*Notes from the Artistic Director
"Three Rivers - Once Source"
Yale University, November 17, 2013


 Music in the Lowlands

While many modem performers are almost desperate to accommodate the fast urban rhythm of life where popular music is predominant, the music conceived by their ancestors might reveal a different mode of thinking—relaxed, friendly, improvised and highly ornamented.

With roots in agrarian society, the traditional music of Vietnam consists of songs and music expressing many aspects of village life. Music, from folk to art strata, strongly depends on linguistic accents which are geographically distinctive; north, center, south and south-center.

Folk songs in various local styles arising from the countryside reflect their close association with work and self-­entertainment in the fields, at home, and in village festivals. One of the best known festivals is the Lim Village Festival in northern Bac Ninh Province in the Red River Delta where males and females sing antiphonal songs called quan ho. Folk songs are considered the oldest kind of music. Scholars believe that they had a tremendous influence on the song styles of traditional theater such us hat boi, cheo, bai choi and cai luong and those of chamber music such as ca tru, ca hue, and tai tu as well. Each of these musical genres represents a strong regional character to such an extent that a Vietnamese speaker can tell its “cultural linkage.”

While folk songs arc associated with village customs, chamber and theatrical music have their own rules, pertaining to professional staging techniques. The “stage” for chamber music is based on an intimated literary knowledge. Musicians, singers. and connoisseurs enjoy poetic chamber songs. Traditional theater on the other hand, provides an opportunity for members of the audience to interact with the performers by offering praise, agreement, and jest during the performance.

In regard to music-making itself, a mode entails, like its Indian counterpart, a scale, repeated melodic formulae and specific ornaments. The latter is crucially important in Vietnamese music. It is perhaps difficult for a first-time listener to distinguish one mode from another. A combination of subtle melodic features requires the finest ears to appreciate the ornamentation (or inversion), and fading techniques are applied with individual stylistic creativity to make this music one of the most ornamented in Asia and perhaps the world.

While folk and religious songs may contain from two to seven tones, chamber and theatrical music make use of a wide range of pitches through modulation and metabole (i.e. change of scale units). There are both tempered and non-tempered scales. A song may thus include up to 12 tones. This aspect does not, however, contradict the pentatonic tuning of many instruments because musicians can create more pitches by pressing on flexible strings. An old tradition, Vietnamese music can be traced back to the period of the bronze drums from the second millennium B.C. It has evolved remarkably during this long period of time; most drastic changes, however, occurred in this century when musical elements of the West were introduced.  This has created a new kind of music, parallel to the traditional and infused with social, commercial or revolutionary characteristics in urban areas.

Music of the Central Highlands

Nestled along Vietnam’s Truong Son mountain range, the Central Highlands have long been a safe haven for some twenty non-Viet minority ethnic groups speaking both Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian languages. These people are believed to have settled on the plateau between the sea and the high mountains about 2,000 B.C.. After coming from perhaps Central Asia. Their habitat stretches from Song Be province in the south to Quang Binh province in the center of Vietnam, throughout the mountains and even crossing into eastern Laos and Cambodia.

Music in the Central Highlands encompasses both vocal and instrumental types, many exhibiting characteristics likely of ancient origin. The most prominent groups, Bahnar, Jarai, Ede, Trieng, Gie, Mnong, and Stieng, perform epics, many kinds of social and functional songs and dances, all transmitted orally. Gong ensembles requiring varying numbers of performers constitute perhaps the most prominent instrumental type, but the upland instrumentarium is rich and vast. The discovery of a prehistoric stone-blade lithophone at Ndut Lieng Krak in 1949 suggests that this broadly defined music culture preserves some of the oldest musical instruments of the world, some tuning systems that probably predate the pelog and slendro systems of Indonesia.

These musical expressions are closely linked to daily customs, language, rituals, and other kinds of social activity. The fact that so much remains is a testament to the resilience of the culture in spite of a long and devastating war.

Notes by:
Dr. Phong T. Nguyen

National Heritage Fellow (USA)
Visiting Professor of Ethnomusicology
College of Music 
Mahasarakham University
Mahasarakham, Thailand

See Three Rivers - Once Source, A concert of Traditional Vietnamese Music, Yale University, November 17, 2013