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October 17, 2013

She’s Got Hand

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo with the pitch bending monochord dan bau: ‘The right hand is the father who sired me, but the left hand is my mother who raised me.’ (Photo: Ngo Nhat Hoang)

In “The Pez Dispenser,” one of many classic Seinfeld episodes, the hapless George Costanza frets over being the subordinate partner in his new relationship. “I have no power. Why should she have the upper hand?” Costanza grouses. “Once in my life I would like the upper hand. I have no hand. No hand at all. She has the hand. I have no hand.”

“We all want hand,” Jerry observes. “Hand is tough to get.”

The passionate and dauntingly gifted Vietnamese instrumentalist-composer Van-Anh Vanessa Vo knows about hand, and she’s got it. A right hand, to be sure, but her left hand is the one that coaxes the soul out of her music as played on instruments common to her native Vietnam but rarely heard in western concert halls.

“It brings out all the colors, everything you want to hear, the bending and sliding notes,” she says of the magical left hand. “Otherwise, with just the right hand, the melody feels so dry. The right hand is the father who sired me, but the left hand is my mother who raised me.”


The left hand’s color and emotive quality illuminate the diverse and intriguing pieces of Three-Mountain Pass (Innova, through Naxos USA). A masterful player of the 16-string dan Tranh—a zither with moveable bridges and the springy, bending tones resembling the koto—and the pitch-bending monochord dan Bau, Vo draws on the dozens of traditional genres found in Vietnam to craft new arrangements and compositions.

Whether setting a sensual 18th-century poem to a newly invented instrument (“Three Mountain Pass”) or completely upending one of Satie’s Gnossiennes, Vo brings virtuosic subtlety and profound emotion to her work, a keen ear for the essence of her roots and their potential resonance with contemporary sounds.

In collaboration with Kronos Quartet (the wonderful chamber music conversation of “Green River Delta”) and fellow Vietnamese trailblazer, guitarist Nguyen Le, in her work with orchestras and Japanese taiko drum ensembles, Vo reveals the great breadth and flexibility of the traditional styles she spent decades perfecting with master musicians and at the conservatory in Hanoi. Now based in the Bay Area, Ms. Vo pushes the envelope of the past, engaging sounds and complex, multi-layered concepts in constructing new spaces for the music that speaks to her on multiple levels.

“I think if you have a love for music, you want to explore more and more and maximize your abilities,” muses Vo, whose mastery of dan Tranh, dan Bau, and five other Viet traditional instruments is exceedingly rare. (In addition to dan Tranh and dan Bau, Van-Anh also performs as soloist on the 36-string hammered dulcimer [dan tam thap luc], the bamboo xylophone [dan t’rung], the k’longput, traditional drums [trong] and Chinese guzheng). “I’m still doing it, not just with Vietnamese traditional instruments, but I’ve moved to many other instruments around the world, as many as I can.”

Erik Satie’s ‘Gnossienne No. 3,’ a live version of the song from Van-Anh Vanessa Vo’s Three-Mountain Pass album, with Breath of Asia at Ohlone College, Fremont, CA. With improvisation on Dan Bau (Van-Anh Vo), Piano (Kumi Uyeda) and Violin (Khac-Quan Nguyen).

Finding the freedom and well of feeling in long-standing forms and age-old instruments comes naturally to Ms. Vo, who grew up surrounded by a near cacophony of different music, streaming from the windows and apartments of her childhood neighborhood in Hanoi.

Vo’s father worked as a musician to keep up morale in the North Vietnamese army during the war, accompanying himself on the guitar. Her family was eventually given housing in Hanoi’s remarkable artists’ quarter, where musicians lived choc-a-bloc and a dozen different genres and traditions entwined.

“We’d get up and start to hear people practicing, very early in the morning,” recalls Ms. Vo fondly. “In front of me I’d hear Western opera and behind me I’d hear traditional music, traditional opera, people practicing voice and instruments. On my right I might hear western-style pop and on my left I’d hear someone practicing traditional instruments. It all came to me, and I thought it was very inspirational.”

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo at TEDxSanJoaquin, discussing the roots of her music and playing excerpts on various instruments from her native Vietnam.

Ms. Vo knew from her first lessons in reading music with her father that she would be musician herself, never needing parental insistence to practice and play. In fact, Vo pursued what she wanted to know with an astounding dedication and persistence. It took her three years to win over one of her masters, a brilliant player of the dan Tranh, the late Master The Thiep. She pays homage to her beloved teacher with her own interpretation of “Vong Co,” a classic piece from Southern Vietnamese folk opera. She kept asking for lessons, and he kept saying no, until he took her on as an apprentice, a role that more closely resembles that of adopted daughter than mere music student

What she learned from The Thiep and other master musicians was just as much about improvisation and expression as strict adherence to a canon or approach. Vo would sit back and listen as Master The Thiep whipped out version after version of Vietnamese opera themes, varying them much the way a jazz musician might. Ms. Vo applies this spirit of variation and improvised reinterpretation to pieces like Satie’s “Gnossienne No 3,” as Vo’s dan Bau captures both the quirky playfulness of the French composer’s work, as well as his heartache, sliding fluidly through the melody.

AUDIO CLIP: Van-Anh Vanessa Vo and the Kronos Quartet, ‘Green River Delta,’ from Three-Mountain Pass

This liquid, nimble movement—the left-hand aspect—became a powerful touch point as Ms. Vo began working with Kronos on pieces like “Green River Delta,” a lively conversation between Kronos’s rich strings and Vo’s rippling dan Tranh. “The first time they heard the piece, they stopped with awe,” recounts Vo. “When they tried it, the music sounded like an etude, because they didn’t know what note had to vibrate, what was a passing note. I had to teach them the meaning of the left hand.”

The fluid tones the left hand lends echo the contours of the Vietnamese language, as Vo explores in “Mourning,” a piece expressing the aftermath of war and the grief caused by its losses. Based on Vietnamese funeral music, the composition unites three dan Bau—instruments that traditionally play solo because of their distinctive, overpowering qualities. Yet Vo lets them interact, finding the different facets and voices of loss in their plaintive, heartfelt tones.

The artist’s sensitivity to new voices that speak to her roots resounds on the title track, “Three-Mountain Pass,” a striking arrangement of a poem by pioneering 18th-century female poet Ho Xuan Huong, a concubine who decried the hardship faced by women in society. Her poetry is well loved among all Vietnamese people for its witty, multi-layered meanings that are sexually daring and nonconformist, even by today’s standards. Using the vocal style of Vietnamese mediums, Ms. Vo digs into the poem’s many layers—its natural beauty, sensual intensity and forceful statement of feminine power, letting her voice mingle with the booming vibrations of the Hang (a rare percussion instrument invented by eccentric Swiss instrument makers) and the bamboo xylophone (dan T’rung). With similar grace, she incorporates the bold sound of taiko drums into some of her works, refusing to let their muscular qualities overwhelm her instruments’ seeming delicacy (“Go Hunting”).

AUDIO CLIP: Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, the title track from her new album, Three-Mountain Pass: ‘a striking arrangement of a poem by pioneering 18th-century female poet Ho Xuan Huong, a concubine who decried the hardship faced by women in society.’

Ms. Vo’s urge to innovate while remaining firmly grounded in the traditions she loves has blossomed since she immigrated to the US in the late 1990s, after she met her future husband when on a visit to the States as part of an official artist delegation from Vietnam. “Moving here, to the US, has opened many opportunities for me. Now, I do what I want, and I find a way to express my inner voice and my thinking,” reflects Vo. “As a young woman, when I would practice, my family would always know what emotions I was feeling at that time. They could hear it. I started to write music from those feelings. I feel so good, to be able to express what I feel and share what I feel with my audiences, the common emotions we all share.”

Source: Innova Recordings


Perspective: ‘This CD is a sensation’

Van-Ahn Vanessa Vo’s Three-Mountain Pass, which includes her music and traditional Vietnamese pieces played on a number of Vietnamese instruments, is released on Innova, a nonprofit American composers’ label. This interestingly begs the question of what is American music, especially since a knockout on the disc is her transcription of French composer Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 3.”

She plays the melody of the solo piano score on the monochrome dan bau and the right-hand accompaniment on the dan Tranh, a 16-string zither. The result is as excellent a Vietnamese French fusion as the food and coffee found in Hanoi.

AUDIO CLIP: Van-Ahn Vanessa Vo, ‘Mourning,’ from Three-Mountain Pass

A versatile instrumentalist, Vo is percussionist and chanter on the track in which she is joined by the Kronos, the string quartet eerily evoking the sounds of dan bau. When Vo’s voice intersects with the dan bau in the traditional pieces, though, you sometimes are intriguingly unsure what is what.

Yes, the guitar can do everything. But a one-string dan bau can, in its own way, gently weep as well. And wail. This CD is a sensation. –Mark Sweet, Los Angeles Times Music Critic, from his September 19, 2013 review, “Musical beauty connected by strings”


Perspective: ‘Reflective, Creative Songs’

After spending decades in Hanoi, Vietnam, dan Tranh and dan Bau master, Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, learned to create moving and contemplative pieces of mostly instrumental work. The San Francisco-based musician plays the dan Tranh, a zither instrument, which resembles the koto in looks and sound. The strings are plucked and notes are created by sliding a bridge across the strings. In addition, the dan Bau is a pitch-bending, monochord, which adds a spritely sound to the mix. Also, the Kronos Quartet add their classical strings to the work. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo also plays the hang, which is a Swiss-made steel drum. The entire work is rather avant-garde and experimental to those unfamiliar with Vietnamese folk music. However, there is something magical about the way the strings tell stories through the sounds. There are only seven songs on the album, but all of the songs are rather long. Fans of Vietnamese folk music and contemporary world music will love Van-Anh Vanessa Vo’s reflective and creative songs. –Matthew Forss

Source: Inside World Music



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