Musicians Dang Tue Nguyen and Pho An My are a rare artistic duo in Viet Nam. They made their debut at the Hue Festival 2006 and they have worked together since then.
Nguyen spoke to Culture Vulture about their new show Lua (Fire) which is a combination of piano and tuong (classical opera).
Are you satisfied with Lua, and what challenges did you face organising the show?
Many unexpected things occurred before the show kicked off. On the opening night, the audience was queued up outside before the doors opened.
It was very difficult to organise a show for us. However, we received support from friends such as painter Tran Nhat Thang, veteran designer Minh Hanh and photographer Dang Xuan Truong.
The stage was decorated by Thang's paintings while Minh Hanh designed the costumes. Truong was responsible for lighting. Without their help, there would have been no show, and they did it all for free.
You said it took eight years to complete Lua. Why?
At the beginning, My and I discussed working with the Viet Nam Tuong Theatre. We were helped by the theatre's director Hoang Khiem and actors. We spent a couple of months rehearsing there. It was vital that the opening performance at the Hong Ha Theatre received enough attention to attract financial resources from foreign culture funds in Viet Nam.
I composed Lua as my first classical opera work when I was very young, but it was not very good. I needed more time to research and understand more about classical opera. It was a premature decision to work in the genre at that time.
When we rehearsed at the Hong Ha Theatre, the performance was acclaimed by French artists were also working there. They told me that they were impressed by the creative stage work and were interested in the new aspects we had incorporated.
Anyway, I was not satisfied with the work and I decided to delay the project.
Could you tell us more about your partnership with My?
We first worked together at the Hue Festival in 2006. My studied music in Germany, and when she returned to Viet Nam, she listened to Impromtu - my first classical work for cello and piano. She liked the piece and wanted to work with me.
She asked me to write a piece based on folk music for her show at the Hue Festival. I'd never thought about combining a traditional music genre with the piano before then.
We have performed at the Hue Festival four times. The combination of piano and Vietnamese traditional music is our own production. My and I never thought about co-operating with other artists.
Was your music style influenced by your collaboration with My?
I was confused to start with. Other artists have explored folklore music before, and it is really tough. Like many western musicians, I research folklore music to compose my pieces, but many veteran musicians just change the lyrics, and I don't like that.
I receive a lot of support from my family. My father is a musician and my uncle is a folklore researcher. My father is a bamboo flutist and my mother plays the modern flute, so there is a contrast between east and west.
What's the most difficult thing about combining traditional music with the piano?
I have explored Cham ethnic music, Central Highland's gong culture, coi singing, Hue singing and cheo (traditional opera).
In Lua I wrote two classical ballads, and I tried to make it easy to understand for foreign audiences.
I faced many difficulties during the creation progress. Writing piano pieces is really tough and needs experience. Composers need a profound understanding of the instrument. It is not an instrument, it sound likes an orchestra.
Most classical musicians wrote a version for piano first and then for the orchestra. Take Tchaikovsky as an example. His symphonies for orchestra are very popular but his small pieces for piano are not successful.
I like to compose in the traditional way. I write my music by hand instead of using a computer because it helps me to focus. — VNS