A Canticle for Oliver Knussen, The Gentle Giant of New Music

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A perfect last photo of Oliver Knussen on July 6, 2018 at the Royal Academy of Music in London, receiving an Honorary Doctorate.

”Aren’t you the fantastic horn player I’ve been hearing?” came an introduction towards my direction, in that one of a one voice. We were in the Music Library at Tanglewood in the summer of 1980. As fate would have it on that humid Berkshire afternoon in July, I was studying the score of Voices by Hans Werner Henze and he was working on Where The Wild Things Are. I didn’t realize that just opening that particular Henze score would be all the personal introduction needed for Oliver Knussen to strike up a conversation with me.

A warm friendship began that would last for the next thirty eight years, until his untimely death a few weeks ago. We always remained in touch, either here in Los Angeles, where he conducted often in the 1980s, during our engaging phone calls, or on our return trips to Tanglewood to visit my wife Jan’s family. “I’ve certainly met you in past life!” would become Olly’s charming Leit-motif for saying hello to Jan.

Grief creates a strange energy, and I know that I am not alone coping with the shock that Olly is no longer with his daughter Sonya, with my wife Jan, with me, with any of his friends, with the entire new music community all over the world. A man of uncommon common sense, don’t let appearances fool you. Of all of Oliver Knussen’s gigantic appetites, the largest was for music.

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Gongs & Bamboo: New Music from Hong Kong, Manila and Hà Nội

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Asian Ensemble Workshop in Hong Kong brings together Manila and Hà Nội.

The Asian Ensemble Workshop in Hong Kong is an inflection point, at least in foundation speak. In plain English this June 2018 workshop is the start of something big!

From June 22 to 24 and sponsored by the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, these workshop meetings are discussing side-by-side projects deepening artistic connections between the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, the Ripieno Ensemble in Manila, and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. The goal is to get started with collaborative projects during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, building on the strengths of each city, formally establishing an international network between Hong Kong, the Philippines and Việt Nam.

In case you were wondering, this regional Southeast Asian network didn’t just fall from the sky fully formed in the last few days. And though Hong Kong is not officially in ASEAN, the city does function as a geographical fulcrum. A flight from Hà Nội is only about an hour, the same from Manila. I’m happy to provide some necessary background.

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From Vienna to Việt Nam with the Influence of Leonard Bernstein

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral from a Cộng Cà Phê in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội.

“There are no coincidences.” – Leonard Bernstein

A day before concluding my eleven week residency this April with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, I did something routine before I leave Việt Nam. I went across the street from where I stay to my local Cộng Cà Phê, which has hands down the world’s best coffee.

“Cho anh cà phê nâu đá,” I ordered in Vietnamese, which frankly I don’t need to do anymore. The young and attentive staff greet me, often generously coach me in Vietnamese pronunciation each morning and usually just show up with my order. Being older in Việt Nam has its advantages. “Hello, grandfather!” is their normal salutation.

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Opposites Attract: The Music of Alexandra du Bois and Vũ Nhật Tân

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Vũ Nhật Tân and Alexandra du Bois in Los Angeles in 2010.

I am very happy, as in a proud new music grandfather happy, that the Apollo Chamber Players in Houston, Texas are inspired by our 2010 Ascending Dragon Festival and Cultural Exchange, a landmark project that Jan Karlin and I were proud to produce for the U.S. State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton. And we did indeed accomplish the goals of the Obama Administration, to establish long term cultural relationships between Việt Nam and the United States, a new 21st century chapter, but this time together as friends and not enemies.

In 2010, Ascending Dragon was a six week festival in both countries. In May of 2012, I brought Vũ Nhật Tân and Alexandra du Bois together again for our first Los Angeles International New Music Festival. Since October 2015, Jan and I have made a long term and ongoing commitment as the first Americans appointed as artistic advisors by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture. Our mission is to guide and facilitate the international development of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. And now in 2018, Apollo Chamber Players is reuniting composers Vũ Nhật Tân and Alexandra du Bois, two of the Ascending Dragon composers-in-residence, with a concert sharing their music, deep in the heart of Texas.

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Transfigured Schoenberg in Việt Nam

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Rehearsing Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night in Hà Nội.

”I’m satisfied with what we’ve accomplished tonight,” I said to my hard working friends in the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble after two and half hours rehearsing the complexities of texture and harmony in Schoenberg’s epochal Transfigured Night. “Would like to go home early?”

”No,” came a unison answer. “Can we just take a break and keep working?”

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Street Food Heaven: A Tour of Jalan Penang Road & New Lane Hawker Stalls

THANK YOU!!!!! I am celebrating over 25,000 visitors in 150 countries to my blog “Sound Travels” by reposting my delicious work horse post about Jalan Penang Road in Georgetown, Malaysia. At over 2,000 readers this post continues to draw an international audience everyday. You keep reading and I’ll keep writing! THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!

Sound Travels with Jeff von der Schmidt

image The 1885 Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown.

During the time I was in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia, I didn’t recognize the big impact it would exert on my life. But as my memory takes over from those experiences with the Straits of Malacca, I know that I’ll never be the same again.

Not only are the peoples and religions of China, India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka all mixed up with the remnant of former British Malaya in a dazzlingly vibrant textile of culture. What is now apparent, to the world’s intangible benefit, is a vibrant and alive composite cuisine that, for me, changed my taste forever. There is no going back. I’ve crossed a food Rubicon because of Malaysia.

Salt and pepper will never be the same again.

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Black Cardamom & Star Anise at the Đồng Xuân Market in Hà Nội

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The alley leading to the Đồng Xuân Market.

There are elements of Vietnamese culture that invest significantly in symbolism. Colors. Numbers. Days of the week. Seasons of the year. Phases of the lunar cycle. I-Ching astrological fortune tellers play important and still visible societal roles. Your given name has a deeply considered poetic meaning.

And the cuisine of Việt Nam?

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Thoughts on a Winter Moon with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble

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A dreamy winter’s day in Hà Nội.

No matter how long the journey, the pattern of progress always returns to one step at a time. After spending the Christmas and New Year Holiday season at home in Pasadena, cooking up a lot of delicious storms and seeing scores of friends and neighbors, I’m excited to be back in Việt Nam for another extended residency with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, making each little step we take count towards achieving a world class ensemble in Southeast Asia.

And we all need a little help from our friends. In the case of my work with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, that means creating a collection of like minded people slowly chipping in from Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Paris, Kyoto, México City and Tokyo to offer help and guidance along the way.

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Forest Chants & Mountain Walks With New & Old Friends in Kyoto

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Meeting Maki Takafuji for the first time at Seiryu-den in Kyoto.

The city of Kyoto can be a paradox. The functional train station, workaday streets and boulevards, the normal comings and goings of its citizens, the overall grey quality of most of the recent architecture, all can elicit a potentially ambivalent response. Kyoto is a UNESCO World Heritage City with an extraordinary endowment of timeless shrines, temples, mind boggling handicrafts, legendary ceramics, world class tea and sake production, the legendary home of Noh and Kabuki, and maintains all the splendor of the once ancient capital of Japan. At first appearance, however, these wonders seem very hidden, as if the greatness of Kyoto is itself wrapped in a confusing furoshiki of the modern world.

But whereas the Vatican in Rome is housed in the magisterial architecture of the Renaissance, the sibling city for Buddhism in Kyoto is an ongoing interaction with nature. You will experience more open doors framing a view of nature in a Zen Temple in Kyoto than any Catholic Church in Rome.

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Finding Tambuco in Japan: “Are Those Bamboo Gamelans I Hear, Mr. Bond?”

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With Maki Takafuji at Sanzen-in Temple in Ohara.

”Jeff, it’s interesting, after all our projects together, that we are now talking here about music and culture in Onjuku, Japan,” said my friend Ricardo Gallardo of the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble during an early morning coffee looking out on the Pacific Ocean.

“You and Jan must meet my friend Maki Takafuji when you go to Kyoto. She lives there, teaches in Nagoya and is a great advocate for new music, and she commissioned Steve Reich for the famous Nagoya Marimbas.

But before we get to Kyoto, I should to tell you about why Ricardo and I were talking on the Pacific coast of Japan in Onjuku.

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