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Vietnamese Music: Spanning the Cultural Spectrum

While many people now think of Vietnam as either a hip, new travel destination or a land of business and trading opportunities, cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam have also expanded as relations have improved. In addition to the ongoing interest in Vietnamese art and literature, the nation's rich musical traditions are finally being more fully explored by Westerners.

Some say the long struggle for independence has given Vietnam a deep sense of national pride. Others cite the impact of foreign countries on influencing the traditional music. Certainly the role of the Vietnamese government in encouraging the goals of the revolution through the arts has been an important factor in the evolution of Vietnamese music. The rich palette of music includes regional folk music and music of the ethnic minorities with special songs for boating, ancestor worship, and friendship between villages. Buddhist holidays and death rituals are celebrated with religious/festival music. Ceremonial court music serves many purposes such as congratulating princesses on their weddings and aiding in prayer for national peace. Traditional art music ("classical" concert music), "modernized traditional music" (blossoming in the conservatories), pop, and a variety of theater music (hat cheo, hat boi, and hat cai luong) are all part of the Vietnamese musical spectrum.

There are currently more than two dozen recordings of Vietnamese music (not counting pop) available in the United States.

Music of Vietnam (Celestial Harmonies), a recently released boxed set of three CD's with an extended commentary by John Schaefer, was conceived of twenty years ago in an era of anti-war protests by Eckart Rahn, president of Celestial Harmonies. It was produced and recorded by New Zealand composer David Parsons with assistance from his wife and baby (the child was left in the care of villagers and this helped build trust between the families).

The first two volumes focus primarily on traditional ensemble music common to both the north and south (although many of the performers come from the conservatory in Hanoi). Some of these works are new arrangements inspired by older traditional music. Most touching is "Qua Can Gio Bauy" (Breeze Over the Bridge) played by the outstanding bamboo flutist Trieu Tien Vuong on a one-holed instrument. Such virtuosic playing on a one-holed flute is most impressive. This lyrical piece, with microtonal slides is hauntingly beautiful. The third disc in the set is devoted to the more austere ancient ceremonial music of Hue (the country's ancient capital). While some experts question the translations of the titles and the authenticity of some of the repertoire, the three-disc boxed set is a well-produced overview to the music of Vietnam.

An aesthetic principle guiding Vietnamese art music is "chan, phuong, hoa, la." Literally this is "true, straight, flowers, leaves." True and straight refer to studying a piece of music or its skeletal melody while the flowers and leaves refer to performance which incorporates embellishments and improvised flowering parts that deviate from the straight melody. This is where the skill and artistry of the performers come to light. Like much of the music of Asia, more emphasis is placed on the actual performance or interpretation of the work than on the significance of the composer.

A good example of this can be heard on Viet-Nam -Le Dan Tranh (Ocora) featuring Nguyen Thi Hai Phuong performing art music of the south on the dan tranh, a Vietnamese zither with moveable bridges. A prize-winning musician who began her studies at age five, she also plays a variety of other stringed instruments such as the delicate sounding one-stringed dan bau in addition to the seventeen and twenty-two stringed dan tranhs (similar to the Chinese gu zheng, Korean kayageum or Japanese koto) featured on this CD. On this disc the mostly solo and duo string repertoire incorporates new techniques such as tremolo playing, muted pizzicato, and the use of string harmonics. The album includes a variety of love songs and the music conveys a formal eloquence.

"Vietnamese melodies ' vocal or instrumental ' are an embodiment of the principle that produces an abundance of tonal subtleties with cadenzas, melismas and graces. A considerable amount of freedom for self expression is made possible for those who have mastered the art of ornamentation," explains Phong Thuyet Nguyen in the brief liner notes which accompany the cassette, Traditional Music of Vietnam: Instrumental, Art Songs, Poetry (Lyrichord). This recording features a "classical" or traditional chamber music with a variety of stringed instruments and songs sung in natural voices.

Landscape of the Highlands (Music of the World) features Tran Quang Hai on a sixteen-string dan tranh (zither), an instrument popular with young Vietnamese girls. The cassette ' which is being re-mastered to a CD format' contains four original solo compositions.

Eternal Voices: Traditional Vietnamese Music in the United States (New Alliance Records P.O. Box 1389 Lawndale, California 90260) is a strong example of traditional art music and also sheds lights on Vietnamese communities of North America. While Vietnamese pop culture thrives in the Vietnamese-American community, the older, more traditional arts of Vietnam take a back seat. Live performances of traditional Vietnamese music in America are relatively rare.

While a number of record companies have sent people to record in Vietnam, the results are often a hybrid music manufactured in Hanoi's conservatory, inspired by the real thing, but souped up with virtuosic arrangements and modified instruments now forming a genre of its own known as "new or modernized traditional music" (nhac dan toc cai bien).

Ethnomusicologist Terry Miller, who specializes in the music of Southeast Asia and teaches at Kent State, claims this album he produced with the esteemed Phong Nguyen is the real thing, Vietnamese traditional art music. The ensemble is also lead by Phong Nguyen, an ethnomusicologist and musician who was born in southern Vietnam and currently lives in Ohio. The liner notes include descriptions and photos of the instruments which vary from a simple wooden clapper to the tam thap luc, a hammered dulcimer originally with thirty-six strings, but currently with eighty-two strings.

The authenticity question came up again in discussions with Bach Trinh. Currently living in the Washington, D.C. area, Bach was trained in Western classical music in Vietnam and studied in Europe with the guitarist Segovia. Bach is president of the Intermedi Society, a group that "locates authentic music in the villages and tries to elevate it to an international standard."

"Much of the music in Vietnam was destroyed during the war. The government linked traditional music to old culture and they forced artists to change. Everything traditional was dismissed," says Bach. The Intermedi Society makes audio and video tapes for home study purposes and for the preservation of traditional culture. This is not always easy since in the case of water puppet plays, a very old theater form which requires the puppeteers to perform in water, the artists must take a series of vows not to reveal the special techniques of their village lest they be struck by lightening. Bach Trinh, who is also concerned with the preservation of traditional costumes and authentic drumming at temples, feels the Eternal Voices recording is "not that authentic."

Stilling Time: Traditional Musics of Vietnam was produced by the Minnesota Composers Forum on their Innova label (Minnesota Composers Forum, 332 Minnesota St. , Suite E-145, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101-1300) and recorded by composer Philip Blackburn in Vietnam. The album's focus is on the music of the ethnic minorities (there are approximately fifty-three different ethnic minorities in Vietnam) and it includes three families of tribal languages: Malayo-Polynesian, Sino-Tibetan, and Austro-Asian. Not surprisingly, the disc connects traditional music with a new music (contemporary composition) perspective as evidenced by the choice of tracks. The opening cut, "Welcoming Music," a nine-and-a-half minute repetitive ceremonial piece of the E De tribe for drum and gong ensemble, is a traditional work which might remind Western ears of composers with a minimalist sensibility. The final work, "Ha Noi Soundscape," literally captures the aural landscape with the street sounds of a blind busker, brass-smiths, bells, beeping horns, beetles, and bikes. The album is a good introduction to the folk music of Vietnam and also includes two cuts of modernized traditional music.

Of particular interest is "Ha Leu" from the Nung tribe. It involves a spontaneous dialogue game in which couples sing and flirt, creating lyrics on the spot. Referring to the demise of this tradition, American ethnomusicologist and musician Miranda Arana (who recorded the first cut on this album) comments, "The songs that have been collected and popularized by conservatory-trained musicians are removed from their original rural/ ritual/ agricultural/courting context and placed in a completely unrelated context where they would otherwise never be heard. This new context, consisting of the urban stage, the educational institution, the tourist establishment, the mass media, the foreign tour, carries with it a whole different set of requirements and expectations, demanding an inevitable shift in the music itself."

Music from Vietnam (Caprice) was jointly produced by Caprice, the Swedish National Concert Institute, SIDA (Swedish International Development Authority), and teachers from the Hanoi Conservatory who formed a group, "Phong Lan" or The Orchid. Based on earlier folk and traditional music forms and newly composed traditional music, they perform "modernized traditional music." This genre of music was created in an attempt to improve indigenous music through the use of precise notation with fixed compositions, harmonization, and equal temperament. Influenced by exchanges between Chinese and Soviet musicians, this style is widespread in Western recordings of Vietnamese music as well as in upscale hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists in Vietnam.

This album also includes the older theater music, hat cheo, and ritual music, hat chau van. In the vocal music they work carefully to connect melodies with the pitch of the language because the linguistic inflection (like Chinese) affects the meaning of the words.

Low on the technical spectrum is The Vietnamese National Song and Dance Ensemble (Monitor). With poor sound quality, this cassette provides sing-songy vocals reminiscent of bad Chinese film music. Nonetheless it is historically interesting that this group was founded in 1952 during the war with France and continued recruiting new members and gathering folklore of many ethnic minorities. Ethnomusicologist Miranda Arana says, "The nationalization of the musical traditions of Vietnam is part of the process of building a modern state." She also speaks of the down-side of pooling the cultural assets of a nation to create a national identity, referring to the resulting music as the "easy listening of Vietnam, or the Muzak of nationalism."

While ethnomusicologist and musician Phong Thuyet Nguyen is pleased with the upsurge in travel to Vietnam, he is disappointed the music is out of the hands of specialists. He feels the blending of instruments and repertoire from different genres and regions of Vietnam is creating an "international music" which is confusing, as opposed to preserving the traditional art. He is very active in preserving traditional music through audio and video recordings.

His book and cassette package From Rice Paddies and Temple Yards: Traditional Music of Vietnam (World Music Press), written jointly with Patricia Shehan Campbell, is well-conceived as an educational tool for those interested in bringing a hands-on approach to world music. The pieces are written out in Western notation with background information about how they are used. The first song is a two-note work titled "Hat Dum" or "Now Everybody Feels Relaxed After Work." Translation of lyrics and pronunciation for Vietnamese songs are given in addition to a study guide. Although the book was written as a music education set, it is a good basic guide for anyone interested in learning or playing the music of Vietnam

While deciding which music is authentic and where one genre begins and ends is not always clear, we are exploring and rediscovering this once forgotten culture. By listening to these recordings we are clearing a new path for cultural awareness and appreciation.


Allegro Distributors has a large offering of imported recordings including the Playasound & Caprice discs.
Contact customer service: 12630 N.E. Marx, Portland, Oregon 97230; Tel. (800) 288-2007.

Nhac Viet is a magazine devoted to Vietnamese music which is published twice a year by the International Association for Research in Vietnamese Music. They also sell books and recordings of Vietnamese music.
I.A.R.V.M. P.O. Box 16, Kent, Ohio 44240; Fax (216)677-9703.

World Music Press has a catalog of its books/cassettes:
P.O. Box 2565 Danbury, Connecticut 06813-2565; Tel. (203) 748-1131; Fax (203) 748-3432.

World Music Institute has a catalog (over 2,000 recordings) available for $2.00:
49 West 27 Street, Suite 810, New York, New York 10001.

Published on 2/1/96

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