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A silhouette of my friend Hương Lan in Huế.

I have been trying not to view Japan as an absolute but as a duality, otherwise the tradition does not come alive but remains an unavoidable antique.

In 1989 Toru Takemitsu wrote for me an essential article, Sound of East, Sound of West. His perspective gives the serious reader a magnetic compass for navigating the shifting soundscapes of our musical world. And like any map locating an unknown destination, my dog eared copy of this East Meets West article, a transcription of a lecture Takemitsu delivered at Columbia University in New York City, has been read and re-read more times than I can count.

On Saturday night December 1st, 2018 at 20h00, the Institut-Français Hà Nội sponsors the ongoing collaboration of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and the Đông Kinh Cổ Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin at L’espace at 24-26 Tràng Tiền near the Hà Nội Opera House in the Hoàn Kiếm District. Thank you, France!


Phạm Trà My and Ngô Trà My, dedicatees of Nguyễn Thiện Đạo.

This collaborative program will be another chapter of musical identity, a continuing search for both Hà Nội groups working together for the Sound of East, Sound of West. And though the geography on December 1st at L’espace is Vietnamese and not that of Japan, the ideas of Toru Takemitsu resonate throughout the Asian continent. They are directly applicable to the situation of Việt Nam in particular. In fact there is a now a deep affinity between Japan and Việt Nam, as together they again historically face the tiger that is 21st century China.

When we had discussions in Hà Nội last spring about this Institut-Français Hà Nội sponsored program, I asked my friend Đàm Quang Minh, the director of the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, about his suggestions for appropriate ancient Vietnamese music to mirror the new works for ancient instruments by the late Nguyễn Thiện Đạo. Minh enthusiastically proposed a Buddhist inspired program as an homage to the Đạo pieces for the đàn tranh and đàn bầu.


Đàm Quang Minh, the director of the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin.

The obvious is often truly elusive to grasp, in particular in the context of culture. When it comes to Buddhism, which clearly shapes the religious and cultural landscapes of both East Asia and Southeast Asia, the obvious element reflects a shared acceptance of a major outside cultural influence. The Buddha himself represents open minded cultures, and while he took root during the Golden Age optimism of the Tang Dynasty in China, Buddha remains unquestionably, and obviously, of Indian origin. Buddha is not Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Khmer, Burmese, Laotian, or Korean.

Mother India indeed!


Nguyễn Thiện Đạo and Olivier Messiaen.

“You must know that I consider ĐẠO a very great musician, one of the most original composers of our time! I heard his “Koskom” of 1969 for large orchestra: I was deeply shaken. And everything he has written since only confirms my amazement.” Olivier Messiaen.

And here is another obvious idea. In searching for a Vietnamese identity for new music, one perspective I have is that I am simply listening to the opinion of Olivier Messiaen. I’ve done this before in my career, when Lawrence Morton told me Igor Stravinsky thought Invención III for String Trio by Carlos Chávez was a masterpiece. I listened to Lawrence and decided to record the entire output of Chávez based on the assessment of Igor Stravinsky, who was not your local music critic or academic historian. Eight Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards later I’m glad I did!


My mentor Lawrence Morton with Pierre Boulez in his Sweetzer Avenue apartment in West Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Betty Freeman.

If the influence of Messiaen was profound on Toru Takemitsu, that influence was determinative for Nguyễn Thiện Đạo, who studied with Messiaen in Paris. I was introduced to Đạo’s music in 2009 by my friend bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood, who created the role of Luzifer in the LICHT operas for another Messiaen student, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Nicholas wrote me that his work with Đạo was spectacular and that I’d better take a look.

Đạo worked closely with Nicholas for a personalized version of his Gió Đông for solo voice, a veritable tour-de-force (which is always possible with Stockhausen’s Luzifer). And one thing of course leads to another. I’ve learned to accept that nothing is random. Independent from any recommendation from me, Nicholas already is equally impressed with the young Vietnamese composer Lương Huệ Trinh, who returned this autumn to Việt Nam after studies in Hamburg. They met last year in Germany. I’ll be conducting a Vietnamese premiere of her music when I return in 2019. Good things are in the future!

Thank you Nicholas for encouraging Trinh and I’m still studying Đạo!


Nicholas Isherwood and Lương Huệ Trinh. I’ll be conducting Trinh’s music during my 2019 residency with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

Nguyễn Thiện Đạo believed he inherited both traditions of East and West. He personally shared with me that the biggest impact on him was Messiaen’s encouragement for him to remain as Vietnamese as possible in his compositions, to use his background to shape his musical world. There is no wonder that Đạo would leave an impressive endowment of mind-blowing works for traditional Vietnamese instruments, pieces we hope to survey completely in the next few seasons with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

And I’m thrilled that his widow Hélène is watching our work closely from Paris and we hope will join us in Hà Nội for a future concert!


With Hélène Đạo in Paris discussing the development of Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

There is probably an entire CD of Đạo‘s works for ancient Vietnamese instruments, including a large piece for an ensemble of the instruments from Huế. Our soloists, Phạm Trà My and Ngô Trà My, are also the dedicatees of their pieces. So the continuity of Vietnamese music, both ancient and contemporary, will be compelling at the concert on December 1st at L’espace.


Ngô Trà My is a fierce new music advocate for Nguyễn Thiện Đạo.


Phạm Trà My is a supreme virtuosa on the đàn tranh.

I am so proud of my colleagues in the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, Vũ Nhật Tân and Phạm Trường Sơn and Đàm Quang Minh of the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin for their inspired leadership while I’ve recharged my battery at home in California. If you are some of my loyal readers in Hà Nội, make plans to go to L’espace on Saturday December 1st at 20h00.

And I’ll be returning to Hà Nội in early 2019 to go to next steps blending the ancient and the new for Vietnamese music with some major world premieres.

Buy your plane ticket now!


Excited to return to Hà Nội in 2019 and continue work with the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin.

The development of transportation has truly changed the story of cultural exchange. Our East West narrative is genuinely compelling for the 21st century. Though we have the chance to learn about each other more quickly than ever before, our education is life long. I am sure we will get closer and closer as long as we retain a key ingredient, to keep humility in our hearts about the complexity of our world.


With friends Ngô Trà My and Phạm Trà My.

And as long as we continue to smile together with friends!

Takemitsu gave me a clue to understand my experiences with ancient Vietnamese music. That it would be best to view culture as a duality, rather than an absolute. The influence from the West is now a few generations underway. I find the troubled history of the past with both France and the United States is turning from negative to more positive with each passing year. And by viewing our world as a fluid duality, the ancient is free to become part of our world and not, as Takemitsu accurately described, “an unavoidable antique.”

See you at 20h00 at L’espace in Ha Noi for The Ancient is New & The New is Ancient” another in the ongoing collaboration between the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and the Đông Kinh Cổ Nhạc/Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin at L’espace at 24-26 Tràng Tiền near the Hà Nội Opera House in the Hoàn Kiếm District.

Best, best, best,