Composer Minh Đạo: Each work must be a phenomenon

April 03, 2022 - 09:18

After two shows at Hà Nội Tuổi trẻ (Youth) Theatre in Hà Nội in March, 'Sóng the Musical' was a hit with audiences in Việt Nam. Conductor Minh Đạo, who composed music, talks to Minh Thu about his work in music

After two shows at the Tuổi trẻ (Youth) Theatre in Hà Nội in March, the 'pure' Vietnamese musical Waves has made a real hit with audiences in the city. Composer-conductor Minh Đạo, who composed the music, talks with Minh Thu about his work.

Composer Minh Đạo (centre) conducts the orchestra for musical ‘Waves'. — Photo courtesy of the artist

Inner Sanctum: The musical 'Waves' is about the life of the late celebrated poet Xuân Quỳnh. Were you under any pressure to make it?

Certainly. Making a musical is different from a play or any other type of performing art. General director Cao Ngọc Ánh and I worked closely with other directors and musicians to tell the story as poetically and musically as possible. It was not easy at all. The story should be told in a sequence to not be disjointed as with combined short plays.

I love Xuân Quỳnh’s poems. Yes, she was an icon of the Vietnamese poetry in the 1980s, especially when she married playwright/poet Lưu Quang Vũ. Their love and marriage touched people’s hearts.

Inner Sanctum: What’s the significant difference between 'Waves' and other musicals in Việt Nam?

Waves can be considered the first authentic, pure Vietnamese musical with the plot, music, casting, training, and practising, all made in Việt Nam and by Vietnamese.

Previously, Vietnamese audiences enjoyed musicals like Les Miserables at the Việt Nam Opera and Ballet Theatre, but they had a foreign plot.

Waves is totally different. It’s about Vietnamese artists. After three rounds of casting, we recruited young artists to play the role of the most prominent characters.

Their performances really impressed me. They just lacked experience in musicals. We didn’t worry about this because they improved gradually. We respected their passion and effort.

Thu Thảo who plays Xuân Quỳnh was born in 1991. She graduated from the Hà Nội Culture University. As a young woman, everything she knows about Xuân Quỳnh and her husband Vũ is from books and newspapers. However, she proved that she understands the character and performs in a very emotional way.

Many young artists came to casting, Thu Thảo was not the most beautiful or talented, but she was the most suitable. During the making of the musical, I recognised the actors’ and actresses’ love for the piece. In short, the cast had the three things we needed: youth, passion and voice.

Inner Sanctum: How did you ‘musicalise’ the poems of Xuân Quỳnh?

The literary material of Xuân Quỳnh’s poems gave me certain advantages because they are rhythmic themselves. Before that, screenwriter Kim Thùy also chose poems suitable to set to music.

So, I added more music to the poems so the actors could sing them. The lyrics of Xuân Quỳnh are very beautiful. I don’t interfere. I repeat the verse in different levels and melodies to increase the depth of the poem’s ideas and develop the music.

According to composer Minh Đạo, the musical 'Waves' will be developed as a Broadway piece of Việt Nam. — Photo courtesy of the artist

Inner Sanctum: You are a professional in composing, not conducting, so did you have any obstacles working with an orchestra?

As for conducting music, I recognised that I might not be a good conductor in terms of movement, but I can effectively convey the spirit of the work because I conducted the orchestra to perform the work that I composed.

Inner Sanctum: Before working as a composer, you were a musician, a guitarist in the Hoa Sữa band. Out of composing, playing and conducting, which do you like most?

Any job I go through brings valuable experience. Personally, I like instrumental music the most. Music has two parts, vocals and instrumental.

Vocal music is the part of the singer singing the words, and instrumental music is the sound from an instrument. I love this part of the job the most. From the notes on the paper, I am the composer, that is, I must let the notes sound from the instrument so that people can recognise the ‘shape’ of the musical work.

Inner Sanctum: What do you do during times of creative deadlock?

That’s normal. Nothing goes smoothly. There are problems that I have been struggling with for many days before being able to solve.

For example, the song Mưa Bay Tháp Cổ (Light rain falling over ancient tower) by singer Trần Tiến. With this song, I received the award for the best composer at the Bài Hát Việt (Vietnamese Songs) TV show in 2005. Before that, I was stuck with it for a long time. If you can’t think of anything, leave it there, take a motorbike out on the road. The strong wind makes you feel clearer in your mind.

Or, take the song Mái Đình Làng Biển (The temple roof of a sea village) by composer  Nguyễn Cường; I have made five records for singers Tùng Dương, Mỹ Linh, Ngọc Khuê and Hồ Quỳnh Hương. Each version had to follow the original but be a little bit different, depending on the vocals of each singer and the space in which they perform.

I put pressure on myself that every piece I make must have something different, but it still has to have a certain musical logic to be accepted by listeners. It is a special phenomenon, but it still has to be reasonable.

Inner Sanctum: What secret do you have to find inspiration and deal with pressure?

Producing music is different from creating other things. For example, a carpenter finds the fastest way to make a chair by increasing productivity to succeed. But as a musician, well, when I see the formula to compose, that’s when I dig my own grave. Each work has to come to me differently.

Inner Sanctum: But as a professional musician, you can’t just wait for emotions?

You’re right. In my opinion, for professionals, emotions come. Non-professionals wait for emotions and then do it. Of course, amateurs still have outstanding and emotional works, but I want to talk about how I do it. I told myself, “Just do it, and the work will drag you away.”

That is the most significant difference between professionals and amateurs. Creative inspiration will come from a lot of things accumulated from before. According to what I have learned, composing is a synthesis of many basic subjects such as music history, music structure and experience in life.

Inner Sanctum: After the musical 'Waves' what are your plans?

I still cherish composing concert pieces about the country. Our country is so beautiful, Hạ Long Bay, Mt Fansipan, the Central Highlands ... wherever I go, I feel overwhelmed by the scenery of the mountains and rivers. I think only musical instruments can fully reflect this beauty. VNS

Composer Minh Đạo discusses the production of the musical 'Waves' at a press conference in March. — Photo courtesy of the artist