Findings from Prof. Tran Van Khe

Nguyen Thi Minh Chau

Generally, our musical criticizers trained both in the West and in Vietnam have met with difficulty in researching on traditional music. That is due to difference between training and practicing. People studying in the West, of course, must learn the western music tradition but why that difference is found in people studying in Vietnam. Entering this profession, we must study materials of the previous people to find research method in accordance with the oriental music and critical style suitable with oriental people.

When reading book as a bookworm, I in fact understand many things and clearly identify Vietnamese musical research critique generations. If writing my own « Guiness », I certainly mention the name of the ethnomusicologist Tran Van Khe more than once.

Between the 1950’s and the 1960’s of the last century, the fame of Tran Van Khe was known as a traditional music researcher through his studying on Hue singing, Tai tu music, Tuong, Cheo, dao, Quan ho, Trong quan, etc. Moreover he understands « Western study » very well with writings about world music’s tendencies. A series of chronicles about his global travels written under the style « oversea letter » showed a respectable image of a speaker, a traditional musical instrument performing artist, a pedagogue and a Vietnamese traditional music propagating activist in the international forum.

He once composed as much as professional journalist did. Combination of the scientific mind of a specialist and the dynamic of a journalist made his writings very sharp over thirty or forty years ago and much information are still of current events up to now.

In the early 1960’s, he was of very few people who could thoroughly analyze the strength and the weakness of the old music through objective outlook. He emphasized that: don’t only recognize the weakness and ignore it or only know the strength and don’t develop it and as consequence this leads to standstill. He was the activist for the existence of old music with the view not to oblige old music to follow the standard of European traditional music, but to understand and preserve the good of the ancestors before importing strange things from the external.

At the same time, « the journalist » Tran Van Khe considered the difference between the oriental music and the western music, related world music’s tendency to domestic situation to warn such dangers as: either approaching to the new ones and forgetting the good ones, which results in losing indispensable sympathy between musicians and public, or vice-versa only satisfying the taste of the majority who have inadequate music knowledge, which make musical arts difficult to avoid backwardness.

Although he once declared that: « I don’t like criticizing » and « especially, criticize my friend »1, it is clear that he made great contribution to the first step of musical critique field. It was when he was asked to write comment on Con duong cai quan by the musician Pham Duy and he could not refuse to write because of his respect to his friend (Ngu y). Therefore, Tran Van Khe is now known as a profound musical analyst. He inhesitately points out « weakness »2 in a masterpiece of an admired musician at that time. Criticizing papers of other authors in which there were papers of the director of Sai Gon National Conservatory at that time (before the liberty), he was not inhesitate in reminding, sometimes « rule on truthfulness »3 in researching and sometimes appropriate method in analyzing folksong.

Outspokenness and convincingness in criticizing must be based on the wide knowledge. The rules in researching and criticizing of Prof. Tran Van Khe are based on overall scholarship. If analyzing Vietnamese music is based on the western musical theory, it means that we only analyze « the body ». Therefore, if we want to analyze « the soul », it is sure that we must compare and consider which tune, air and factor create traditional timbre in the work.

Therefore, it is impossible to analyze music based on only one side the West or only the Orient!

That is what I perceive from the old writings of the old times of Prof. Tran Van Khe.

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