Contemporary music a thing of the past?

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Contemporary musician Vu Nhat Tan performs at an electronic music show in Hanoi

The International Contemporary Music Festival has been held five times in Ho Chi Minh City so far, but its relative obscurity can be judged by the fact that participating artists had to contribute to meet expenses.

The Tien Phong newspaper surmised in a recent editorial that the fact that the event is organized by local and not foreign musicians might be one of the reasons for its unpopularity.

This year, however, the organizers are luckier. Most of the expenses for the event will be borne by an arts fund from Norway.

This year's three-day festival (November 14-16) will take place at the city's Conservatory of Music which can seat 400 people for every show. Apart from the concerts, the event will have two talk shows on contemporary music, a term in a broader sense referring to all modern musical forms after 1945.

Borrowing elements of classical music or symphony orchestra or instrumental music, in a narrower sense, the music is the result of musical experiments by composers of classical music since the beginning of the 20th century. It mostly is atonal pieces, featuring increasingly dissonant pitch language.

In Vietnam, contemporary music, which has been introduced recently, is understood as experimental music or something new, weird, and peculiar not only to the public but also the musicians.

The event, therefore, offers a rare opportunity for both local and international musicians to introduce their latest compositions to the public; works rare in an industry dominated by pop and rock music.

The first night will feature the Maechelor trio of a flutist, violonist and pianist from Berlin, Germany and the "Legend of the Sword Lake" will be performed on Saturday, the last day.

The "Legend of the Sword Lake" will have six chapters: Misery; Uprising; Holy Sword; Victory; Golden Turtle; and Dragon Boat. It will be conducted by Do Kien Cuong.

Musician Do Tuan, sole representative of Hanoi, is in charge of the first part, Misery. He said it took him 10 months to work on the 20-page composition, which is performed in 10 minutes; yet in return, he received a payment of US$500.

"In comparison with my labor for such long time, the money is almost nothing. It even isn't sufficient for my accommodation of ten days in the city as well as air-fare from Hanoi during the festival," he said, "In other words, it is correct to say that we do it in a volunteering spirit, rather than the money though we officially get orders from the organizer."

Tuan and other participants will spend 10 days in the city, including the three-day festival at 112 Nguyen Du Street, District 1.

In addition to Misery, Tuan's Tren pho xua Ha Noi (On the old streets of Hanoi) will also be played at the event.

Conductor Do Kien Cuong, who studied music in the US, is not too pessimistic about the ticket sales as well as the future of contemporary music in Vietnam.

"As long as their shows take place regularly and the artists themselves are hard-working, other issues do not matter," he said. "There are people who concentrate more on profit and can make more money, but there are also those who work quietly and enduringly. The question of whether their effort will bear fruit lies in the future."

Tuan said he could not agree more with Cuong. People have different types of music as their favorite, but like other kinds of art, music, despite its varied genres, forms and styles, has its own basic foundations to attract people, no matter where they are from and who they are, he said.

Therefore, as long as the contemporary music contains the original elements of music, it will have its own place in audiences' heart, he added.

"Sooner or later, people will be drawn to the genre," Tuan said, "In my opinion, what we can do now is to work patiently and diligently."

Weird music

Tuan's optimism, which is stayed through several contemporary music festivals and concerts, promoted and held throughout the country recently, is not shared by several local musicians and composers who attended a seminar held by the Association of Hanoi Song Writers last March on the genre.

They said they could not understand the music or its message.
"I find them no theme, no melody, and no rhythm at all. Different people have different comprehension, but to tell the truth, I just don't get a single thing about this music, it is probably because of my limited understanding," one participant said.

However, according to contemporary musician Vu Nhat Tan, who spoke at the seminar, the genre was first introduced in early 20th century over two periods, the first of which was from 1900 1930, when technology was not as developed as today, causing a heavy dependency on classical, traditional instruments; whereas the second, after 1930 until now, has been a period of high modernization and industrialization, dominated and influenced by electronic music.

"In other words," Tan said, "Contemporary music is on the way becoming of the past. Therefore, currently, in the US for instance, contemporary music in general is no longer the most-sought after subject; rather, people pay more attention to details such as the composers, their works, and their impact on the audience."

In Vietnam, meanwhile, it is still not warmly welcomed. It is seen as something weird and peculiar.

Responding to the controversy raised by people questioning if contemporary music is genuinely a genre and, if it is, how to perceive it, musician Van Dung, deputy chairman of the Hanoi Song Writers Association, said at the seminar, "We generally would never be able to figure out music, we can only feel it, and for sure, each one of us has different emotion toward it. However, we are here not to debate how to define the music, but to enjoy Tan's knowledge of the field."

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