“Three-Mountain Pass” – Van-Ank Vanessa Vo, dan tranh/ Kronos Quartet – Innova 866, 45:21 [9/24/13] (Distr. by Naxos) ****:
Travel broadens the mind and expands horizons, even if it an audio journey in the mind’s eye. I was very interested in this CD, I will be honest and admit I really don’t know one thing about Vietnamese music. I only have a knowledge of Chinese, Japanese and Korean music, which only helps in the most general sense. This is not westernized music, although some does appear, and in a strange twist it is a work from France. One little detail to note; the Kronos quartet are featured on only one work, and there are a number of other musicians who collaborate here.
The first selection is Vong Co, an arrangement of a traditional southern Vietnamese opera. The đàn tranh is the Vietnamese version of a zither similar to some of the other zither-like instruments of the area; for instance the Chinese guzheng, Japanese koto and the Korean kayagum. Pitch-bending and a wide variety of vibrato and ornamentation are displayed.
Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 syntheses with the Vietnamese đàn bầu effortlessly. This is one of the most eerie, otherworldly sounding works on the album. Played on the đàn bầu, one-stringed guitar or lute and bass đàn tranh, a 16-string zither. I found the đàn bầu has a sound is that is emulated by the electronic instrument the Theremin.
Three-Mountain Pass is another work with a surprising international flare. This work features the Hang, a modified steel drum created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer of Bern, Switzerland. One would never guess this was a Swiss instrument but the sound of steel drums can be easily discerned and blends into the tapestry of this work that has a surprisingly intense and breathless climax. The words are adapted from an 18th century female poet Ho Xuan Huong. The style is rooted both in the techniques of A Dao (sung poetry) and Chau Van (medium’s trance-singing).
Green River Delta is the product of the collaboration of Ms. Vo and the Kronos Quartet, and one of my favorite tracks on the CD. Again the đàn tranh is the featured Viet instrument on this example of traditional Southern Viet opera by Kim Sinh originally titled “Luu Thuy Troung” This is one of the most sparkling, effervescent, and energetic. The Kronos quartet blends stylistically and sonically into the sound of the piece with the đàn tranh shimmering around and thru the ensemble.
Mourning – Three đàn bầu instead of one are used in this lament. Vo writes that this instrument “…is like the human voice (and can mimic the tones of Vietnamese speech)…” This piece was inspired by Viet funeral music and her own reflection on the loss for peoples on both sides of the conflict in Vietnam. To not only mourn their losses but to implore understanding of difference and prevent such losses again. The trio of đàn bầu creates another eerie, wailing, and haunting example.
The Legend – The đàn tranh returns for this piece about the mystical origins of the Viet peoples from 100 eggs hatched from the marriage of an immortal fairy and the dragon king. In addition to the ethereal sounds of the đàn tranh and Ms. Vo’s vocals, percussion and keyboards join this, creating an almost pop-sounding (at times) ensemble.
Go Hunting is composed and arranged by Ms. Vo, this time performing on the đàn T’rưng, a bamboo xylophone, with Taiko drums from Japan. Starting slowly with solo đàn T’rưng builds in pace and intensity as the Taiko drum enters. Thus starts an ebb and flow with some amazing interplay and rhythmic modulations between the two performers.
Ms. Vo’s talent is displayed with startling variety; not only is she a multi-instrumentalist but also composer and arranger for almost all the works, even (with the magic of the studio) playing duets and trios with herself. This CD is different and very strange at times and to be honest I was not hooked at first….but then I started to really listen and the CD opened up like an exotic flower. I have no idea how traditional this is, but I don’t care for I am embracing the experience, and it’s lovely in its own very different (for me) way.