Written by Ut Quyen for Hanoi Grapevine
Photos by Le Thu Minh – member of PAN – Hanoi Grapevine
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Many people are reluctant when it comes to experimental music as they deem it too eccentric and difficult to understand. But with musician Nguyen Xuan Son (stage name Sơn X), to play and appreciate this music genre you just need a heart that is impassioned by the sounds of life. Hanoi Grapevine is pleased to present his perspective on the musician career, on life, and points of view on practicing and appreciating music for the opening of “Thap mot tia Dom Dom” (Light a Firefly) on 16 Jun at Erato School of Music.
“It’s not me who choose music but perhaps it is music that chooses me,” said musician Son X. As a child, Son X loved literature and dreamed of pursuing a career in writing. But back in the days, parents were the ones who oriented and selected the career for their children. At first he was also reluctant to learn traditional music, but later on, he was thankful for his father who led him to traditional music because it was this genre that brought him to contemporary experimental music – the music of freedom.
Son X learned traditional music under the guidance of three teachers: Bui Trong Dang, Nguyen Dac Han and Do Tung – the master percussionists of Vietnam. “When studying traditional music, I trained hard to be able to master the most difficult techniques. But later I wondered, mastering techniques for what? If the music doesn’t touch the soul, techniques are meaningless.” – he said. Traditional Vietnamese music performances are very impromptu. A music score can be interpreted differently from time to time, with completely different notes. It is very different from Western classical music that emphasizes the accuracy of musicians. And it is the improvisational, liberal characteristic of traditional Vietnamese music that acted as a good start for Sơn X to approach contemporary music later on.
Son X’s music career hit a major turning point when he met Ea Sola Thuy – a Vietnamese-born French contemporary choreographer – when she returned to Vietnam in the early 90s for the dance performance Drought and Rain. It was Ea Sola Thuy that inspired him with freedom in perspective on music and artistic expressions.
To Son X, music is more than just melodies, beat and notes are more than Do–Re–Mi–Fa–Sol–La–Si. Because musical notes are just a type of notation for musicians to understand what other have composed. Then had the world have no music before the Western musical notation system was created?
Each country, each culture has different ways to record music in written form, for example, Western music has 7 musical notes: Do–Re–Mi–Fa–Sol–La–Si; Vietnamese traditional music uses the system of hồ, xư, xang, xê, cống, u, líu. Many traditional music artists even use numbers to mark the pitches of each note. Even with Western classical music, the development of musical instruments also created a lot of new ways to write down music. Today, musicians can even write music with graphic score. And the score could also varies depending on the musician playing the piece. All sounds and instruments around us, when organized in a certain aesthetic system, can become music. Since then, contemporary music has led the way for artists to freely express themselves, non-confirming to any rules, therefore allow each to fiercely express their personality.
Having gone on tour in many countries around the world, Sơn X realized that Western music emphasizes accuracy, knowledge and discipline, while Asian music often goes into human psyche, spirituality, religion. So even with improvised works, Western musicians often spend a lot of time rehearsing together, while musicians of from Asian music culture could rely on the sense of space, people, sounds right at the moment to perform without practicing. For example, during a tour in Japan, there were 20 artists coming from many different countries and almost no one knew one another prior to the program. In each performance, they were paired up randomly and then performed together without any rehearsal. When he was paired with a noise musician, Sơn X decided not to play anything in regard to his performing partner. “In art, space is very important. Sitting silently on the stage, just listening, being conscious of sounds flowing around me is also a way of expressing music.” – he said.
“It is like materiality and spirituality. For example: the speed, you can play fast or slow when the sounds connect in a certain cycle. And they can be measured because they have limits. But when there is only one unique sound, or no sound at all, it has no end point, it becomes infinite – depending on the listener’s imagination.” Hence, in contemporary music, the audience is also an important part that form the music piece. It depends entirely on each person’s perception and imagination to enjoy the music.
Video clip belongs to Đom Đóm
Those who are used to music with melodies and rhythms might encounter many difficulties when it comes to contemporary music. Sơn X suggested that comparing music with other format can make it easier to perceive.
It is just like when we were little, we read books that are simple and easy to understand. When we grow up those books no longer bring curiosity, and its simplicity no longer appeals to us. We find ourselves with a need for books of a higher level of thinking. We might not able understand it the first time we read it, and it could take many years of experience in life to finally understand a book.
If in visual arts, there is no color that is beautiful or ugly, then in music there is also no sound that is good or bad, what’s important is how a musician organizes and arranges those sounds. To a composer, all sounds are equal, not just sounds made with musical instruments could create music.
Art audience of today don’t just stop at aesthetics. They need to find other values in a work of art. In developed countries, people turn to contemporary art not because they could immediately understand a work, but it is for the same reason that contemporary art appeals to them. It is because it brings about thoughts and questions. If you appreciate art by looking for familiarity with a prejudice, then it is no less than killing creativity.
According to Son X, “approach experimental music with an empty mind”. Set aside all your prejudices, even the knowledge you have had, then you can appreciate with contemporary music. When you become free with the sounds, you can feel, enjoy and unleash your imagination to the emotions that contemporary music brings us.
Images from the concert “Thắp một tia Đom Đóm” (Light a Firefly)
Translated by Hanoi Grapevine