Describe your inspiration for composing the piece.
This opportunity came from my winning the Musaica student composer workshop in 2017, after which I was asked to write a new piece for the ensemble to be workshopped and premiered by them.
As far as the Vietnamese aspect, my studies in Viet music are part of a larger initiative of mine to reclaim this Viet/Viet-American culture of which I am a product, and yet of which my knowing and learning were discouraged in my upbringing; I often feel like it was deliberately kept from me when I was growing up. I know this happened for a few reasons, including but not limited to my father’s experience in the war, family trauma, epigenetics, etc.- and it’s not an uncommon phenomenon at all amongst post-war families, especially mixed and immigrant families like mine- but, we never learned anything about Viet culture, language, history, tradition, or even why my family came over to the U.S. in the first place. It’s always something that upset me and a few years ago I just decided that if I wanted to have this culture as my own I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and start working for it- so, for the past few years I’ve just been doing constant research on Viet/Viet-American culture, history, language, art- I’ve connected with a lot of fantastic Viet/Viet-American artists along the way and it’s become a sort of journey to reclaim my culture that will probably last my whole life... Anyway, one of the natural results of all that research is that I would start to implement Vietnamese musical ideas in my writing and my performing. This String Quartet was my first foray into implementing it through my writing and I’ve been very lucky to work with people like Bruce Owen (president and co-founder of Musaica) and groups like Musaica and the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, who have been really encouraging and really gung ho about taking parts of that journey with me.
What is the overall conception for the piece (for example, is it programmatic or abstract? Is there a specific formal structure, color, or musical device you employed?)
In the vein of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I’ve written a short poem that accompanies each movement- telling the story of a boy and his father, a generational disconnect, and trying to find joy and understanding in spite of that. The piece is mostly classical in form, with three movements: sonata allegro (I. “Fishing”), adagio (II. “Seeing cloud reflected in the lake”), and rondo (III. “Evening in the village”).
In terms of theoretical construction, there is a rhythmic motive of “long-long-short-short” that opens the piece, and is utilized in different forms throughout the work: a rhythmic accompaniment to the main theme, a rhythmic cell in different parts of other themes, stretched out in a low chordal accompaniment to convey waves in the lake in the second movement, etc.
Stylistically, the piece implements the Viet musical components of asymmetric phrase structures and meter, ornamentations like 16th/32nd triplet grace notes and “falling off” the final pitch of certain phrases, sections of aleatoricism, mimicking bird calls and other animal sounds, call and response, etc.
Most of the harmony is through-composed, going back and forth between leaning into the “novelty” of the language and departing from that novelty with more contemporary harmony. Textures go back and forth between sections of athletic, highly energetic playing and sections of slower, more pastoral soundscapes- reflecting two of the big topics in Vietnamese literature and poetry.
In addition to utilizing actual themes from Viet music, I created a couple composite themes that combined sections of different Viet melodies together, and I also have a couple quotes to the Viet-American singer-songwriter/guitarist/producer, Benvolio, from his self-titled album.
What are some of the goals you strove to accomplish in writing the work?
I was so grateful for this opportunity because it provided me a really tangible way to dig in and express all of this work I’ve been doing on Viet music, literature, culture, etc.- and I’m so excited to share this, and to expose listeners in this American world I live in to Viet music and stories.
What are some of the challenges you faced in writing the work?
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to personalize the exotic. Whenever communities and cultures exist as “other”, it is so easy for their inclusion in works to be conveyed as novelty. Blatantly put, I had to figure out how to write a piece of Viet-inspired music without it sounding like “Chinese, kung-fu music”, as my 12 year old sister described it upon hearing the first demo of the sonata allegro. I tried to curb this automatic exotification by actually leaning into the Viet musical style for the first movement, pairing it with virtuosic playing to simultaneously expose the audience to the language of the piece, distract from the novelty with impressive playing, and associating those two qualities for the listeners. Hopefully the audience is used to the language and style by the second movement, providing a base over which I can be more harmonically adventurous. The third movement uses a new theme for the rondo itself, with developmental sections reharmonizing themes from the previous movements.
What do you hope your audience ultimately take away the most from hearing your work?
I would love it if people just felt less alien about Vietnamese culture, maybe even gain an appreciation for it. I hope that they listen to this music and follow this story and acknowledge the humanity and universality of what they may have otherwise considered “other”, a concept that is very applicable to any marginalized and/or disenfranchised people.