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The Temple of Literature in  Hanoi

The Temple of Literature in Hà Nội.

Việt Nam exists in a world of continuity brought together by a reverence for teachers. The second major holiday here, the Thanksgiving to our Christmas, is Teacher’s Day each November.  The country shifts its gears.  Everyone is obligated to bring a gift to their teacher as a thank you to be guided in life by their example.

That’s right. By national obligation going back for centuries, the person who teaches you in school to talk, add and subtract, write and study, remains important to you for your entire life. No wonder Việt Nam has prevailed over foreign invasion from China (for a 1,000 years), France then Japan then France again, and then us during the Việt Nam War.

The whole country is a Temple of Literature…

As far as new music is concerned, the landscape is changing for the better.  The Dragon is waking to sounds not from the past, but toward an exciting future.

Planting a seed in LA: working with Vietnamese players on a piece of Vu Nhat Tan in May 2010 (Photo by B Perkinson).

Planting a seed in LA: working with Vietnamese players on a piece of Vũ Nhật Tân in May 2010 (Photo by B Perkinson).

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges programming a six week festival in 2010 between Southwest and Hà Nội and will reflect on those thoughts later when I’m back in California this winter. But in a nutshell I worked everybody hard with new challenges and it was intentional.

Việt Nam had waited for years for cultural recognition from the United States.  Secretary Clinton is revered here, as is her husband, who normalized diplomatic relations. The funds were from her branch of our government and that was well known here. It was the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hà Nội. We learned the State Department was pivoting our diplomacy toward Asia. For me, playing John Cage, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland alongside Kurt Rohde and Alexandra du Bois was a national obligation that as American musicians we would not be defined solely by the Việt Nam War.

Performing  Kurt Rohde together in LA  in 2010 (photo by B. Perkinson).

Performing Kurt Rohde’s Oculus together in LA in 2010 (photo by B. Perkinson).

Programming is not easy nor for the faint of heart.

I knew this opportunity would not come along every year. It was time to jump off the cliff.  Everyone knew I was jumping with them, with my mother as guardian angel and Loi Trinh Le as my guide. The programs had to make a psychological impact that would inspire looking at music with new eyes and new strategies for the future. That the recognition from the State Department to Việt Nam was bound up with new thinking.

That meant also setting an example with French Vietnamese composers Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and Tốn Thất Tiết, who suggested repertoire that I should program as a future inspiration to the Vietnamese players.  As well as advocating for Phạm Minh Thanh and Vũ Nhật Tân.

Pham Minh Thanh on stage in LA, May 2010. (photo B. Perkinson)

Phạm Minh Thanh takes a bow in LA, May 2010.
(photo B. Perkinson)

I didn’t come to Hà Nội for the fifth time for a bowl of noodles.  I needed to see for myself what changes if any have occurred.  If you’ve been following my blog you know a lot is underway.  Pictures are worth a thousand words. So here is the Việt Nam Academy in 2005.

Vietnam National Academy in 2005.

Việt Nam National Academy in 2005

Here’s the same plot of land this week in October.

The Vietnam Academy in 2013.

The Việt Nam National Academy in 2013.

A brand new concert hall is close to completion with Japanese acousticians hopefully working their magic. The adjacent hall where Southwest performed in 2006 and 2010 has received a fresh coat of paint, is now spotlessly clean, with a new entrance and a ground floor that will be used as an experimental performance space directed by Vũ Nhật Tân.

And we’ve met a whole new generation of leadership here in Hà Nội. The seed planted by Southwest during Ascending Dragon in 2010 is visible in many ways.

Meeting a new leadership team:  Nguyen Minh Anh, Le Van Toan, Hai Van and Nguyen Chi Nguyen

Meeting a new leadership team: Nguyễn Minh Anh, Lê Văn Toàn, Hải Vân and Nguyễn Chị Nguyễn (photo by Vũ Nhật Tân).

The discussion is changed, new music is in the air as a means of moving forward, no matter how small the steps or big the dreams. Trần Kim Ngọc’s Đom Đóm space opens this evening at Zone 9. You know you are in Việt Nam when the opening concert is planned on the first night of the new moon. Other things shouldn’t change.

I had a meeting with a very young Vietnamese composer who hopes to study in America one day.  I asked him who his favorite composer was.

“Karlheinz Stockhausen. I love Kontakte.”

Knowing the Vietnamese reverence for teachers, I asked this young man if he knew who had taught Stockhausen.  He didn’t, which was no surprise to me.

“Stockhausen was taught by Olivier Messiaen,” I replied. “He lived in Paris. But you need to know he also taught one of your musical grandfathers, Nguyễn Thiên Đạo. To understand Messiean, you will need to study Debussy without question. All of this relates to your country’s experience with France and the Việt Nam that exists today.”

I’ve said earlier that I don’t believe in coincidences, just facts. Nguyễn Thiên Đạo is here in Hà Nội from Paris, which like seeing Stephen Lesser, wasn’t planned ahead of time. You find balance through chance. Rest assured Đạo and I are having some long conversations about how Việt Nam gets from here to there as a musical country.

It’s also not a coincidence that Đạo’s last name means The Path. As in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu.

The Dragon Awakes…

Best, best, best,