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.
None of us accomplish anything on our own. In Việt Nam that principle is amplified by the bonds of family that take any Westerner quite a while to absorb. So the fact that young Hà Nội composer Nguyễn Minh Nhật is studying at the Manhattan School of Music in Jan’s family home of New York City and also has his own family in Los Angeles is not just a lucky break, it intensifies the idea of family and togetherness between us all.
In what was the most unique world premiere discussion of my career, Jan and I gladly met Minh Nhật at Sweet Butter Café on Ventura Boulevard on January 2 to discuss his new octet, Fall, Rise, which I am proud to conduct on Friday February 2 at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music at 20h00.
And, no surprise, we soon met his parents for a jet lagged lunch of hugs and best wishes when we arrived in Hà Nội!
And these were not the only greetings we brought back to Hà Nội from our holiday season in California. Jan and I got more questions than usual about Việt Nam, in light of the impressive PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the Vietnam War. With the backdrop of cultural exchange still active in a changing America, there are now considerable ties between Việt Nam and the United States that I’m proud to emphasize.
Because if you have composers, you need instrumentalists. It’s only been natural that Jan and I are in regular contact with Nhu Phạm, the daughter of Hà Nội New Music Ensemble director and violinist Phạm Trương Sơn and soprano Tràn Thư Thủy, who studies graphic design at California State University at Long Beach.
Make no doubt, our first jet lagged weekend in Hà Nội included meals with the parents of both of these young Vietnamese studying in the United States!
I’ll let you in on a little diplomatic secret. Between 2008 and 2010, Jan and I had truly countless interactions with the U.S. State Department, in meetings in Washington and enough phone conversations that we had the numbers memorized. The Obama Administration had a clear idea of long range goals for the interests of the United States in Southeast Asia and gave us two broad goals of discovery to help us out.
Identify and encourage new and young cultural leadership in Việt Nam. The reasons are obvious. Then create follow-on relationships after the specific grant period.
War is the overwhelming constant in the history of Việt Nam. In fact, it is now only the young generation under thirty that finally has no memory of their country at war. The background is a thousand year occupation under the Chinese. A century of French colonial abuse. Japanese occupation during World War II. The obnoxious ambitions of Charles de Gaulle to reclaim the French Empire after the end of the world war, aided by the complicit assistance of both the United Kingdom and the United States. The partitioning of Việt Nam in Geneva in 1954, forced on the Vietnamese by the Chinese and the Russians (similar to the division of North and South Korea a few years earlier). The decade long American War. Then Việt Nam brought the Khmer Rouge regime to a halt in Cambodia. Finally, a provocative and deadly three week incursion into North Việt Nam by Deng Xiao Ping in 1979, who was testing the Soviet Union (which blinked, proving the Chinese point) but routed easily by the experienced Vietnamese armed forces.
A definition of national exhaustion.
”in Việt Nam, it is not a problem of money. It is a problem of thinking,” is the idée fixe statement of our friend Đàm Quang Minh, who directs our close collaborative partner, the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc or Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin. As we first emerged from jet lag, he and composer Vũ Nhật Tân met us at the greatest coffee shop in the world, Cộng Cà Phê, fortunately on Quán Sứ Street close to our apartment in the French Quarter. Layer by layer, Minh reveals the essence of Việt Nam to us, in delightful conversations that blur Vietnamese, English and French at the same time, so you have to keep up!
While we were reconnecting, we brought him up to date on our friendships in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris and Kyoto that can broaden the reach of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble in the coming years. One person, one meeting, leads to another. Given Việt Nam’s history, reaching out to past enemies makes for an exciting cultural future.
And so from China, we’re pleased that William Lane and Sharon Chan of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, will be visiting Hà Nội soon to continue discussions we began in Hong Kong last October!
And friends from Tokyo are in the mix. After we left Hà Nội last autumn, Jan and I were in Hong Kong at the invitation of the HKNME, and then went on to friends and extended family in Japan. I’ve written a few recent blogs about meeting our Tambuco friends in Japan, and our wonderful introduction to percussionist Maki Takafuji which you might be interested in for more information.
In particular, we wanted to meet Mititaka Matubara and architect Nobuko Nishida of Quartiers Musicaux. Inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Osaka World’s Fair in the 1960s, I’ve rarely met new music enthusiasts like them! They have pioneered a good new music series, including a stunningly played retrospective of the late Nguyễn Thiên Đạo lead by the amazing Japanese violinist Chihiro Inda. In a delicious and long lunch afternoon in Tokyo, we discussed collaborative ideas and got to know each other.
Our program this week in Hà Nội features Anti-lumiére by Nguyễn Thiên Đạo, and almost as if on cue, Mititaka tells me he will take our best wishes to Đạo’s widow in Paris during a February visit to the City of Light.
One thing, one person, one meeting, leads to another, little steps in the beginning are the best way to create a major statement in the future!
Now, about those thoughts on a winter moon, the poetic title of the February concert of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. The concert will open with ancient Vietnamese music in the extraordinary artistry of a national artistic treasure here, Xuân Hoạch, who will no doubt be singing about the moon.
The program will include, as I’ve already mentioned, Fall, Rise by Nguyễn Minh Nhật and we’ll also begin a collection of the string works of Vũ Nhật Tân.
But it’s the vision of Nguyễn Thiên Đạo that inspired our title of Thoughts on a Winter Moon. The Đạo piece we’re playing, Anti-lumiére, is from a larger work, Tuyến Lửa or Frontlines, dedicated to Madame Salabert, the Paris publisher of Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, and who took Đạo under her wing. As you might suspect from the title, the work was written during the height of the Việt Nam War.
And smack dab in the middle of this Vietnamese Xenakis-like tour-de-force, Đạo requires a major interlude of traditional Vietnamese music. That’s no longer a local ingredient to me, but an essential part of a musical endowment that now assists a young cultural generation to comprehend the musical legacy in Việt Nam.
As the Year of the Fire Rooster wanes and the Year of Earth Dog approaches in February, it’s a wonderful time to reflect on relationships that can bind us together rather than drive us apart.
See you in Hà Nội on Friday February 2 at 20h00 at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music for the next concert of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble!
Best, best, best,