Viet Cuong began his journey to becoming a successful composer with a little bit of con artistry.

“My mom put me in piano lessons because she thought it would stimulate my brain,” said Cuong, 32, the Pacific Symphony’s new composer-in-residence. “My parents were in the sciences. They weren’t musicians, but they thought it would be good for me to learn piano.”

Cuong laughed at the memory. “I wasn’t very studious. I didn’t like to practice. And so, the way I started composing is – I would make things up at the piano. It was a way of tricking my mom into thinking I was practicing.”

Cuong’s mother finally caught on to the subterfuge, and the piano lessons stopped. But his fascination for composing continued.

“I joined band in sixth grade. I played percussion. Sometimes people who played piano get (assigned) to percussion because the keyboard has the same layout (as some mallet instruments).”

It turns out that percussion was the perfect assignment for a budding young composer, Cuong said. “As a percussionist, oftentimes you’re counting rests. So I spent a lot of time watching the band director rehearse the music. And (through that process) I learned the different roles of the instruments. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, the flutes play the melody all the time.’ So I would go home and actually try to write music in the style of those pieces that I heard in band practice.”

Listening to band music inspired Cuong in other ways as well. “In the wind band world, a lot of music is written by living composers. So I thought, ‘Well, if this person that I’ve searched for on the internet is alive and writing music, I guess I can do that too.’ 

One of the composers Cuong admired was Frank Ticheli, Pacific Symphony’s previous composer-in-residence. Ticheli enjoys an active career as a composer of band music. Succeeding Ticheli “feels like coming full circle. It’s an honor to follow in the footsteps of someone like Frank, whose music I played when I was little,” Cuong said.

Determined to Go His Own Way

Cuong was born in California but left the state when he was just 3. The family moved to Arizona for a couple of years and then eventually landed in Marietta, Georgia when Cuong was 6. Cuong attended Marietta’s Lassiter High School and was a member of both the marching and concert bands, learning clarinet in addition to percussion. He credits the school system in his town with giving him an excellent music education and an appreciation for music that connects with all audiences.

Cuong is also grateful that his parents didn’t discourage him from following his muse. 

“I think it’s common with Vietnamese American families of my generation, just like a lot of immigrant parents — when they come to the U.S. they really value things like stability and making a living. And my mom herself was a refugee. She was one of the boat people. And she was really (concerned) about the idea of me becoming a composer because she didn’t really know what that was. All of her friends’ kids were becoming pharmacists and doctors.”

It took a little convincing to get his mom on board, Cuong said. But he was determined. “I just kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, I really can’t see myself doing anything else.’”

After high school, Cuong distinguished himself in his musical studies. He holds degrees in music composition from Princeton University (MFA/Ph.D.), the Curtis Institute of Music (artist diploma), and the Peabody Conservatory (bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music). Cuong is an assistant professor of music composition and theory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and divides his time between his home in Orange County and Las Vegas.

Pacific Symphony’s composer-in-residence Viet Cuong, right, with conductor Carl St.Clair. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

Cuong’s music is graced by extreme stylistic variety, humor and a curiosity for unusual instrumental combinations and sounds. Only a few of his works show an obvious Vietnamese influence — for instance, “Thu Điếu” for soprano and small ensemble (2017). Cuong said his cultural heritage is usually expressed in less overt ways through his music.

“I think it’s probably a subconscious thing. It’s kind of related to what I was saying before about my mom and dad. They were really all about assimilating. My mom always said to me, ‘You’re American, you were born here.’ She made American food for dinner. I actually can’t speak Vietnamese anymore. I forgot it when I was young, even though it was my first language. So I’d say any … cultural influences from being Vietnamese are probably subconscious.”

A Touch of Defiance

Cuong thinks his heritage comes through in other ways in his music.

“Feelings that I had as a kid still echo through my music today. (It reflects) feeling like an outsider in some ways. And I think some of my music has a kind of defiance, I would say.”

Cuong’s music has been described as “alluring” and “wildly inventive” by the New York Times, and he embraces the description.

Viet Cuong, second from the left, with the percussionists of the Pacific Symphony. They performed “Re(new)al,” his concerto for percussion quartet and orchestra during a recent concert. As the symphony’s current composer-in-residence, it was his first piece performed by the group. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony/Doug Gifford

“I guess I’m really curious about the way instruments work and the kind of unusual sounds they can make. But then (I enjoy) putting those unusual sounds in a context that’s oddly satisfying. I try to use these sounds in ways that aren’t totally alienating for a listener. I feel like I’m discovering new things in each piece and finding new ways to push myself.”

Fans of Pacific Symphony have already heard Cuong’s work this season. “Re(new)al,” his intriguing concerto for percussion quartet and orchestra, explores unusual sonorities and instruments. It was performed at Pacific Symphony’s season-opening concert in September. 

Cuong is in discussions with Pacific Symphony music director St.Clair about future projects, and the orchestra will undoubtedly perform several Cuong world premieres during his residency. A Cuong work could be on the program for the symphony’s Lunar New Year concert on Jan. 28, the composer said. Cuong also mentioned the possible performance of an expanded song cycle, and he’ll be working with the symphony’s youth ensembles as well. 

Cuong feels fortunate not only to enjoy the opportunities of an orchestral residency, but also the good fortune of being active in a time when former prejudices and expectations about style no longer hold sway in the world of concert music.

“It’s this place where anything goes nowadays, which is really freeing and exciting. (Many of my) teachers were of the generation when … they were kind of forced to write a certain way, even if it wasn’t what felt true to them. So I feel really lucky that when I was going through school, I could kind of write whatever music I wanted and my teachers were supportive of that. I’ve never felt constrained from exploring whatever I want to.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.


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