Written by Út Quyên for Hanoi Grapevine. Photos courtesy of Lương Hữu Hải
Translated by Châu Giang
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At the concert “Blurred Boundary” took place at L’Espace’s auditorium in the night of July 6th, young musicians from Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City and French guest artist Jean-David Caillouët have delivered to lovers of experimental music in Hanoi an emotional night with a wonderful blend of styles, genres and music textures that are radically distinctive.
The night began with Outngh, a combo of electronic sounds and visual by Nguyễn Hồng Giang. The initial tender, melodious, classical-sounding piano was soon to be distorted, broken up and then buried under the clamor of Noise. As the music proceeded, the pace, magnitude and cacophony were all the more amplified. The chaining transitions of on-screen visual glitches matching up to the beats and sound-layering of Noise had tranced the audience into the performance’s dimension. As the only solo of the night, Giang’s performance has a one-of-a-kind presence in comparison to the rest. The piece had served as a prelude to the shifting of the audience’s psyche, from the realm of reality to a dream in which the familiar signals of sight and hearing became exponentially odd, piecing up the Borderless.
The next performance, Untitled Coincidence by Jean-David Caillouët, a true “collage” of music and optical images. Featuring snapshots of Vietnam from renowned films such as Hanoi, Tuesday the 13th (1968) (Hanoi, Martes 13), Cánh đồng hoang (The Abandoned Field), (1979), the cartoon Chuyện Ông Gióng (1970) (The Myth of Saint Gióng) and images of the Vietnamese folk woodcut paintings such as Đông Hồ, Hàng Trống, plus the sound of the flute, đàn bầu (monochord) and đàn tranh (16-string zither) creates an atmosphere of nostalgic longing. Few knew that when composing this piece, Jean-David Caillouët was barely familiar with the Vietnamese culture and traditional instruments. The development of the piece, akin to its title Untitled Coincidence, largely relied on the development of emotions and reactions from artists to the visuals. Yet, the excessive exploitation of Vietnam images towards the performance’s later section rendered the visual element lengthy and partially denotative. The recitation from the book “The Order of Time” by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli combined with the author’s own contemplation was a surprisingly good fit for the very Vietnamese visuals and music. The volume of the reciting was a tad too clear-cut at times and therefore seem to “jump” out of the music, weakening the languid mood which the performance had created.
Juxtaposing the “Art for Art’s sake” beauty of Jean-David Caillouët’s “Untitled Coincidence”, Looking For by Hương DonNa challenged its listeners by dissonant yet no less intriguing sounds. The audience would witness an orchestra of eerie sounds coming from Tuấn Nị’s violin and Hương’s objects. The performance started off with the violin’s grating shriek leading an uncanny vocal of unclear intention. The piece itself seemed like a dialogue struggling to find a common voice among the idiosyncrasies; therefore, at times there was harmonization, but there were moments when one sound attempted to drown out the rest, thriving for its own solo.
The next piece, Life, composed by Duy Rùa, Hương DonNa, Thanh Huyền, Tuấn Nị has a rather clear-cut narrative. It was a story of the youth, wishing for a getaway from the stifling daily grind to seek their own scenes of quietude. Utilizing the variety of sounds from instruments such as đàn tranh (16-string zither) (Thanh Huyền), đàn bầu (monochord) (Thùy Chi), flute and jaw harp (Duy Rùa), violin (Tuấn Nị) and object (Hương DonNa), the artists had succeed in guiding the audience’s minds to follow an excursion passing through a variety of places, starting off from the bustling city to the quiet province, the tranquil pagoda and the freeing rural wilderness. Yet, the transition from the initial chaos to the later part of rural, rustic sounds felt a bit rushed. The audience had yet to perceive where they are in the story, and already they were abruptly thrown onto another auditory realm.
The night reached its climax at the fifth performance: How Many Skies and Seas will Have Disappeared, composed by Lương Huệ Trinh. The artists had employed all of the elements suchlike sound, lighting, and visuals with total finesse. The piece commenced with a voice in the dark, although just the barest of whisper, yet it echoed throughout the listener’s psych. The images were floating digits, alternating between being defined and distorted, coupled with illusion-inducing animations plus very minimalistic lighting- all had together lured the audience into the murky sphere of subconsciousness. Duy Rùa’s flute adjusted flexibly to the piece’s dips and swells – his sound alternated between being pure, high-pitched, ethereal and sometimes lost in the slow, deep tempo that prevailed throughout the performance’s length; and such “lost” had caused more or less frustration as if the sound had wanted to break free but then was quickly washed away. Likewise, Hà Thúy Hằng’s playing of the 16-string zither was sometimes silk-smooth and soulful, and at other times spooky and mystical; the instrument’s deep yet fierce sound had merged seamlessly with the whispering and the well-handled, mellifluous, sometime-near-and-at-other-time-far ca trù (a genre of Vietnamese ancient music, featuring female vocalists) singing voice. Every single component had its part in giving birth to an apocalyptic, period-piece type of elegance.
The night wrapped up in an impromptu performance entitled Interweaving, another electronic audio-visual combo that also featured the 16-string zither and the moon lute. The performance was off to a compelling start with the high-pitched rushing of the zither and the electronics’ prolonged squeaking; the moon lute’s improvised riff was created by the friction among the strings, which interacted with a low-pitched, ominous vocal. The slow-paced, deep electronic audio which provided a backdrop for the moon lute’s deafening screech; and together with the inconsistent sound from the zither that prolonged for over 10 minutes, would all very much resulted in a patience burnt-out if it weren’t for the random animations matching the music that somewhat worked up the listener’s multidimensional imaginings. Yet, the appearance of too-specific and too-telling images weren’t such a good fit for the abstraction or minimalism that had predominated the performance for the most part, as this mismatch may get on some listeners’ nerves. The ending may trigger some confusion as well, as the performance could have come to a halt after the orchestral climax of the electronic blow-whistle and the drums at minute 13:00, but instead, it continued again in a slow tempo for another 2 minutes.
The six performances within “Blurred Boundary” has lead the audience from one surprise to another in term of unleashing new sounds from traditional instruments as well as the different interactions and incorporations: between the electronic and the acoustic, the Western vs the traditionally Vietnamese; the classical and the Noise; the ca trù singing complimented by the sounds of metal clashing against the cymbal, the strange violin screech in harmony with the objects’ sounds… The musicians’ quest for the materials of Sound could be as lonely as in “Outngh”, full of nostangia and wistfulness as in “Untitled Coincidence”, harsh as in “Looking For”, joyous as in “Life”, mystic and ancient as in “How Many Skies and Seas will Have Disappeared” or vague and tumultuous as in “Interweaving”. All had been nothing but full of colors and sure left behind lots of lasting emotions in the heart of many.