Southwest Chamber Music’s further adventures in Hanoi

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HANOI -- Every night in this city of 10 million people crammed into a super-thick urban stew is an amazing display of color and noise, of dirt and mysterious glamour. As always, swirling, swerving motorbikes define the movement.

On Friday night, some of those Vespas and Hondas and cheap Chinese knockoffs scooted over to L’Espace, a French cultural center near the Metropole Hotel, the elegant gathering place of French intellectuals and artists in the Indochine era. L’Espace advertised, among other attractions, “video, am nhac thu nghiem va body painting.”

At first, three discreetly covered slender models tottered self-consciously on very high heels. Seated at a table was Vu Nhat Tan, Vietnam’s leading avant-garde composer, there to provide an electronica background as Phuong Vu Manh began to systematically apply a wash of color to each model -- one red, one blue, one green. Along with a player of the dan bau (the wonderfully whiny one-stringed Vietnamese instrument) and two singers, Tan gradually built a wall of elaborately inventive sound while Manh elaborately decorated his ladies into ‘Avatar'-like beings.

It was a happening. A sizable audience of hip art types and gawking adolescent boys crowded the gallery and drank beer or gin-and-tonics. This kind of performance/installation is not uncommon in art centers around the world, but here such freedom of expression is relatively new. And Hanoi may be the only place where you can follow experimental art with dinner in a snake restaurant -- where the pulsating snake heart is brought to the table as an appetizer, which is, for the squeamish, just about the most shocking performance art there is.

Arts-world assists for new music are nothing new. American avant-garde music, for instance, pretty much began with John Cage’s New York debut concert at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Minimalist composers may never have gotten off the ground without the help of sympathetic Manhattan art galleries in SoHo during the ‘60s.


Now it’s Hanoi’s turn. Over the past week, while following the Pasadena-based Southwest Chamber Music’s Ascending Dragon Music Festival in Vietnam, I’ve gotten a glimpse of how Hanoi is striving to become a modern art center. This is a developing city which after long years of wars, deprivation and political insulation has only in the past two decades come out of the artistic cold. And not until the late 1990s, when the Internet became widespread, have musicians here had access to recent musical developments elsewhere.

The Southwest cultural exchange brings American and Vietnamese composers together for the first time on a significant scale. In the formal Hanoi concerts thus far, Vietnamese and American musicians have enthusiastically collaborated in John Cage’s “Atlas Eclipticalis,” a disembodied music of the spheres, and Toru Takemitsu’s “Archipelago S.” Both sounded marvelous in the acoustically vibrant small concert at the Vietnam National Academy of Music.

But since the academy emphasizes traditional music (be it Western or Vietnamese), audiences here tend to be incurious even about their own masterful senior composers -- the eloquently Buddhist Ton That Tiet and the flamboyantly original Nguyen Thien Dao -- who now live in France and are seldom performed in their homeland.

If Southwest has been giving a gentle nudge to the academy to think beyond Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, three composers who are particularly revered here (as are the Russians), it has been nudging elsewhere in town as well. The galleries are an easier sell for new music, whether foreign-sponsored venues such as L’Espace and the Goethe Institute, or smaller, edgier local galleries that have a more underground vibe and occasionally hold concerts, new music or rock, that suit their mildly subversive agenda.

Southwest, however, held a reception Wednesday night at the graceful, upscale Thang Long (Dragon) Gallery in the chaotic Old Quarter. A crowd munching on watermelon and French pastries heard an art historian and critic, Bui Nhu Huong, describe how Vietnamese modern art is so diversified that just about anything goes, be it decorative, landscape or something more contemporary.

Amid Buddhas, seductive nudes and Cubist sculpture, Tan (who is turning out to be a composer of a many intriguing sides and who is ready for major international recognition) led an inspired improvisation with four Southwest players. Tan’s instruments this time were three Vietnamese wooden flutes, and he began by playing slow, meditative tones. Violinist Shalini Vijayan, cellist Peter Jacobson, bassist Tom Peters and percussionist Lynn Vartan provided soulfully appropriate responses, until Jacobson had had enough and jazzed things up. A rhythmic dance came out of nowhere and rocked the gallery.

But nothing could quite match another kind of happening the previous night. America’s ambassador to Vietnam, Michael W. Michalak, invited the American and Vietnamese players and composers to his handsome residence, which is decorated with Asian art and paintings by Christopher Cousins, a Californian. And there Vartan performed Cage’s “Child of Tree.” Written for plant material, the score thrives on local vegetation, and Vartan managed to come up an indigenous cactus, which she amplified and on which she went to town.

The ambassador seemed to think this was one of the coolest things he had ever heard. Perhaps he was just being a good sport. But if Southwest really did win over an American politician with “Child of Tree,” then I have little doubt the Vietnamese resistance will have met its match.

-- Mark Swed

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American musicians bond with Vietnamese counterparts