Composer Nguyen Duy Thinh of the Tay Bac School of Culture and Arts is among a small group of musicians who can compose folk music and play the dan bau (monochord) well. He recently won a prestigious prize from the Viet Nam Music Association for his piece Xuan Que Huong. Ha Nguyen spoke to him about his work.
Inner Sanctum: When and why did you start learning traditional music?
I started learning music at the age of nine. My house is located near the Tay Bac School of Culture and Arts, so I had a lot of opportunity to listen to music at the school.
My parents are from Bac Ninh, the cradle of quan ho (a form of love duet) and the dan bau (monochord). So they encouraged me to learn music.
Inner Sanctum: Apart from teaching traditional music you compose works for solo and chamber music performances that have won top prizes at professional national art competitions. Which are your well-known works?
I received the A prize for my song Bong Benh Que Huong (Bobbing Native Land) in 2010, the Excellent Musician prize for my monochord solo Tieng Vong Inh La Oi (Echo of Inh La Oi), and many other prizes in regional and national contests.
Inner Sanctum: What was your inspiration for composing these works?
I had a passion for folk music and learned to play the monochord when I was very young, so I could imbibe the soul of various forms of folk music, such as cheo (traditional opera), cai luong (reformed theatre), and ca tru (ceremonial singing).
I have worked for nearly 10 years at the Tay Bac School of Culture and Arts, so I was able to absorb the music of ethnic groups such as the Mong, Thai, Muong and Dao.
I am very interested in ethnic music and have been trying to spend my time and efforts to develop and preserve it. As a result, most of my work contains the soul of folk music.
Inner Sanctum: Your work Xuan Que Huong (Spring in the Native Land) is regarded highly in music circles. What inspired you to compose the work?
Spring gives me a lot of inspiration because during the season people often sing folk songs and play the monochord and the flute during festivals. Their profound and passionate melodies inspired me to write the work.
The instruments used to perform my works include the monochord, the flute, the two-stringed fiddle, the sixteen-stringed instrument, the drum, among others. Each instrument expresses the beauty of spring, such as the drumbeat at a spring festival, and also a sad melody to remember relatives abroad who could not return home. They must miss their homeland so much!
Inner Sanctum: What did you think of when receiving the prize?
I was very happy because it is the most prestigious prize of the Viet Nam Music Association. I beat hundreds of musicians from all over the country to win the prize. But it is also a challenge for me because now I must make efforts to compose much more impressive works that promote respect for the values of traditional Vietnamese music.
Inner Sanctum: You teach playing the monochord at the Tay Bac School of Culture and Arts, so could you tell us something interesting about teaching there?
Almost all my students are from ethnic groups such as the Mong, Thai, Muong and Dao, and they have not had much access to traditional instruments before, so it is very difficult to teach them.
Apart from the basic performance, I have to teach them culture and the character and origin of each instrument for them to understand it. As a result, they love the instrument and play it well.
I'm very happy to see many of my former students earning a living by playing folk instruments in music bands.
I, however, feel sad when I see some other graduates from the school having no jobs. This problem needs to be resolved by the relevant agencies.
Inner Sanctum: What are your future plans?
Last month, I was invited to teach at the Military School of Culture and Arts. Apart from teaching, I will be in charge of composition and arranging solo and orchestra performances of traditional music.
I think the work will help me gain experience in composing music that contains the Vietnamese national characteristics.
Inner Sanctum: How have your parents and your wife supported you in your work?
My parents had not worked in the field of arts, but they helped me find my orientation. They had to work very hard to earn money for me to invest in my 12-year study.
My wife is willing to do all the work at home without complaint and look after the children so that I can give time to my work.
Inner Sanctum: Many foreigners take interest in Vietnamese folk music and appreciate it. Could you tell them something about its beauty?
We have 54 ethnic groups in the country. Each has its own unique music and instruments.
For example, ethnic groups in Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands), such as the E De and Ba Na, play the cong chieng (gongs), the Mong play flutes, while the Kinh group sings ca tru (ceremonial songs), love duets and hat xoan (folk songs).
Such music is performed by local people during festivals, the rice harvest and during events to pray for safety and a prosperous life.
However, there are still many kinds of folk music and instruments used by ethnic groups that have not been researched. — VNS