Asia, Buddhism, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Hanoi, Joan Huang, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kent Nagano, Kim Ngoc Tran, LA International New Music Festival, Momo Kodama, Nguyen Thien Dao, Olivier Messiaen, Randy Schoenberg, Song Hong Ensemble of Hanoi, Southwest Chamber Music, Tetsuji Honna, Vietnam, Vu Nhat Tan, William Kraft
Why Việt Nam?
Jan and I are looking forward to going to Hà Nội soon, and I’m excited to announce the inaugural concerts of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble as we begin our roles as artistic advisors to this new group and the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra in October. The concerts are October 25 at the new Old Quarter Cultural Exchange, October 29 at the Manzi Art Space and October 31 in the Grand Hall of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music.
One thing, as they say, leads to another. But why Việt Nam?
Since I’m in love with classical music (my student days in the late 70s studying with Roland Berger of the Vienna Philharmonic retain impact to this day) let me start with an exposition.
A while ago I was searching randomly for photographs of Claude Debussy, a grandparent of the musical world that inspires me. Without knowledge of Debussy you don’t have big picture awareness about music and the meeting of East and West. Put Việt Nam into that picture and France plays a specific, visible and determinative role.
So here we go. Knowing the Vietnamese reverence for teachers, I’m going to begin this story with a daisy chain of teachers and students, all preparing us to begin our roles leading the inaugural concerts of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and start the significant task of long range planning for the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra and its new Grand Hall at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music.
Jan and I recently had composers William Kraft and Joan Huang to dinner, celebrating his 92nd birthday and discussing our new roles in Hà Nội. We all share a deep love of Debussy (though not very obviously placed, Bill has an autograph letter by Debussy by the entrance to his front door). I’d also been thinking of his long and now legendary association with Igor Stravinsky (another grandfather of the musical world that inspires me). And a Fun Fact about Bill was that during World War II he was stationed in Chantilly and was in Paris for VE Day in 1945. Now that’s a party story to end all party stories!
Let me begin my thoughts on Việt Nam with a highly symbolic thank you to Erik Satie, the French composer who had a camera with him one day in Debussy’s Paris apartment. Symbolic because Satie was a huge influence on John Cage. Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912, studied with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA and was a composer Bill enjoyed a long association with over the years, even rehearsing in Cage’s apartment long ago when Bill lived in New York City.
But back to Debussy. When dealing with Việt Nam, Paris is never far away.
This photo was taken around the time of Le Sacre du Printemps. But what struck me seeing it now was my focus on the two Japanese prints on the wall a little to the right of Stravinsky. One is by Hokusai, a view of Mt. Fuji often referred to as The Great Wave which inspired Debussy’s La Mer. The print below the Hokusai I can’t identify, but it’s clearly of a Japanese woman.
But I then happened upon a photo of Debussy with Erik Satie I’d never seen before. What I now call The Buddha on the Mantle.
I was dumbstruck when I first saw this photo. So it seems Debussy was looking at a Buddha on his mantle in Paris everyday. There’s a book contained in this symbolism, and mine is under construction as I go in and out of Asia in the next few years, so stay connected via my blog posts.
There is no argument that Debussy gave Western music a new sound world. And that sound world has a lot to do with Asia, as this photo helps demonstrate. You don’t put something on your living room mantle unless it has a significant meaning for you and your family. And carefully look at Debussy’s clothes, as I’d swear he’s wearing the same suit as in the photo with Stravinsky. Common sense then tells me that Stravinksy took this photo during the same afternoon when Satie took the famous photo of Debussy and Stravinsky. Would that Bill had asked Stravinsky about this afternoon in Paris!
When I showed these photos to Bill he was himself equally inspired and said he’d frame them for his own house. Realize that in that house there is a signed score by Igor Stravinsky to Bill for his performance in the recording of L’histoire du Soldat that reads “Thank you, Igor Stravinsky.” Debussy’s letter is across the hall by the front door. Always an inspiration to see these reminders of truly great musicians in the home of a mentor and friend.
I find meetings usually stiff and formal, but meals essential and interesting. You learn a lot about a person having dinner with them. Food nurtures our life, and ideas find a great forum around a shared dinner table.
Dr. Lê Anh Tuấn and Dr. Minh Anh share the leadership of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music. Dr. Tuấn officially offered us roles as Artistic Advisors to the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra and Hà Nội New Music Ensemble this August. Minh Anh and his wife represent the changes going on in Việt Nam, as he studied piano in Moscow but she studied law at Harvard University in Boston, a pretty strong cultural juxtaposition. They knew the owner of the excellent restaurant Hà Nội Hà Nội, who had himself returned home to Hà Nội from Boston, and hosted a memorable dinner for us there in 2013.
Their son, young Nguyễn Minh Nhật, is a budding composer. As part of an energetic evening of conversation, I asked him if he had a favorite composer. Like most young people inspired, he didn’t blink.
“Stockhausen. I love KONTAKTE!”
Jan and I were shocked and surprised, in very good ways. One of our greatest experiences in music was at Tanglewood performing the Third Region of HYMNEN by Stockhausen, dedicated to John Cage. And Stockhausen will make more appearances in my next few blogs, so stay curious and connected. Composers Vũ Nhật Tân and Tràn Kim Ngọc studied in Cologne with Johannes Fritsch, a composer member of Stockhausen’s legendary Aus Den Sieben Tagen ensemble and violist for KONTAKTE, and Kim Ngọc herself studied for two summers with Stockhausen. I’ve stopped waiting for conductors and orchestra managers to green light performances of this Third Region of HYMNEN, which was conducted with great inspiration by the late Gunther Schuller (the second half was Amérique by Varèse, if you need to know what a strong orchestra concert looks like). But that’s a story for another day.
So I asked Minh Nhật a question. Knowing the reverence for teachers in Vietnam, he offered me an opportunity for discussion that had to be taken.
“That’s great,” I replied. “Do you know who taught Stockhausen?”
There was silence, which is often the case in Asia. The Confucian respect for age is very strong, and talking up to an adult is a challenge, if not an outright impossibility, beyond a one word answer. I didn’t want him to remain swinging blindly for responses so I picked up the thread.
“You know, Minh Nhật, the building that we’re having dinner in was constructed during the French colonial era in Việt Nam, when all this was known to them as Indochina. And there is evidence all over Hà Nội of the French, which now is thankfully resolved historically. Stockhausen was taught by Olivier Messiaen, who was French.”
“But, Minh Nhật, do you know who else was taught by Olivier Messiaen?”
Again silence. But now my question “why Việt Nam?” will start to come into focus.
“Nguyễn Thiên Đạo, one of your founding fathers of Vietnamese new music.” An expatriate living in Paris, imagine Iannis Xenakis with an Asian sensibility and you’ll have an idea of Đạo’s world. Messiaen urged Đạo to focus on being Vietnamese and he’s accomplished his mentor’s advice with a wonderful body of music.
I believe in facts, not coincidences. I can’t make up the next part of my exposition about Việt Nam.
Right before we arrived in Hà Nội in autumn of 2013, Tetsuji Honna and the Việt Nam National Symphony Orchestra had just toured Japan with a piano concerto by Nguyễn Thiên Đạo. The pianist, which we didn’t know at the time, was our friend, Momo Kodama, the sister-in-law of our longest best friend on Planet Earth, conductor Kent Nagano.
Now, about Olivier Messiaen and our extended family.
Jan and Kent Nagano know each other for over 40 years, and they go back to the legendary and iconic operatic American traiblazer, Sarah Caldwell and her Boston Opera Company. If you think our operatic generation is hip today, you should think again. Sarah was the pioneer still unrivaled to this day.
When we connected with Kent at the famed Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, where Wiliam Kraft had played for Stravinsky and Boulez and premiered Stockhausen’s ZYKLUS, Kent was headed after our concert to the airport to assist Seiji Ozawa with the preparation for the world premiere of Messiaen’s mammoth opera St. François d’Assise at the Paris Opera. He’s never looked back since and as he’s described it, over our long correspondence, we’ve grown up together over the years.
So, to continue the thread of my post, there should be no surprise that back in the late 1980s Kent and I commissioned a horn concerto with his Berkeley Symphony Orchestra from William Kraft (during my days sitting behind that tremendous instrument, which I retired in 1998). Veils and Variations went on to win a prestigious Kennedy Center Friedheim Award as the Best New American Orchestral Work, not a shabby result, and a piece we recorded together a few years later for Harmonia Mundi.
Kent and I continue our conversations all the time and he’s well aware of our upcoming adventure in Hà Nội. He remains one of Messiaen’s greatest champions, and for obvious reasons, our favorite interpreter of those visionary works. And, in a nice echo of our recently completed Los Angeles International New Music Festival and our successful West Coast premiere performance of The Raven, Kent will give the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s next opera Stilles Meer in Hamburg in January/February 2016.
But allow me to continue this daisy chain of teachers, students and our path to Việt Nam. Because for us classical music is about an active and on-going conversation with history, and history needs to be alive with people making the stories come to life.
One of Kent’s great mentors was Pierre Boulez, as long ago in the 1980s Kent was principal conductor at IRCAM in Paris, and Messiaen’s good word played a role in recommendation I’m sure. Messiaen introduced Kent to George Benjamin, so the great success of Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin goes a long way back. And the Ensemble Intercontemporain is where Kent gave a world premiere in 1987 of a harp concerto, Chữ Ký VII, by Việt Nam’s Tốn Thất Tiết, and the title translates to The Seventh Path. IRCAM also commissioned Nguyễn Thiên Đạo, for a fantastic piece called Voie Concert or Journey. These pieces have yet to be played in Hà Nội by Vietnamese players, but I digress saying that, and believe we can remedy this together in a few years!
Back to dinner with young composer Minh Nhật in Hà Nội in 2013.
I of course asked him if he knew who also taught composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, and again received silence. Since you know the answer, I’ll let the picture do the talking.
So perhaps a recapitulation is in order.
My post began identifying two of the musical grandparents who inspired me, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, and I’ve demonstrated Stravinsky’s relationship to my friend and mentor, composer William Kraft. Then Karlheinz Stockhausen appears as a favorite composer to young Minh Nhật, and Olivier Messiaen, as a teacher to Stockhausen, Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and Pierre Boulez enters the picture vividly through one of our best friends, Kent Nagano. So I think these paths to Việt Nam are coming together.
But the most personal connection of all to our musical grandparents is the friendship and support from the entire family of Arnold Schoenberg, who lived in Los Angeles for many years and taught John Cage and Lou Harrison at UCLA. Cage was influenced by Erik Satie, who by taking a photo in Paris of Debussy and Stravinsky started this teacher/student daisy chain background shaping my interest in Vietnam.
And how, you ask, did I meet the Schoenberg’s? Of course, through my teacher, Leonard Stein.
I’d arranged performances of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, Op. 26 for the opening of the short-lived Schoenberg Institute at USC in Los Angeles, which has left for the definitely greener pasture of Schoenberg’s home town of Vienna. Boulez was at the time music director of the New York Philharmonic and working on Elliott Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras (Carter also is very much part of our musical life, so do a Carter search to see for yourself). He’d red-eyed a flight to deliver an inspiring key note address to open the Institute, returning to New York to conduct recording sessions of the Carter.
Being on the staircase when the following picture was taken remains a very strong memory of my student years and one I’m happy to share with you. Boulez complimented our performance saying we’d played a difficult piece well, one of the only reviews I’ve ever taken seriously, my apologies to the music critics of the world. Many thanks to the Schoenberg Center in Vienna for making this photo available to my blog.
So let me return to my question “why Việt Nam?”
A developing country that defeats both Paris and Washington in the 20th century finds itself now in a new place with these old adversaries in the 21st. The intoxication of revolution is in the rear view mirror and new issues ask for new solutions. And this is where culture can play a defining role, and new music can articulate many positive national aspirations for a new generation. Because our role in Việt Nam, I believe, is to reconnect the obvious dots that history smeared. And one item on the agenda is establishing a natural fluency for the Vietnamese players with a musical language that has a great deal to do with Messiaen’s Paris, itself a post-war world.
That will be a challenge, make no mistake, but not an impossibility.
There is a will among the players and composers, a Vietnamese esprit de corps, a term I can use now without irony, that I believe can yield international results given a few years of very devoted work. They are willing to engage in an ongoing discussion with their history. And their story is one of the biggest of the 20th century.
Or we wouldn’t get on the plane, because things in Los Angeles are already quite rewarding for our Los Angeles International New Music Festival. Los Angeles is the home, after all, of the exiled Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who shape John Cage, Lou Harrison, William Kraft, Leonard Stein and many other influences on our careers. And Los Angeles is on the move and one of the most progressive cities in the world for new music, with Walt Disney Concert Hall a global destination. I think all this makes our presence in Hà Nội’s developing and maturing new music world exciting. The timing is right.
I had one last question for Nguyễn Minh Nhật that night at Hà Nội Hà Nội Restaurant in 2013.
“And, Minh Nhật, do you know who influenced Olivier Messiaen, the man who taught your favorite composer Stockhausen?” The obligatory respectful silence ensued. I urged him to look around the French era restaurant we were sitting in during our meal.
“It’s Claude Debussy.”
As I looked around the French architecture of the restaurant, enjoyed the French influence on a few Vietnamese dishes or the French inflected English accent that often characterizes the English spoken by the Vietnamese, I sensed that the chance to interpret music from the reverse side of the globe – a performing critique of the West’s debt to Asia with Vietnamese players – could be an interesting idea to pursue if given the opportunity. And I knew that young Minh Nhật would go home and take full advantage of the internet to follow-up on my questions.
Hearing from Debussy himself might create a good coda to this post, as he left us a stunning assessment of his encounter with another musical world and system from Java.
“Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play,” wrote Debussy, “and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”
I don’t think Debussy was influenced by the Javanese sounds he heard. He was suspect of the orientalism in fashionable vogue at that time in Paris. What I do think occured is that what he heard from these Javanese musicians confirmed his own intuition. Messiaen’s world maybe Catholic, but if you pay close attention the sounds are heavily influenced from Asia. Boulez has remarked that he needed to have his ears cleaned from Western sounds. Listening to his Rituel will demonstrate that sound world viscerally. Stockhausen was changed by Sri Lankan festivals and inspired to compose his mammoth, and I mean mammoth, seven opera LICHT cycle at Ryoanji in Kyoto. Cage is unthinkable without Hindu and Zen philosophy. And there is Buddhist non-attachment in the sound world of Webern, as the Second Viennese School took great inspiration from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. More poems of Li Po and other Chinese poets are found in vocal works of Schoenberg and Webern.
Something was in the musical air a century ago. About a hunderd years later we are getting on a plane to add a new chapter in this long story of influence on each other between East and West.
At our very first meeting at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music in 2005, we were in a room that had a long wall with portraits of all the old male European dead composers on one side. Isolated, on one wall all to himself, was a a copy of the Renoir portrait of Debussy. A fact, not a coincidence, that spoke volumes about where we were and the untapped potential for Vietnamese in new music. With a passionate engagement with music’s history, my Vietnamese friends are in a unique position to interpret the sound world of our time for composers in both East and West. Juilliard may be opening a campus in China, but it’s not in the best place as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll bet they are more interested in tips for Tchaikovsky than serious new music. That’s a hope, not a strategy.
The various photos in this post of Debussy and Javanese gamelans sing a thousand cross cultural lyrics supporting our dreams as we travel back to Việt Nam for the inaugural concerts of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble on October 25 at the new Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center, October 29 at the Manzi Art Space and October 31 in the Grand Hall of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music.
Just give us a few years together in Hà Nội!
My programs for the three inaugural concerts of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble have been chosen by my friends in Vietnam, with modest input from pieces I’ve received via email, and all the repertoire, another French word I can now use in Hà Nội without irony, is Vietnamese. I’ll be posting soon about the music and the composers and players.
The world of Paris, of Debussy and Messiaen and all that represents, will come later, and when it does, I’m convinced, there will be a new opportunity for the East and West to meet again where they always met, for worse more than better, in the 20th century. But this time we’ll meet with music rather than war.
Việt Nam. You can look it up if you don’t know what I mean.
Best, best, best,