Travel & Life - October 17, 2018 | 06:37 pm PT

Vietnamese bamboo ensemble with classical aspirations

An ensemble of folk bamboo instruments has set its sights on symphonizing traditional and folk Vietnamese music.

It's a warm October night. Dong Quang Vinh, conductor at the Hanoi-based Vietnam National Academy of Music (VNAM), was surrounded by his ensemble, Suc Song Moi (New Life), and the Hanoi Voices Choir, rehearsing for the Tre Mua Thu (Autumn Bamboo) concert this weekend at L'espace.

It was an unusual spectacle. A group of Vietnamese bamboo instrument players facing a classical choir, together practicing “Libertango” by Italian composer Astor Piazzolla.

Suc Song Moi is the only pure bamboo ensemble to play music in a symphonic style,” Vinh said with evident pride.

Conductor Dong Quang Vinh. Photo courtesy of Dong Quang Vinh

Vinh was born to a family with a strong legacy in traditional music. His father is a bamboo instrument maker and a musician, and his mother is a zither player and teacher.

Returning to Vietnam after a nine-year study of conducting classical music in Shanghai, Vinh carried with him the dream of "symphonizing" Vietnamese bamboo music.

“Classical music is one of my big loves. But I always wanted to do something with traditional music, because I’m from Vietnam.”

The dream took material shape in 2013 with the birth of the Suc Song Moi ensemble. The most noticeable instrument in the ensemble is the T’rung, the Vietnamese xylophone made with hollow bamboo sections from the Central Highlands. 

The artists also play the bamboo flute and Dingpa, another kind of xylophone where the bamboo sections are not strung, but placed upright and played by using two drumsticks with round pads on their ends. Yet another unique bamboo instrument is Ko ni, which is played with both the mouth and a bow.

Suc Song Moi artists play different bamboo instruments at a cultural event. Photo acquired by VnExpress

On special occasions, the artists also play the zither, Vietnamese monochord and include other instruments including the piano and the drum.

The core members of Suc Song Moi, however, stick to pure bamboo instruments without any electrical music elements.

“We play a wide variety of music including Vietnamese songs and foreign classical pieces,” said Tran Huyen Tran, Bass T’rung player of Suc Song Moi. “Hearing classical melody comes out from bamboo instrument is an amazing experience.”

Not easy at all

“It is a very hard job to make a bamboo instrument. It changes according to the weather,” Vinh told VnExpress International.

“If you make it in summer it will not sound good in winter. You need someone to adjust it, to cut it with his knife, someone with very good skill and ears, and there aren’t many people who can do it.”

A member of Suc Song Moi plays the T'rung. Photo by Bao Ngoc

While the ensemble is working hard for their performances and towards their dream, many challenges lie in wait.

A lack of compositions for traditional instruments is one of the challenges. It takes a lot of time for the conductor to write his own compositions and arrangements for the orchestra, because very few symphonic music scores for Vietnamese bamboo instruments are recorded and published.

The instruments are also difficult to craft. “It takes around one month to create a perfect instrument. For 30 people, it takes 30 months,” Vinh said.

“Symphonizing” bamboo music

Suc Song Moi is not the first group of bamboo instrument artists; it was a continued legacy of Vinh's family band "Tre Viet” - one of the few bamboo music bands in Vietnam many years ago.  

Suc Song Moi ensemble (L) and Hanoi Voices Choir (R) in a concert rehearsal. Photo by Bao Ngoc

Associating classical elements with Vietnamese traditional music is never easy. Classical music pieces are written for classical instruments. Vietnamese instruments do not work the same way, so the adjustments needed are huge, and care has to be taken to select suitable instruments to deliver the spirit of a classical piece, Vinh said.

Suc Song Moi is not only special for its mixture of Western and Eastern music characteristics, but all of the pieces we play are meticulously arranged to optimize the strength of each instrument,” said Truong Thu Huong, a lecturer at the Hanoi-based Military University of Culture and Arts and a five-year member of the ensemble.

While many Vietnamese traditional musicians rely on oral instruction and improvisation to play traditional music, Suc Song Moi operates in a classical orchestra manner. “We have the music score, so we can see the big picture of a performance,” said Vinh.

“In traditional music we usually learn from oral instruction. In Suc Song Moi, we play according to written music sheet,” said Nguyen Quynh Anh, traditional music undergraduate at VNAM and a member of Suc Song Moi since 2013.

The ensemble also has foreign artists as participants. “We bring people from different backgrounds. We have Japanese, Chinese, and sometimes, German artists,” Vinh said, adding, “We are international.”

To a wider audience

Promoting bamboo music among the general audience is central to the ensemble’s goals.

“We started with concerts at embassies, cultural centers and then television,” Vinh said. Now the ensemble is booked all year round with shows in cultural centers, chambers and opera houses.

Talking about their upcoming Bamboo L’automne concert at French Cultural Center Hanoi, Vinh said this was the third time and they were bringing a whole new list of pieces to play

"This time, we will have a special arrangement of classical pieces like Libertango and G. Bizet’s Carmen Suite. We will also play ‘The song of Porotok bird’, a Vietnamese song,” said Bass T’rung player Tran.

Tre Mua Thu - Bamboo L'automne concert takes place at L'espace center, 24-26 Trang Tien Street at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday (October 19-20), featuring the Suc Song Moi ensemble and the Hanoi Voices Choir.

The ensemble sometimes plays some favorite pop songs for young audiences.

“We play some pop songs, but mostly keep it classical. We try to talk to the audience in concerts about our music,” Vinh said, “Sometimes, at the end of a performance, we give some time for people to try the instrument, and sing with us."

“We take our music step by step to the audience.”

Suc Song Moi ensemble performed at a public event in 2017.

Story by Bao Ngoc