EOL Record Review

216kB gif Ancient Vietnamese Drum Face from CD illustrations

Stilling Time (Ngu'ò'i Ngô`i Ru Thò'i Gian): Traditional Musics of Vietnam. 1994. Produced by the Minnesota Composers Forum with funding provided by the McKnight Foundation, Asian Cultural Council and Northwest Airlines. Recorded by Philip Blackburn, Nov. 1993-Feb. 1994. INNOVA 112, one CD, TT: 71:55. Notes in English with credits and some texts in Vietnamese. Translations by Cung Thúc Tiê'n, Nguyê'n~ Ngo.c Bích, Nguyê'n~ Phong and others. Available from Minnesota Composers Forum, 332 Minnesota Street, Saint Paul, MN 55101

There is a pattern familiar to most ethnomusicologists, where a given society is represented in recordings by a small number of musical pieces or styles. This is especially prevalent in recordings purported to be surveys of a country's traditional repertoire. One finds the same warhorses in yet another recording, or a given style achieving the apotheosis of canon, to the exclusion of other, equally vital practices. Those of us more familiar with the society in question find it irritating that so many vibrant repertoires are excluded in this way from commercially produced recordings.

In part, this is a natural outcome of representation per se. All purported representations are partial truths in that selection criteria can never be wholly objective. Connoisseurs may argue that the goal should be to present exemplary performances of a limited repertoire, while others may desire a portrayal of cultural breadth rather than depth. Canonization is not in the repertoire being selected, but in the repertoires being excluded.

For these reasons among others, I am delighted to report a new release of Vietnamese traditional musics that can rightfully claim to be a survey, yet avoid replicating most of the warhorses of previous recordings. Philip Blackburn, composer and staff member of the Minnesota Composers Forum, conducted a four-month residency in Vietnam sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council. His task was to establish links between composers in Vietnam and presenting organizations in the United States. Blackburn travelled widely across Vietnam, visiting villages and provincial capitols alike. While there, he made a number of recordings, selections of which comprise this disk. The use of the plural form in the subtitle "Traditional Musics of Vietnam" is appropriate given the scope presented here.

[Listening note: .AU files below are poor quality but in the format universal to Web browsing. The .MP2 files are much better quality and about half the size. You can download here .MP2 players for Windows or for Macintosh, part 1 and Macintosh, part 2 or link to files for Unix workstations.]

There is almost an affirmative action quality to this disk. Of the nineteen selections, eleven are from ethnic minorities, (Ê -Dê 21kB au or 11kB mp2, Hmong, Nùng, Red Yao and Tày), two from folk revival percussion ensemble Phu -Dông 42kB au or 21kB mp2, one soundscape, an excerpt of the Hail Mary recorded at a Catholic church in Hanoi, and one example of trance medium performance. This leaves only four selections from the canonical core: two pieces of Declaimed Poetry Ngâm thó 47kB au or 23kB mp2; and two examples of Nha.c Tài Tu 45kB au or 22kB mp2, often translated as Music of Amateurs, here more sensitively rendered as Skilled Chamber Music.

The notes are intelligently written, conveying a feeling for the performers as people. Complete texts in both languages are given for several songs, and ethnographic synopses are given for the recordings by ethnic minorities. Information about the poets of the ngâm thó selections is also included. In terms of representation, a variety of functions are portayed in addition to repertoires and ethnic groups. There are examples of religious rituals, repartee singing, poetry both set and improvised, modern folkloric pieces and their traditional inspirations, and music for entertainment. The inclusion of the soundscape of Hanoi streets must strike Vietnamese listeners as curious.

There are two major markets for this release. Given the care with translations and the scrupulous attention to diacritics, one can safely assume that the Viêt Kiêu (overseas Vietnamese) are one. The other audience, it appears, are sound-hunters, non-Vietnamese eager to listen to fresh, new sounds. They will not be disappointed; in the promotional materials, a quote from Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington says, "How exciting it is to have an entirely new set of images become part of one's life." I would hasten to add that anyone with more than a passing interest in Vietnamese culture would be wise to add this release to their collection.

No survey can ever claim thoroughness; at best, a survey strives to be a good example. There is always an intentional portrayal that serves as a filter. This release can safely claim to be exemplary of the margins, including as it does so many examples of cultural performances outside the canonical center. Yet it does not exclude this center; rather, the skilled repertoires of the Vietnamese upper class are placed on an equal footing with the repartee singing of highland villagers. In all, a rich document of Vietnamese cultural diversity.

Cliff Sloane
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
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2 November 1995