Tran Kim Ngoc and The Journey to Build Up an “Experimental Music...

Tran Kim Ngoc and The Journey to Build Up an “Experimental Music Ecology” in Vietnam

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Interview by Ut Quyen for Hanoi Grapevine. Translation by Chau Giang.
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The compositions by students from the Experimental Music Improvisation Course number 2 held by the DomDom (Firefly) – The Hub for Experimental Music & Art were out in the public eye at the graduation concert “Thắp một tia Đom Đóm” (Light a Firefly Ray) on June 26th. These works are going to be re-performed on a tour across Ho Chi Minh City and several Southwestern cities starting from August 14th.

Trần Kim Ngọc (wearing in black, in the middle) and students of the Experimental Music Improvisation class I-1B

Set in the music scene of Vietnam, this tour would hit a major milestone in the maturation and development progress of a brand new generation of young artists and the growth of an authentic environment for the execution and performing of experimental music in Vietnam, which was a mere flickering of light when DomDom was first founded in 2012. All of these feats would not have been performed, if it had not been for the accumulating efforts of Ms Tran Kim Ngoc, one of the first and most successful experimental musicians in Vietnam, while also is the founder of DomDom Experimental Music and Arts Center.

Hanoi Grapevine has had a chance to strike up a conversation with her on the seven-year journey of Dom Dom’s formation and development.

As a successful and pretty booked-up experimental musician with a fair number of requests from various events, why didn’t you focus on composing but instead, choose to establish and run Dom Dom? Wouldn’t teaching and managing activities here have eaten up a lot of your self-developing time as an independent artist?

It was never my intention to become a manager, let alone an educator. Everything came from my own needs of continue practicing and performing experimental music. 2004 was the year when I returned home after 3 years studying abroad majoring in Musical Composition in Germany. At the time European artists had already been granted a very favorable environment to advance practicing experimental music, meanwhile in Vietnam, it dawned on me that an environment, or an ecosystem like that here was basically non-existent. Most Vietnamese musicians were unaware of the very existence of this genre and music philosophy, let alone the thought of practicing or performing them. Experimental music in Vietnam at the time hardly saw any future. There were very few colleagues, plus no successor was in sight. The only way to practice experimental music was creating a working environment for young artists, therefore, I had thought about starting DomDom and begun designing education programs for experimental musicians in order to summon more potential colleagues in the future. 

How did you construct and develop your education programs?

These courses were based on my experience while participating in the Improvisation course in Germany. DomDom’s first course, I-0, launched off in 2013, which didn’t really have a proper learning programs and goal path. Our progress of learning and teaching was one that, we, as students and teachers, experimented and figured out together, as to find the best learning and practicing method.

After I-0, I realized that short-term practicing workshops which had lasted from 1-2 weeks, didn’t really do any good. Although having had the chance to study and practice with foreign artists were very beneficial for young Vietnamese artists, practice time was too short to bring forth any significant changes. For, learning experimental music is not about acquiring mere skills, but more a journey of discovering and cultivating one’s awareness and cultural literacy in order to create their own artistic voice.  To develop a musical mindset and artistic taste, the artist must immerse and incubate themselves in the experimental music environment, which means, they would live with experimental music on a daily basis, watch/listen to it as often as having everyday meals.

Students Domddom’s I-0 class at the concert with PARALLEL ASTEROID in L’Espace, 2015. Photo: Lương Hữu Hải

From there, a model of three simultaneously running courses was born: two Electronic Music classes and a Contemporary Music Orchestra one, both last for 2 weeks – students were under the guidance of world famous artists (all were friends whom I invited to Vietnam to teach for free), an Improvisation class initially was also lectured by my successful artist friends as well; then I was on the lecture stand myself until the end of 2014. Until the new courses I-1 and I-2 which were launched in 2018 and 2019, respectively, the teaching program now is structurally more organized, with three levels: Beginners, Developing and Advanced, each lasts from 12 to 15 sessions. The ultimate goal of this program is not to train students into improvisors, but rather improvisational composers, with the capability to compose freely. In performing experimental music, each person’s characters shine through. The task of an instructor like me is to discover and cultivate those characters into distinct, independent voices, to develop a community with a deep communal connection and yet within it, unique creative selves remain well-protected. 

“180° AUTUMNAL EQUINOX” Concert by Domdom’s I-1A class students, February 2018 in Hanoi

Is it known that the concert “Light a Firefly Ray” will include performances of artists who just graduated from the Improvisational Experimental Music at novice level. Although very new to this game, and already they have acquired the ability to compose experimental music?

Composing traditionally is a very lonely job because the composer will need a space of quietude to work independently. He lives in his own imaginative world and contemplations, then transfers them onto paper. When the work is finished, he would hand in the completed sheets to musicians and they will release the work out into the public. At that stage, the artist cannot really interfere. 

Kim Ngọc (left) and Nghiêm Như Hoa, on of Domdom’s I-1B class members at the “Light a Firefly Ray” Concert, June 2019 in Hanoi. Photo: Lê Thu Minh (PAN)

In contrast, improvised performing is more of an on-the spot composing group work. You are the creator of the sounds you are making. You must think of what you want to play, and no one’s going to give you the sheets. At the same time, you must communicate continuously with your partners, create musical dialogues in which each will “speak up” on their own based off interactions with their partners. On one hand they might get inspirations from their partners’ ideas, and therefore diversify their techniques and musical materials; on the other hand, they might have to stand up against the challenges, or, tenderly respond to the auditory aesthetics created by the others.

Concert “Light a Firefly Ray” in Hanoi and members of DomDom’s I-1b class
Video credit: @Nguyễn Quốc Hoàng Anh

Improvisational performing, therefore, give the artists a one-of-a-kind opportunity to mature as a composer, and not as a musician. The various forms and languages of experimental music were the hints for artists to develop their own musical characters that are self-oriented. I see in improvisational performing of experimental music a power that guilds the young artists to really delve into a very modern composition philosophy. It can be said that improvisational performing plays the middleman, from the musician to the “improvisational composer”, and to finally reach the “composer” status.

At Beginners’ level, the class starts with artists getting their feet wet with experimental music by watching/listening to and discuss various world-class classic performances of the genre. This progress opens a gateway for them to a brand new type of music, abolish their pre-established barriers in music practices, and create a new mindset for music appreciation. Next, they would practice free improvisation skills (conversing and communicating by sound) and start giving out conceptual improvisation. These skills are the stepping stones in composing experimental music. Ideas for groupworks will be brought up by individuals, each group will perform based off those ideas. By practicing improvising, the final works are continuously being honed during the course’s length, so the concluded idea can manifest itself as clearly as possible.

Practicing and performing other artists who had more experience in the domestic and international market partially helps the students self-develop. Therefore, concerts are, in a way, crucial lessons for them. After each performance, both the pressure from the public and from playing with peers who are better than they are will help them reach maturation faster.  

From the first course I-20 until now, what do you consider as the biggest success of DomDom classes?

Like its name, “DomDom” (Firefly), when founding this center, I had hoped that our activities would be just like flickers of light full of liveliness, slowly emanating and gradually creating changes in the contemporary music scene of Vietnam.

After Course I-0 ended in 2014, the students had to find their own paths to self-mature in the Vietnamese experimental music scene, which, still reeks of inadequacies. It’s too early to declare that a wholesome ecology for experimental music had been settled in here. There is still no environment to incubate freshly-launched careers for many musicians. Among 15 artists that had debuted from Course I-20, there were several that had found their own musical personalities and continue on embarking the experimental music path, such as Tâm Phạm, Phú Phạm, Nguyễn Đỗ Minh Quân, Lương Huệ Trinh, Hương DonNa, Nguyễn Hữu Hải Duy… Some had acquired great skills yet remained pretty passive in experimental music practices, and some have given up on this discipline entirely.

Course I-1 level Beginner had quite a crew of students, so we had to split the class in half. There remained only a class in Developing level, however. Nevertheless, I believe that those who have pursued this up until now could potentially pursue experimental music as life-long careers. I have many expectations in these colleagues. 

For me, leading these courses brings me the joy of a seeder. Every student when first joined these classes were like tiny sprouts appearing in my garden. After some time of cultivation and care, they would grow into plants, even big enough to create a forest, enough to form an entire ecology that would end up providing nourishment for myself.  

What do you have to say about the current experimental music scene in Vietnam?

In recent years, with the influx of practicing and performing opportunities for experimental musicians, invested audience of this genre is also escalating in number. However, generally speaking, the mass audience’s approach to the genre is not yet very open. The reasons for this probably stem from very loose definitions of “experimental”, even from people in the field themselves. Some would assume that “experiment” equals anything and anyone is free to do or play anything on their terms, therefore, they make products of low quality and half-hearted efforts, and still labeled them “experimental art”. In actuality, making experimental music requires the artist to take the work progress seriously. Similar to a tree that needs to be watered, cared for, and nourished in order to grow, the artist also needs both their own efforts and a supportive environment in order to mature on their own. 

Most of the artists who have the ability to go far on the path of practicing experimental music must work hard to develop their skills and broaden their mindsets. Beyond mere skills, the artists must immerse themselves in the “medium” of this genre to refine their tastes and cultivate their musical thinking. Mastering technical skills is oftentimes the forerunner of high-quality products – not to experimental music, however. It is exclusive to experimental music practitioners to develop and independent way of thinking, a free mindset and a rich cultural understanding so they could explore their own musical identity and unique language of art. 

Thank you, and hope Dom Dom’s upcoming tour will be a major success! 

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