New Music Exchange in Vietnam

Crowded, but clean. Typical street view in the Old Quarter, Hanoi.

Crowded, but clean. Typical street view in the Old Quarter, Hanoi.

Originally Published October 14, 2014.

I recently returned from the beautiful city of Hanoi, where my Asia / America New Music Institute (AANMI) presented a concert as part of the Asia-Europe New Music Festival (AENMF). My dear friends Sayo Kosugi (composer and AANMI Director, Japan), Kah Chun Wong (conductor and leader of the Asian Contemporary Ensemble in Singapore), Jun Hong Loh (violinist from Singapore), and Rain Senavinin (baritone from Thailand) all came and gave wonderful performances at the National Academy of Music. Kah Chun and I have been talking about a collaboration since we were roommates at the Aspen Music Festival in 2011, so to have our concert become a reality was a true pleasure.

Being a novice in things Vietnamese, I shall keep this discussion limited to mainly the musical experiences I had in Hanoi and Halong Bay. I hope this blog entry gives some insight into the kinds of music being composed in different parts of Asia – recognizing, of course, that generalizations are dangerous, especially in describing new music trends.

The AENMF in Vietnam is the extension of a festival that has been running in the Russian Federation state of Tatarstan since 1993. Professor Rashid Kalimullin represented the Union of Composers of Tatarstan in Vietnam. I had met another Tatarstani, the composer of colossal repute, Ms. Sofia Gubaidulina, in Beijing earlier this year. That makes two Tatarstanis that I have ever knowingly met in my life. This in itself demonstrates the importance of music in stimulating international dialogue, especially when our meetings had to be conducted through a linguistic mediator (in the case of Ms. Gubaidulina I had the good fortune of having Dr. Samuel Adler and his fluent German available). Thanks to the talents of these two fabulous composers, Tatarstan has been given a voice in the international new music circles of which I’ve been a part.

An example of Ms. Gubaidulina’s work: Stimmen…Verstummen (1986). The trombones around 3:00 foreshadow Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to Lost, which came about 20 years later.

Sofia Gubaidalina’s Stimmen…Verstummen.

And here is an example of Professor Kalimullin’s work, Symphonic fresco, performed by the Tatarstan Symphony Orchestra. His music tends to be much more conservative than Gubaidalina's, but beautifully orchestrated nonetheless, and no more restrained. The climax of this work (around 19:00) is especially exciting.

Symphonic fresco, by Rashid Kalimullin (Russia - Tatarstan)

The Vietnam festival was timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Hồ Chí Minh’s triumphal entry into Hanoi (October 10, 1954), and it was no mistake that the opening piece of the festival was Kalimullin’s Hồ Chí Minh Overture, a bright, rhythmic fanfare (that could have used even a little more development). The Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam, and the Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Education Committee were in attendance, after all!

Two of my favorite composers of the entire festival were Nguyễn Thiên Đạo, a former student of Olivier Messiaen, and Dr. Isao Matsushita, Vice President of the Tokyo University of the Arts. Nguyễn Thiên Đạo was born in 1940 in Hanoi, arrived in France in 1953, and entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris in 1963. In spite of his short stature, he carries about him a very grand air, and he used his whole frame to conduct his orchestral work, Diem hen, which seemed to contain the gravity of the cosmos as well as the lightness of birds.

You can listen to some of Nguyễn Thiên Đạo’s works here:

http://www.nguyenthiendao.com/spip.php?rubrique46&lang=fr

Blog update: Nguyễn Thiên Đạo passed away on November 20, 2015.

AANMI team members Sayo Kosugi, Kah Chun Wong, Rain Senavinin, and Ayane Sato pose during a roadside pit stop with composer Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and festival organizer and composer Đỗ Hồng Quân.

AANMI team members Sayo Kosugi, Kah Chun Wong, Rain Senavinin, and Ayane Sato pose during a roadside pit stop with composer Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and festival organizer and composer Đỗ Hồng Quân.

Professor Matsushita’s work, A Time for Prayer, was performed in the closing ceremony. Composed in 1995 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, the work features two violin soloists, whose dialogue, imitation, and harmony together create a vocalise under which the orchestra at times swells, laments, explodes, and dies. This to me was the most powerful piece of the festival. Unfortunately I was not able to locate any recording of it online, but you can hear a work of similar sentiment called Prayer of the Firmament / Ode to Precious Life, or 「天空の祈り〜とうとき命に〜」. Professor Matsushita is the President of the Japan Federation of Composers and a board member of the Pacific Music Festival.

Blog update: Professor Matsushita passed away on September 16, 2018.

Prayer of the Firmament / Ode to Precious Life, or 「天空の祈り〜とうとき命に〜」by Professor Isao Matsushita (Japan).

Left to right: Professor Isao Matsushita (Vice President of Tokyo University of the Arts and a marvelous composer), Sayo Kosugi, Stepan Yakovich (violinist), and Rain Senavanin. Mr. Yakovich was one of the two violinists who performed Professor Matsushita's  A Time for Prayer  at the Hanoi Opera House.

Left to right: Professor Isao Matsushita (Vice President of Tokyo University of the Arts and a marvelous composer), Sayo Kosugi, Stepan Yakovich (violinist), and Rain Senavanin. Mr. Yakovich was one of the two violinists who performed Professor Matsushita's A Time for Prayer at the Hanoi Opera House.

My first country report as an elementary student was on Kazakhstan, so I was pleased when I came across my first Kazakhstani composer in Hanoi. From what I can gather about Artyk Toxanbayev (a great name!), his music tends to embody the spirit of the Kazakh steppe: folk-like, rhythmic, and broad in character. Here is an example of his joyous work, La Primavera.

La Primavera, by Artyk Toxanbayev (Kazakhstan).

On the far end of the consonance-dissonance spectrum were two composers from the Philippines, Dr. Maria Christine Muyco and Dr. Ramon P. Santos, whose works Talibun-ag (Emancipation - an opera excerpt) and DW'GEY, provided a strong counterweight to some of the more "populist" pieces we encountered at the festival. Dr. Santos holds the distinguished title of National Artist of the Philippines in Music, and was a grantee of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), which makes him family as far as I'm concerned.

Abot Tanaw - II, for violin solo, by Dr. Ramon P. Santos, National Artist of the Philippines

Towards the end of the week in Vietnam, the festival staff loaded all the participants on buses and shipped us off, with police escorts, to Halong Bay, where we were treated to a concert by traditional musicians in a very large limestone cave. Fortunately there was no electronic amplification, so we were able to hear a "raw" performance with beautiful natural acoustics.

A woman plays the Đàn tranh ,  the Vietnamese zither, in Da Gao Cave, Halong Bay.

A woman plays the Đàn tranh, the Vietnamese zither, in Da Gao Cave, Halong Bay.

As we learned at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, Vietnam is, like nearby Myanmar, a state built out of disparate cultures: more than 50 recognized ethnic groups exist within its borders. Also like Myanmar, the minority groups are concentrated in the hilly regions, while the largest group (the Viet, in this case), dominates the low-lying, fertile flatlands. Some of the minority groups, such as the Nùng, Yao, Hmong, and Thái (or Tay) peoples, predictably come from southern China and Laos, while many of the central and southern groups are more closely related to the Khmer in Cambodia and even, in some cases, the Malayo-Polynesian cultures (there are even some Muslim groups in the south/central areas).

As a result, there is a wide range of music genres one could label as being "traditional Vietnamese." The music to which we were treated in Halong Bay was a sort of mash-up of the Court Music, or nhã nhạc, with other genres, such as chèo (one type of music associated with musical theater).

One famous genre of chamber music is Ca trù, indigenous to Northern Vietnam, and often involving a female singer. You can learn about that in this video by the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology:

Ca trù chamber music - native to Northern Vietnam.

Musicians and tourists mingle at Đền Ngọc Sơn ,  or the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on the northern end of Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi.

Musicians and tourists mingle at Đền Ngọc Sơn, or the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on the northern end of Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi.

Incense burns at the Temple of Literature, or Văn Miếu, a Confucious center of learning that dates to the year 1070.

Incense burns at the Temple of Literature, or Văn Miếu, a Confucious center of learning that dates to the year 1070.

And then there was of course our own JAINM concert, on the morning of October 10, at the National Academy of Music. The JAINM repertoire this year has included 7 works: Collage, by Arsid Ketjuntra; My Beloved, by Sun-Young (Sunny) Park; two pieces by me - Wild Grass on the Riverbank and Five Minutes for a Century Ago; Lilac Nova, by Sayo Kosugi; Ling Hu, by Shaosheng Li; and Namura Cuo, by Professor Xiaogang Ye. Each piece is for either baritone or violin solo, with chamber orchestra. The thing that ties all of them together is narrative - each piece tells some kind of extramusical story. Both Arsid and I used text by a Japanese contemporary poet, Hiromi Ito, whose work is heavily influenced by her experience as an immigrant to the United States from Japan. Sunny's poetry comes from the beautiful work of Kim Sowol. The other four pieces are essentially violin concertos, each more different from the last. Sayo's Lilac Nova was awarded a prestigious Juilliard award, the Palmer Dixon Prize. In her words, she strove to depict "images...explosions, showers of sparks, and invisible forces of gravity. The high violin melody is like a shiny planet that floats in the cosmos, guiding us through a scenic journey of millions of planets in space." My own work, Five Minutes for a Century Ago, uses quotations from Delius, Satie, Ives, Prokofiev, and Webern, each of whom were chosen to represent some of the nations involved in the First World War. The purpose is to reflect on the variety and beauty of music being composed in each country in the year 1914. Ling Hu tells the story of a martial arts legend in China.

Kah Chun, Jun Hong, Rain and the JAINM Hanoi ensemble members each gave so much to make the concert a success. I am extremely grateful to them, and to the Festival Organizing Committee, for making Vietnam such a meaningful and memorable experience. Next stop for the JAINM "tour" is Singapore, in March.

Off to rehearsal. Rain Senavinin, baritone, holds the score to my piece,  Wild Grass on the Riverbank . Conductor Kah Chun Wong, violist Ayane Sato, and violinist Jun Hong Loh.

Off to rehearsal. Rain Senavinin, baritone, holds the score to my piece, Wild Grass on the Riverbank. Conductor Kah Chun Wong, violist Ayane Sato, and violinist Jun Hong Loh.

Room for discussion. An international panel covered a variety of topics ranging from non-linear composition in video games to the selection of musicians who will be allowed to study in Vietnamese conservatories.

Room for discussion. An international panel covered a variety of topics ranging from non-linear composition in video games to the selection of musicians who will be allowed to study in Vietnamese conservatories.

Chèo singers lead the traditional Vietnamese orchestra in the famous water puppet shows in Hanoi. Water puppetry was first created in the late 10th century (Oxford Grove Dictionary of Music).

Chèo singers lead the traditional Vietnamese orchestra in the famous water puppet shows in Hanoi. Water puppetry was first created in the late 10th century (Oxford Grove Dictionary of Music).

AANMI team meets the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Mr. Truong Tan Sang. (Photo by Sarah Ngo)

AANMI team meets the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Mr. Truong Tan Sang. (Photo by Sarah Ngo)