Tag: tradition

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Old Sounds / New Music

A 19th-century French composition and an 18th-century Vietnamese traditional instrument can create a strikingly engaging current musical story together, and as Van-Anh Vo (who often goes by Vanessa in the States) performed Gnossienne No. 3 on the dan bau, playing up the instrument’s haunting moans, the audience sat transfixed. Satie’s well-worn melody suddenly pulsed with fresh life.

Vo speaks with moving passion about the impact of American diversity on the evolution of her musical voice since she emigrated from Vietnam in the late 1990s. An award-winning traditional performer and educator in her native country, Vo has found a particular freedom in the myriad genres and styles of music that surround her here—an influence that has filtered into both her musical ideas and the instruments and techniques she uses to communicate them. “I think I find great opportunity as a musician and composer here,” Vo explains. “I can do what I want. I can follow my inner voice—what I hear in my mind and what I feel I need to express.”

On the heels of the release of Three-Mountain Pass, a recent collection of her compositions and arrangements, Vo traveled across the country from her current home in the Bay Area to present many of the tracks during a performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Out of a suitcase and a few modestly sized bags, she set up a small orchestra of traditional Vietnamese instruments (the dan tranh, dan bau, and dan t’rung) plus the hang, a modern piece of Swiss percussion. She moved easily from one to the next during her set, explaining to the gathered audience the folktale references and classic Vietnamese poetry that often inspire her compositions.

Vo performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Vo performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Indeed, Vo’s energy and enthusiasm for musical creativity seems to transcend any particular instrument and instead feed off a fundamental sonic curiosity, as well as a desire to reflect on her cultural heritage and share those sounds with new ears. It’s a dialog that has led her to collaborations with musical neighbors such as the Kronos Quartet. “I see how things can be done and they help me to open even wider,” Vo says, noting the confidence such collaborations have given her to try new extended techniques such as using a violin bow on her single-string dan bau or plucking very close to the bridge of the dan tranh—a forbidden zone in traditional playing. In return, she has also passed on some of the non-notatable slide and phrasing aspects of Vietnamese music as Kronos worked on her Green River Delta.  The project was a success; in the end, she says, her teachers back in Vietnam suggested that perhaps she had swapped these four American guys with native players.

This spirit of collaboration has also led her to work with instrument makers to redesign the dan tranh to allow for faster and more flexible retuning during performances, but the modifications also meant she had to readjust everything about her playing. She admits that it “was really challenging, but you learn to conquer it. That’s the best thing maybe to happen to me.”
Interestingly, Vo draws strong connections between American jazz and the improvisation involved in traditional Vietnamese music—at least to a point. In other ways, however, musical life in Vietnam felt very conservative. Vo also recalls feeling censored by what the government felt was appropriate to play in concert.

Ultimately the distance has allowed Vo to appreciate the culture and history of her native country with a deeper awareness. “It is very important that you know who you are and where you come from, so I know that my roots are in Vietnam,” Vo acknowledges. “But the tree has to adjust to the new environment and bear the new fruit, otherwise it will die.”

Sounds Heard: Lawrence Brownlee and Damien Sneed—Spiritual Sketches

The spirituals that have been sung around the world are Negroid to be sure, but so full of musicians’ tricks that Negro congregations are highly entertained when they hear their old songs so changed. They never use the new style songs, and these are never heard unless perchance some daughter or son has been off to college and returns with one of the old songs with its face lifted, so to speak.

—Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934)

[There was a] famous teacher and scholar of Vienna to whom I had come to seek guidance in the mastery of Bach’s style…. I vividly remember his astonishment on hearing me sing some Aframerican folk songs; an astonishment caused by the spiritual affinity of my songs with the spirit and style of the great German master. “But you have it all there,” he assured me; “it is the same language.”

—Roland Hayes, My Songs (1948)

One of my favorite corners of the compositional world is and always has been the spiritual arrangement—and not in spite of Hurston’s complaint (and others like it), but, in a way, because of it. Maybe it’s because my own provenance (suburban, Catholic, white) is so far removed from the proper milieu, but it was always the game of masks involved in dressing up the vernacular for the concert hall that made spiritual arrangements so fascinating to me. There’s a grain of truth in what Hurston writes: spiritual arrangements are, in one sense, neither here nor there. But musically, it’s at that disconnected point—where stylistic reference becomes as much a choice as a necessity, and where authenticity is just one possible concern among many—that, for me anyway, things often start to get really interesting.

Spiritual Sketches, the new recording by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, is, in essence, a showcase for singing; and Brownlee’s singing is worth showcasing, a fiery, flexible bel canto tenor that soars without strain and burbles through ornamentation with comfortable flair. But it was the arrangements, by pianist Damien Sneed (who also performs), that really caught my ear. Written especially for this project, Sneed’s spiritual settings update the usual language—“There Is a Balm in Gilead” as contemporary R&B ballad, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” as angular funk—while still making some deft plays within the genre’s complicated weave of influence and stylization.

Some of the most fun things about the album, in fact, are those moments where Sneed acknowledges that the arranging of spirituals has acquired a history almost as long as those of the spirituals themselves: “Come By Here, Good Lord” echoes Hall Johnson’s brighter, bouncier settings; “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” channels the Romantic harmonies of Harry T. Burleigh’s Gilded Age settings; “Down by the Riverside” has a thumping swing reminiscent of the legendary Mildred Falls, Mahalia Jackson’s longtime accompanist. Even the most predictable reharmonizations—the spiritual tradition is multilayered enough that even the stylizations can be traditional—get enough of an extra flourish to freshen the standards while honoring them. And Sneed has the taste to get out of the way when the mood requires; his version of “All Day, All Night” achieves a deep, potent simplicity.

The sheer adaptability of spirituals has been viewed as either distressing (e.g. Hurston) or empowering (e.g. Hayes), but I think the repertoire’s survival is a testament in itself. We keep coming back to them; they keep coming back to us. Sneed’s résumé is a very 21st-century one, encompassing gospel, jazz, classical, pop, and art in equal measure, but, as in the 20th and even the 19th centuries, the spiritual style proves inspiringly flexible enough to pull it all in. The language changes; but, like Hayes said, it’s still the same language. You have it all there.

Personal Filters

Recently, I asked my wife what she thought of a new choral work that a colleague of mine had written for our university’s commencement ceremony a few weeks ago. Since we had both attended the ceremony—me as an enrobed faculty member, she as a staff photographer—I knew that she had heard the same work and performance that I had. She responded that, while she liked the work overall, the unbalanced lighting on the choir caused by their placement in the auditorium made it difficult for her to fully enjoy the performance.

Then last week I had the wonderful opportunity to reunite with two of my good friends and classmates from my time in the USC film scoring program. As with any gathering of composers, once dinner and drinks were finished and the evening wore on, we ended up playing recordings of our recent works for each other. While we all had great fun catching up musically, what really stuck out for me was how these two top-notch composers who worked primarily in film and television interpreted my chamber and large ensemble works as if they were film scores. Their comments on how they could “see” a particular scene or how they could hear certain influences didn’t phase me a bit (since that mindset is very much a natural state with most composers in Hollywood), and, to be honest, it wasn’t long before I was hearing dramatic arcs in my own works that I was unaware had existed.

Both of these episodes were already resonating in my mind as I read Richard Dare’s article “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” which was published earlier this week on the Huffington Post. In the article, Dare—the newly minted CEO of the beleaguered Brooklyn Philharmonic—attempts to describe what a typical orchestral concert experience feels like from the viewpoint of a “typical” audience member accompanied by a “guide” affiliated with the orchestra giving the concert. The primary complaints that Dare brings up included the process of buying tickets at the ticket counter, the reverence his guide seems to place on the concert hall itself, his frustration at not being able to express his feelings for the music being performed by clapping, laughing, or shouting during a piece, his interpretation of the audience as deferential and “possibly catatonic,” and his guide’s seeming ignorance of his own confusion as to the concert-going experience.

From these experiences, Dare then extrapolates outward, making broad statements as to what is wrong with the genre of classical music. After looking back at the (supposedly) halcyon days of Beethoven and early 19th-century Vienna, Dare compares our current concert traditions, including the (supposedly) strong emphasis on the conductor as high priest to, well, I should just let his words speak for themselves:

The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.

This “once more unto the breach, dear friends” concept of rallying the HuffPo-reading masses, Occupy-style, to demand the removal of our silence-laden shackles and the “de-maestro-ization” of the conductor (classical music’s seemingly obvious analog to the “1%”) is both passionate and timely. Dare’s statements about composers being “real people” who “bleed like the rest of us”, while not exactly new, are well-intended and a breath of fresh air coming from an orchestra administrator. If one squints enough to miss that it was composers such as Wagner and Mahler who were some of the first to impose those evil distraction-free traditions on audiences so the focus might be directed towards the music being performed (which was mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on concert etiquette Dare links to in his piece), his overall zeal for changing the concert-going experience is both visceral and convincing.

The common thread that runs through my earlier anecdotes and Dare’s article is that all three are examples of the effect of filters—namely, a straightforward musical event being filtered through the eyes, ears, and experiences of an individual. There were probably hundreds of people who attended the same concert as Dare and, because of previous concert attendance and their attitude towards the environment, it is quite likely that many would have had a completely opposite reaction.

There has been an explosion of reactions to Dare’s article (which was, of course, one of the points of the article) in the comments section, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, and it is there that one finds the clearest example of these experiential “filters”. What is surprising with the reactions is not that they lean heavily one way or the other, but that there seem to be just as many detractors as there are supporters—for every “Amen” there seems to be a “WTF?” Not only that, but the reactions seem to exist irrespective of background or profession—non-professionals in the article’s comment section fall on both sides, but I’ve also seen examples of performers, composers, and even conductors who have come out strongly both for and against Dare’s article.

I’m sure one could draw comparisons to our current American political climate where our country has been seemingly bifurcated along party lines with neither understanding how the other can have the opposing view on exactly the same person/policy/event/etc. But inasmuch as our own expansive and inclusive artistic community is concerned, this binary “good/bad” knee-jerk reaction is as unwise as it is common.

Concert music has been dealing with its own three-way tug-of-war between those who enjoy music that is experimental, pop-influenced, or traditional in nature for many years now, and many of the arguments are just as surface-based as Dare’s rant against the totalitarian state of the concert hall. After all this time, we still haven’t figured out that there is enough room in our culture for each style, each genre, each musical language to not only stand on its own, but for others to present and interpret the music in new and unique ways. Hopefully, one day, we will realize that we do have our own filters, move on, and enjoy whatever music we wish in the manner of our own choosing.