Internationally renowned composer teaches at KSU

 Prof. Cuong in front of class
Prof. Cuong working with the Albany Symphony in 2018 on Re(new)al. 

Young composer’s work performed on six continents in world-class venues

KENNESAW, Ga. (Dec 16, 2020) — Internationally renowned composer and KSU School of Music professor Viet Cuong might not be the musician and symphonist he is today if his piano teacher had given him some more interesting music to play.

When he was young, Cuong didn’t like practicing the required Suzuki music, but loved Walt Disney show tunes, so he improvised with tunes of his own, and a composer was born. “It was a way to trick my mom into thinking that I was actually practicing, when I was actually messing around on the piano and making up my own music,” he explains.

He’s been making his own music ever since.

This year, he is also teaching others to make their own music at his first professorial position:  composer-in-residence at Kennesaw State University. 

His experience working with performers and conductors—as well as traveling to different countries—is what he seeks to bring to his students in the School of Music. “In composition lessons, the advice that I give is informed by my own experience with a lot of the same things that I am teaching,” says Cuong.

Called “alluring” and “wildly inventive” by The New York Times, his music has been performed by So Percussion, Eighth Blackbird and Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, to mention only a few. 

In December 2019, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra commissioned and premiered his composition “Extra(ordinarily) Fancy: Concerto for Two Oboes.” The piece is a perfect example of his fondness for playfulness. “I enjoy some whimsy, like in the double oboe concerto, to tell musical jokes and make people smile,” he says.

With every piece, Cuong tries to tell a story, or set the scene for something. “In the double oboe concerto, it’s me trying to embody a Baroque composer. It’s what Viet Cuong would sound like if he was a 17th century Italian composer. With my pieces, I will often put on different musical hats, not necessarily to emulate, but rather to honor different kinds of music that I love,” he explains.

“Well Groomed,” performed by Jeff Stern, is certainly not something you have heard before. Composed for solo snare drum, the piece solidly places you into the mechanics of a barbershop. “When I was writing it, I was thinking of the atmosphere of a barbershop—from the little hair clipper to the scissors—everything seems mechanical. The piece has that quality.”

Cuong’s achievements and awards fill up six pages of his resume, but he is most proud of working with so many talented ensembles. His recent commission for three orchestra pieces for the California Symphony also ranks right up there. COVID has delayed the pieces, but has also provided additional opportunities, like teaching at KSU.

“I have felt very welcomed at KSU and have really enjoyed teaching here,” he says. “It’s hard to teach composition, because composing is such a creative endeavor. When you compose, you have to learn how to be critical of your own music and almost teach yourself how to improve your pieces. You won’t always have a teacher there to give you feedback. So, in my teaching, I hope to encourage students to be creative, think on their own, and help them find ways to avoid or remedy writer’s block. These are the things they may carry with them forever.”

Learn more about Prof. Cuong and listen to his compositions here.

--Kathie Beckett