-lag, but this was the first trip I’d taken to Southeast Asia.  The virginal effects were intense and out of body.  As well as heady, for Jan and I went from winning our first Grammy Award at the Staples Center in Los Angeles the night before to LAX the next morning to fly to Cambodia via Bangkok.  A cultural yin and yang shock that defined dizzy, even as I recall the memory that mixed my love of Asia with Mexico (our first Grammy Award was our first success with the music Carlos Chavez).

From the Grammy Awards  to LAX and Cambodia, February 2004.

Culture shock: we left from the Grammy Awards the following day for Cambodia, February 2004.

Struggling to grasp the intensity of the noon day heat, I felt a bit faint. As I am waiting for our passports to be processed and checked into our room, I browsed a book on a small waiting table, half dazed at finally coming to a stop and refreshed by the tropical iced drink.  I opened to my amazement an art book that contained a series of fantastic water color drawings of Cambodian dancers by Auguste Rodin.  I was unaware of their existence by the great sculptor until that moment. I was struck by a lightning bolt of recognition. The full force of the exchange of cultural fluid between France and Asia, a cultural semen impregnating French Impressionist artists, giving birth to new ideas and expressions, the exotique of the fortunately long lost French Indochine, was one of many thoughts that rushed like a torrent.  I gave in to the rapid associations running full speed in my imagination: Monet’s Japanese Bridge at Giverny, the tsunami waves of Debussy’s La Mer inspired by Hokusai, Messiaen’s exotic birds, the silk figurations of Ravel’s Mallarme SongsBoulez’s gongs completing the amnesia of Le Marteau sans Maître, I let the imagined sounds and thoughts and images from Paris pour through me in that instant, not wanting them to stop, all the while with the eternal chanting of a Buddhist funeral providing the soundtrack. Once finally checked into a cool dark room mixed with teak, lemongrass and gingered perfumes, I fell on the bed and slept soundly, dreaming on the other side of the world for the first time.

I have not recovered from that moment.

Cambodian dancers in rehearsal at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 2004.

Cambodian dancers in rehearsal at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 2004.

Memory is the only verb tense for destiny.  And as my Southeast Asian memory wakes again in Việt Nam on Tuesday morning September 24, 2013, I’ll return to sharing with you from the Old Quarter of Hà Nội the layer upon layer of narrative shaping my musical life and the next 2014 LA International New Music Festival.

Best, best, best,