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Sunset in Paris on the Seine from the Pont des Arts.

My friend Tốn Thất Tiết, who I would describe as a hybrid Vietnamese French composer who is fundamentally Vietnamese, writes the most patient music I’ve ever encountered. Poised from years of Buddhist thought and traditions, his command of stillness inspires me. And like the metaphor of water he often invokes, his music conceals endless energy underneath a calm surface.

Tiết was born in Huế, Việt Nam in 1933, went to Paris in 1958, studied with Messiaen’s friend André Jolivet and became a French citizen in 1971. In 1993 he founded the France-Việt Nam Music Association to promote the development of traditional music in Việt Nam.

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Approaching rain at twilight on the Perfume River in Huế.

Huế should be viewed as the Vatican of Buddhism for Việt Nam. Its countryside is dotted with numerous Buddhist temples and the Nguyễn dynasty tombs are legendary.  You won’t experience Vatican style opulent splendor, however. Huế was the location of the fiercest fighting of the Việt Nam War during the Tết Offensive of 1968, and was where Walter Cronkite saw for himself the failure of the American effort. It is said there is a ghost on every street in Huế. The city is a spirit world in daily life.

Hố Chí Minh grew up here and went to high school, begging his father to allow him to study French so he could better understand their colonial minds. Huế is central to the identity of Việt Nam, though the French called this part of the country Annam (the south was Cochin and the north Tonkin).

Jan and I’ve been fortunate to visit the home monastery of Thìch  Nhật Hạnh, the influential Buddhist monk from Huế.  Born in 1926, like Tốn Thất Tiết, he also now lives in France. Our friend Vivian Điep guided our taxi driver flawlessly in a threatening rainstorm so we could pay our respects to this great thinker and author.

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Vivian and me with the head monk of Thìch Nhật Hạnh’s Huế temple in 2006.

Huế received an impressive exposure from CNN’s Anthony Bourdain in a Parts Unknown program, and should you have the chance I’d recommend giving it an hour of your time. The vaunted imperial dynasty cuisine is still to be found, with food carving art to take one’s breath away.

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A carved Phoenix is typical of Huế cuisine.

The music of Tốn Thất Tiết provides Huế with its soundtrack. He’s inspired by Buddhism, the Perfume River has received a trilogy of string quartets, while the ancient Minh Manh tombs are evoked in Les jardins d’autre mondes, a concerto for harp and ensemble.

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The entrance to the Ming Manh Tombs in Huế.

I’ve mentioned the harp for good reason. Along with Toru Takemitsu, Tốn Thất Tiết writes the most exquisite music for the harp, and has a large repertoire of essential pieces that avoid the trap of composing for the instrument (I think the harp intimidates composers the most) rather than composing for expression.

So the first meeting, as it turned out, that we had in Paris was with Tiết’s biographer, harpist Laurence Bancaud. She’s premiered many of his pieces and her book is a tremendous guide to his music (in French only, I’m afraid, so I’m fortunate that my reading comprehension is OK). We developed a great sympathy for each other and know that next steps will be smooth.

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Happy discussion with Laurence Bancaud in Paris.

We moved on from this first meeting to a long lunch in the 13th arrondissement with Tiết and his wife Tâm Quy. It was a lively exposition of the inauguration of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and what type of next steps should move forward bringing Los Angeles and Paris together to advance new music in Hà Nội and all of Việt Nam.

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Tremendous discussions at lunch in Paris.

Timing is everything. How to proceed, what to do when, these are difficult questions. First one needs a clear exposition. During this lunch, Tiết reached into his jacket and produced the tell tale sign of dreams from the 20th century. An 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper folded three times to function as a brochure. His was for the France-Việt Nam Association which he wanted us to keep.

I think the French word I’m looking for is well known – a renaissance for his 1990s idea would describe one tangible strategy we discussed. Henri Dutilleux, Pierre Boulez and Kent Nagano were on board at the time he put this together, to name the most prominent. Jan and I didn’t go to Paris just to have a good meal, that’s for sure.

Tiết adjourned lunch, as Laurence had to leave for other commitments. He suggested we continue our discussions, which is always the best sign that things are working together. I must say, I enjoy 6 hour lunches!

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Enjoying espresso and Vietnamese coffee after lunch.

We particularly touched on the relationships between ancient Vietnamese music and new music, a life that Tiết has negotiated with considerable success. And our mutual friends in Vietnam, composer Vũ Nhật Tân and percussionist Đàm Quang Minh are working with the preservation of this old music simultaneously with the formation of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. These two paths will merge in the coming seasons to an even greater extent than ever before.

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The Đồng Kinh Co Nhạc Ensemble.

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Vũ Nhật Tân and Đàm Quang Minh direct Đồng Kinh Co Nhạc, leading a new wave for old music in Hanoi.

Bringing all these developments to Tôn Thất Tiết and Tâm Quy in Paris was one important motivation of our visit to Paris. There’s plenty of time for the strategies we discussed to coalesce in the Paris new music community. I’m confident these new ideas will resonate with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble’s growth and eventual maturity, and come to be part of my Los Angeles International New Music Festival as well. It’s also not hurting that the next Hà Nội New Music Ensemble concert is hosted at L’Espace by the Alliance Française on October 23.

Each week seems to plunge the world into deeper chaos, confusion and sadness this summer. But the Vietnamese have seen this movie before. We will all, like they have, eventually survive this era. Bringing the United States, France and Việt Nam together as friends? Through ancient and new music? These are deep waters to understand. There are no simple answers to problems so very complex

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A bright future with Tôn Thất Tiết.

Programming is not for the faint of heart. It’s not a question of putting forward a limiting inner vision of I like this piece or that composer. And there is great danger in appropriating only the surface of different cultures without a thorough definition of the why’s and how’s that make a culture unique. Two words are ominously close to each other. Fusion can risk becoming Con-fusion. I believe it’s very hard work to make a cultural decision.

And with regards to ideas for Hà Nội, Paris and Los Angeles, that hard work is made a lot easier with a friend like Tốn Thất Tiết.  More about Paris soon, so stay connected.

Best, best, best,

Jeff