Dr. Chinary Ung is an internationally-celebrated composer who has recently earned one of the highest honors in the United States, a lifetime membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The 77-year-old, Cambodian-American musician and professor began in May his membership in the 250-person society of architects, artists, composers, and writers. The group administers awards and prizes to “foster, assist, and sustain excellence” in American literature, music, and art.
In 1964, Dr. Ung was a high school student in Phnom Penh when he won a scholarship to study clarinet at Manhattan School of Music in New York. Since then, he has found his place at the heart of American freedom and creativity. He says he owes his success to his Cambodian identity and a childhood on rural farms. “It’s the Khmer culture. It’s what I learned from the rice field that I spoke of; what touched me the most. And I’m proud to say that I’m a Cambodian.”
A formal induction ceremony in New York will take place in May 2021, delayed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. VOA has recently visited Dr. Ung’s San Diego home to talk with him about his award-winning compositions, the Cambodian soul and Khmer culture, and what it means to pursue the art.