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Vân-Ánh Võ breathes new life into tradition

October 15, 2018

Award-winning Vietnamese-American musician Vân-Ánh Võ visited Seattle this past weekend, a trip organized by the Seattle Art Museum’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas and co-sponsored by the Southeast Asia Center.  On Friday, Võ visited UW Ethnomusicologist Christina Sunardi’s Music Cultures of the World class in the morning and held a performance later that afternoon for SEAC faculty and students.

Võ credits her father, also a musician, for inspiring her early interest: she began studying the đàn tranh (16-string zither) at the age of four, going on to graduate with distinction from the Vietnam Academy of Music where she later taught.  In 1995, she won the championship title in the Vietnam National Đàn Tranh Competition and was selected as one of the musician-delegates sent to the United States after diplomatic relations between the countries were re-established that same year.  During her appearance as part of the Gardner Center’s Saturday Morning Lecture Series, she said that at the time she first traveled to the US, the only western music she had heard was Abba.  After moving here in 2001, her familiarity with—and appreciation for—western artists expanded rapidly, as did her opportunity to create her own compositions.  Võ was classically trained, having learned different musical genres from six masters of the forms.  Vietnam’s musical tradition is very deeply rooted: one of the instruments she plays, the đàn bâù, was invented in the 9th century.

She described her masters’ expertise as functioning like a time machine: so faithful to the original that a listener today is transported to the time and society that produced the work.  She wants her music to connect just as powerfully, but to reflect our own time and what is happening in society today.  The masters from whom she learned have been supportive of her innovative approach: combining traditional compositions with contemporary elements like a backing hip hop track in one case and ambient street sounds from Hanoi in another.

One of the instruments she brought with her to Seattle, the đàn bâù mentioned above, seems to combine both the traditional and modern in its design.  With only one string, it has a surprising range of sound thanks to one flexible end that works, as Võ notes, “like a Vietnamese whammy bar.”  It can sound at times like a human voice or a theremin, a fact attributable in part to the instrument’s uninterrupted fluidity of register and vibrato (listen to Võ play Gershwin’s “Summertime”).

In one piece that she performed both Friday and Saturday, “Sorrow,” Võ elicited the sound of the human voice not from the đàn bâù but the đàn tranh.  Unlike her other pieces in which the contemporary blends seamlessly with the traditional, “Sorrow” produced a dissonance that was cognitive, not aural.  Võ explained that the composition was inspired by the traumatic ordeals experienced by Vietnamese refugees who fled by sea, commonly known as the “boat people.”  She stated that of the estimated two million refugees who had left by 1980 (in the aftermath of the end of the US war and ensuing regional wars), 100,000 died at sea from starvation, exposure, and at the hands of pirates.  She interviewed one survivor who had been kidnapped from her stranded vessel and held in a state of sexual slavery.

In the first movement of “Sorrow,” Võ elicits the pain and violence inherent in this survivor’s testimony from the strings of the đàn tranh, transforming the sound into despair and requiring her audience to experience the emotion.  The dissonance is introduced in the next movement when Võ shifts to the đàn bâù and begins playing her own version of Purple Haze while inviting the audience to clap in time with the beat.  Hearing Jimi Hendrix played in this way at first seems like a dash of comic relief, having just witnessed such anguish.  However, Võ’s insistent tempo culminated in a final transition to the đàn t’rưng (bamboo xylophone) which she struck with precise ferocity while issuing a wail that sounded as if it were from the depths of her soul.  When asked on Saturday about the inclusion of Purple Haze in the overall piece, she explained that she felt the antiwar spirit of the song deeply and wanted to convey the far-reaching tragedy of war.

She referenced a plea that then-Vice President Walter Mondale made in 1979 for western countries to lower barriers to resettlement for Vietnamese refugees, resulting in increased commitments and humanitarian aid.   She also expressed gratitude to Seattle for being one of the first US cities to welcome them.  Although Võ’s music can transport us back for centuries, we don’t have to travel far to apprehend the contrast between this country’s policies then and now.