Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ on war, community, bridges and roots

In Spring 2012, I had the honour of interviewing Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ about her work at the YBCA with the Kronus Quartet, her life and her practice. This article was initially produced by THEOFFCENTER.

Vân-Ánh devotes her life-long passion and mastery of the Đàn tranh zither to the creation of distinctive music blended with a cultural essence that can only come from this unique Vietnameseinstrument. Among her accomplishments are the 2009 Emmy® Award-paul-zetter-hands-of-time-hg-8winning soundtrack for the documentary “Bolinao 52”, which she co-composed and recorded, and the soundtrack for the Sundance best documentary and 2003 Academy Awards® nominee “Daughter from Danang”. Vân-Ánh also co-composed and recorded for the recent documentary “A Village Called Versailles”, winner of the New Orleans Film Festival Audience Award. In addition to Đàn tranh, Vân-Ánh also performs as soloist on the monochord (đàn bầu), the 36-string hammered dulcimer (Tam thập lục), the bamboo xylophone (đàn T’rưng), Đàn KlongPut, traditional drums (trống cái), and Chinese Guzheng. She lives and teaches Đàn tranh and other Vietnamese traditional instruments in Fremont, California. For further information regarding Đàn tranh, traditional Vietnamese traditional music, or future CDs, please visit website: www.vananhvo.com or email: dant@yahoo.com.

Hello Vân-Ánh, its really great to meet you. I had an interview with David Harrington, Musical Director from Kronos Quartet yesterday where he talked a lot about your collaboration with them.  I’m really pleased to be talking with you today, and to record your voice talking about the program “Women’s Voices”

I wrote the piece “All Clear” for Kronos and myself. It’s the world premier of “All Clear” tonight.

I was born in North Vietnam in a family of musicians. I mainly concentrate now on sharing Vietnamese culture through music. Like any traditional music, it reflects the culture of it’s country of origin. Each folk song will tell you a story, a custom, a tradition that we have in Vietnam.

I’ve been thinking a lot of how I can help help the younger generation in knowing more about their roots, and also how I can keep the traditional music alive. So I think finally I thought that the only way I can do it is to play traditional music, but with the heartbeat of this century, of my generation.

On being a cultural bridge:

546406_10150799230201748_4846711747_9586830_1032704581_nGreat people…even my master, they are like an archive of music and culture. But they’re getting old and some are weak. Each year I try to go back to Vietnam as many times as possible, and each time I try to learn more from them (because its never ending to learn from them).

But what if they pass away? Then that’s it, then all that knowledge stops right there. So I think OK, I take responsibility, first I have to make my music have strong roots, but then have more modern contemporary and open feel. So I can be a bridge from the younger generation to go back and be interested.

On working in relation to the community.

Each year I commit to do a lot of voluntary work because whoever I am now, and my success, it’s mainly because of my community. They give it to me and support me. so in that case I want to pay back in some way. And also even though I’m not wealthy, I think I am much better off then many other people, so I do that voluntary work to help.


On finding sounds to work with:

Also I want to share with the world the beautify of traditional Vietnamese music, the beautiful sounds. David encouraged me a lot to go back and find more sounds. I found when I return to Vietnam, I have fresh ears. I can hear things I took for granted before.

For example the artillery shell. We use it in all kinds of ways in Vietnam, as a bell for class, for organising things. This piece “All Clear” gives me the chance to show the beauty of the sound.

On the war:

As a person who was born after the war, I did not have the direct trauma of people who went through the way, but I hear it all the time because from my parents, from my grandma.

My husbands father worked for the old government so he was in the jail and correction camp. because when you loose….you just have to….suffer.

So then the family tried to escape, but they were caught on the border so they had to stay in Vietnam. Finally they reunited with family here in the USA.

When I got here, I heard many stories from the South, which were even more heartfelt. A brother had to drown his sick younger brother to put him out of suffering and save him from being eaten by cannibals. Other friends that we know they escaped by boat, and they got into the storm, and by the time they woke up, some of them had washed to the shore, and one of the men lost his wife.

That was made into a movie which I wrote the music for. It won many awards.

The second documentary I made the music for  (“Bolinao 52”, 1992) won an Emmy award for movies and music. It also talked about another boat where 110 people escaped Vietnam. The engine died and they floated on the sea for 37 days. After five days, they saw the US navy ship pass by, but the captain of the ship decided not to stop because he was on his way to the first gulf war. So he just gave them some food, but then another 32 days passed. Horrible days. They had to eat each other to stay alive. Finally they were rescued by fishermen in Bali.255922186_640

Given your work around the trauma being astray in the Ocean, its interesting that you talk about your life’s work in terms of being a bridge.

Yes.  Because of that motivation, it’s important for me that the audience really receive what I am conveying. I want to try and get the work into the body of the audience.

Imagine 56 thousand tonnes of bombs dropping in 12 days. You don’t know where to hide. You feel such terror. You bargain with god, with yourself. We found a way to get the work into the audience with rocks. There is a moment when the audience taps the rocks together, like chattering fearful teeth, and they are making the signal S.O.S (dot dot dot, dash, dash, dash, dot dot dot). So the sound of the performance is coming from all areas of the theater, the audience and the stage. It’s immersive.

“All clear” is a piece that tells the story of being the person who listened to both sides One thing we should know is how painful it was so that maybe we will not do it again. War is a loss to everyone….to every side. No-one wins.

Funeral music:

I believe that music a reuniting power. its an international language.

I started to research whether there was any songs that both North and South Vietnam shared. We found it in the official song for the Southern and Northern government of Vietnam. “Fallen” is what it’s called in English. “Hon Tu Si “ by composer Luu Huu Phuoc

Then we started to look for similar songs in the US. And we found it; the TAPS.

It’s amazing that  in both cultures, you fight to death, and then when you die that’s when you sing this song of unity.

So I incorporate that into the piece. I want to have the quartet play the Vietnamese song, and me play the American one. I want to  give American people the opportunity to cry for the Vietnamese casualties and vice versa.

These conceptual aspects, they bring a huge magic, ritual and emotional quality to the piece, rather then a cerebral dryness. That magic is to be celebrated.

Yes. For example, I brought in the artillery shell to use it as a powerful musical symbol of war articles.

I bet that 99% of americans associate Vietnam with the war, not our heritage or culture. So I want to take this chance and continue to work with Kronos and open new windows to the hidden beauties of Vietnam. So that’s why I brought in a lot of different sounds of instruments. also many percussion instruments, like the “rice drum”,  the “frogs”, and especially the “Đàn tranh”.  That is one of the great instruments that imitates a human voice. It has a side part made by a buffalo horn, I can go 2.5 octaves from one note. Its a crying instrument.

559631_10150799228846748_4846711747_9586823_2088635210_nDoes Vietnamese music have octaves in the same sense that Western music does?

They have a wording system to indicate the note. It’s a really difficult system to learn because you cannot really tell what octave the notes should be. So later my generation and my professors we learned from the master, and then we transpose it into international notation so that we can keep it alive in that way. Also the tempo. We don’t have that metric pulse that can be broken down into time signatures like in Western Music. So we translated that too.

More bridges!


Had you written for string quartet before Kronos?

NO! its very interesting and eye opening.

I think the piece worked because they dedicated their time to work with me, and because they wanted to learn about my culture.

Kronos has collaborated with so many artists from different backgrounds. So they have patience, experience and strategies. They can give me suggestions on how to get the music out of my mind and into the notations.


How was it to find that kind of a voice with them?

They were really responsible. They read books, they learned about Vietnamese history, and they listened to my stories and traditions. It helps them to play the music. So I feel comfortable working with them.

I have knowledge of Western music (music analysis and notation) from The Academy of Music in Vietnam.

I work in such a specific way, and my mind set is specific, I don’t make concessions for them. But because they are willing to learn, they begin to know how to decode my thoughts. At the same time, I learn about them, so I can work with them.

I have also collaborated with other people internationally, so I have strategies and experience from that.

On bigger motivations and hopes for the work:

Hopefully the piece of music will transport the audience so that they can experience the pain of both sides. Hopefully  we will not repeat the same thing.

What else can I do as a musician?

Later when I look back I can say “Well at least I did something for people around me”.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *