Critic’s Notebook: A U.S.-Vietnam courtship with music

On the last day of April, 35 years ago, the few Americans who remained in Saigon were hastily airlifted out as North Vietnamese troops entered the city and and ended the long war. It had been 10 years since U.S. Marines had waded ashore in Danang, yet we as a country had learned little about Vietnamese culture or customs. Good luck if you hoped to find a dan bau, the wonderful monochord instrument, in San Francisco or New York. Meanwhile, Vietnam’s communist regime closed its doors to American influence for the next two decades.

But we also celebrate a happier anniversary this year — the 15th since the U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam. We have become contented trading partners. We send our tourists and outsource our business to a booming nation of 90 million, which exhibits remarkable economic growth under its reportedly corrupt capitalist/communist system. We enjoy Vietnam’s marvelous food and films. We wish Hanoi well on a really big anniversary this year — its 1,000th.

During a recent trip to Vietnam, I noticed an awareness of American culture as well. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), “Avatar” was being pushed off a limited number of 3-D screens to make way for “Alice in Wonderland,” just as it was in Hollywood and Chino. Pirated DVDs of current Hollywood blockbusters were displayed in the shops, along with the latest pop CDs. Teenage girls in tight jeans browsed bookshops for vampire fiction. Gustavo Dudamel’s Los Angeles Philharmonic gala DVD (in dubious Chinese packaging) sold in the warrens of Hanoi’s old quarter for about the price of a bowl of pho on the street.

The fact is, though, that despite a half-century of our countries’ entanglements, our cultures remain, in many areas, mutually exclusive. Good luck, even now, if you happen to need a dan bau player in San Francisco or New York.

Last week, the first large-scale cultural exchange between the U.S. and Vietnam concluded. It was initiated by Southwest Chamber Music, the Pasadena ensemble with a passion for new music and a calling for cultural outreach, and it was sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Southwest selected 19 U.S. musicians and composers and 19 from the Vietnam National Academy of Music (including a dan bau virtuoso) to join in workshops and present concerts for three weeks in Vietnam followed by three more weeks in Southern California.

By paying this kind of cultural respect, a State Department official in Washington explained to me over the phone, we build a foundation of trust. “Vietnam is a country, not a war,” was the mantra of Jeff von der Schmidt, Southwest’s artistic director.

These were sentiments I shared as I accompanied the Americans on the Vietnam segment and dropped in on as much as I could during the American leg of the exchange. Good can only come out this exchange. But the best art always has a mind of its own. And cultural attractions are like sexual attractions: You never know what might turn on an artist. Nor is music the universal language many diplomats wish it were. Musical notations and the meaning of its sounds need translation. This is a very early phase of our cultural courtship, and it is nervous and awkward.

Nor can Americans undo history. Avoiding condescension or the slightest hint of imperialism is probably next to impossible no matter how delicately we tread. One of Von der Schmidt’s goals was to help Vietnamese composers gain acceptance in their own country. Many of the musicians are Russian or Eastern European trained, and the classical music scene is quite conservative.

Von der Schmidt introduced American music by Aaron Copland, John Cage and Elliott Carter that was little known in Hanoi. He programmed music by two senior Vietnamese composers, Nguyen Thien Dao and Ton That Tiet, who immigrated to Paris in the ‘50s. He commissioned new works from two young American composers, Alexandra du Bois and Kurt Rohde, and two young Vietnamese composers, Vu Nhat Tan and Pham Minh Thanh. Little such new music by any of the above normally gets performed in Vietnam.

American composers and musicians held master classes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese musicians gave demonstrations to our schoolchildren and jammed with jazz students at Hamilton High. The Vietnamese were treated to workshops on administrative procedures. Clearly cultural windows were opened.

But it was never quite clear who wanted what and how much. The Vietnamese did not appear to warm to most modern American music, which really is foreign to them. For the Americans, on the other hand, the more different kinds of Vietnamese musics they could learn about, the better.

Both Du Bois and Rohde included a dan bau in their new pieces. Given their inability to find an actual dan bau or player (Du Bois lives in New York; Rohde in San Francisco), the composers ordered CDs and trawled the Internet for information. Yet it was only once they had arrive in Hanoi and after their pieces were written that they could consult with Bui Le Chi, the Vietnamese dan bau player, to be sure they had treated the instrument appropriately.

The young Vietnamese composers also put the dan bau in their commissioned pieces, but they used it however they pleased. Tan, an unusually edgy composer for Vietnam, played around with music from the central highlands that sounded exciting and fresh to my ears. But he confessed to me that he was slighting tradition. Nor did the Vietnamese composers hesitate to write for Western instruments in ways that suited their music.

We think we know, from our experience, what the Vietnamese need, but we have a harder time discerning what they want. At one point, Von der Schmidt noted how he’d like to see portraits of Vietnamese composers alongside Mozart and Brahms on the walls of the academy. So would I. But do they? Nothing I saw suggested it.

The Americans absorbed rich and wild Hanoi street life and went on shopping sprees, filling large suitcases with gongs and drums and all sorts of folk instruments. The Vietnamese visited the house in which Schoenberg lived, but what they talked about was Hollywood. They bought instruments too, seeking out fine-quality violins and cellos hard to come across in Hanoi. Tan had a field day picking up electronic equipment at Sam Ash.

The bulk of time in the exchange was spent in rehearsal and in workshops, including some demonstrating American busisness models useful for promoting music. But our direct approach uses logical chess-like strategy. We follow currents. They, though, ride the undercurrents, especially in their maneuvering of intricate government relations.

Still, we did, to switch metaphors, plant seeds and now we must wait to see what will grow and how. Where we are likely to see the most immediate results is in the work of Du Bois and Tan. Her music has the kind of poetic flow and deep seriousness that the Vietnamese and Americans responded to equally — she was bombarded by requests for pieces from all sides. Tan, who has an impressive command of both traditional Vietnamese music and new American music (he studied briefly in the U.S.) was actively absorbing every new idea and sound that came his way. But he may find, at least soon, a warmer welcome for his music here than at home despite his following on the Vietnamese underground club scene.

It is worth recalling that Copland found his American sound in Mexico and that Lou Harrison helped make the Indonesian gamelan an important influence on American music. In both cases, friendships with composers from those cultures helped the Americans find their own voices, and the interchange also had meaningful musical blowback on other countries.

Du Bois and Tan are now fast friends. Stay tuned.