“Mr. Jeff, you must come to rehearse with us in the Bamboo House!” said my friend Đàm Quang Minh in his charming mix of French and broken English. “There you will learn about the real Vietnamese ancient music avec moi et Monsieur Tân.”
I’d been hearing about the Bamboo House with its seemingly legendary status since I arrived in Hà Nội in September. Perhaps it was an inner sanctum for rehearsal and discovery? An urban oasis? On the outskirts of the city?
“Mr. Jeff, you and Jan must first go only to Chùa Láng, et d’accord, nous marchons avec Monsieur Tân à Bamboo House,” continued my friend Minh.
As Jan and I got out of our taxi on the appointed Saturday afternoon, we were met by our friend Tân. He quietly told us to go inside the temple complex, don’t take to long as rehearsal starts soon, but enjoy yourselves. This is the ancient location and origin of the Water Puppet Theater, one of the trademarks of Hà Nội for foreign visitors and a delightful display of the humor and joy in Vietnamese culture.
Then, as we have on so many lazy Saturday afternoons in Hà Nội, we followed Tân as he walked ahead of us on a dusty paved street leading us to the Bamboo House. Off the main road, down a long causeway with a beautiful pond and into one of the never ending narrow alleyways that tourists rarely if ever penetrate in Hà Nội.
We were scheduled to meet with the entire troupe of the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin that afternoon at the Bamboo House. I was aware that the concept of composition was far different for my Vietnamese colleagues than any Western musician could replicate, perhaps even jazz masters. I’d been given my score for Tân’s Kim/Metal, the first movement of a projected full evening work for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin. A through composed and long introduction for the new music group was followed by two pages of a map of events with approximate timings. The vision for the opening movement of a cycle of five works about the five elements is to move the listener in reverse, from the contemporary world of new music to the revealed world of ancient sounds.
And without giving away the sounds of a new piece waiting for its premiere October 24, how Tân creates this journey has already struck me as a great moment in music. After an impressive cadenza for solo violin, he has a voice from the ancient world emerge. Since everything reduces to family in Việt Nam, Tân’s vision came from the wife and husband team of singer Tràn Thu Thủy and violinist Phạm Trương Sơn, the co-founder of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. After the violin solo melds into duet with the ancient voice, a poem is read accompanied by the đàn bầu, played by a national treasure, Xuân Hoạch. And then, another poem is read/sung by the leader of the entire Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, Madame Thanh Hoài. Finally, the full ancient ensemble enters, as if you’ve wandered into a Vietnamese version of Oz.
My role in all this? To time and trigger each event for the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin. Which means that I’ve been studying the patterns and melodic contours of both chèo and tưồng ancient Vietnamese music, guided by these dear friends, the national masters of their art form. And since their tradition is mnemonic I’ve needed to penetrate what I’m hearing. Were the beat patterns large or small? Long or short? After much discussion, it seems the best translation for this particular music would be for me to count in 1/4 meter. Large metric groupings were not helpful, and my oh my do I now sleep better having made this breakthrough!
And since I’ve performed a lot of John Cage, synchronizing various events comes naturally after a long study and performance of his music. Who knew?
Enjoy these two short videos of our rehearsal, one setting vocals and drumming patterns to the road map of the score with percussionist Thủy (what a left hand!), and then a human moment with Madame Hoài breaking us up with laughter joking about a banana!
Not a week has gone by this autumn without some interaction between Jan and me with these musicians. We have learned so much from them, and they have embraced us like family members. I feel like I’ve met a group of long lost sisters with these vocalists. Talk about dazzling technique and ability.
And the silk costumes? Out. Of. This. World.
These musicians are keenly aware of the importance of taking the next step with composer Vũ Nhật Tân as we embark together on a journey fusing the ancient and the new musics of Việt Nam. Tân is receiving moral support and approval from his country’s most highly regarded musicians.
Trust me there was a lot of discussion about this project before we got started!
I have a friend in Paris, composer Gilbert Nouno, who was also the sound designer at IRCAM for the last decade of Pierre Boulez’s career. Gilbert took the technology of the 1980s and transferred it to laptops to ease the transition from one era to another. He has a very French way of observing Việt Nam.
He’s recently met young Vietnamese composer Nguyễn Minh Nhật, as IRCAM and the Ensemble Intercontemporain was on tour in New York City performing Boulez’s Répons at the Park Avenue Armory. Young Minh Nhật is studying composition at the Manhattan School fo Music in New York City. Nhật has a piece for solo piano on our concert, dedicated to the ancient world of Ca Trù song. So while I’ve been in Hà Nội with both old and new Vietnamese music, he’s been hearing the potential of fabulous new possibilities in the West from Boulez’s Répons with Gilbert taking him under his wing.
”I am fascinated,” said Gilbert to me this May in Paris, “about the musical culture in Việt Nam where there is the ancient music and new music. With nothing in between.”
One of my missions here is to create cultural continuity for new music between Việt Nam, France and the United States. Gilbert dreams of composing for these ancient traditions, transformed through the technology potential of IRCAM. It’s a vision already on the long range drawing board. Stay connected to my posts as plans emerge over the next few years!
In Việt Nam, one listens to the past to hear the future.
May I invite you to take a moment to enjoy this song from these brilliant musicians? And with best wishes from Việt Nam to all my friends around the world!
And that wave of new music coming out of Southeast Asia I keep mentioning? The wave is starting to crest as we prepare for the world premiere of Kim/Metal on Tuesday October 24 at 8 PM in the Grand Hall of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music. After all, everything here is family, and we’ve been welcomed with open arms and big hugs of friendship!
Best, best, best,