NGUYỄN VĨNH BẢO : INTRODUCTION TO VIETNAMESE MUSIC

http://namkyluctinh.org/a-ngoaingu1/vinhbao-introtovnmusic.pdf

vinh bao

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INTRODUCTION TO VIETNAMESE MUSIC
by Nguyen Vinh Bao
Dedicated to the traditional musicians of Vietnam:
“May their Art flourish and their creativity be reborn”
The Vietnamese have produced several worthwhile books about music but these have
remained buried in the relative obscurity of the Vietnamese language.
THE PAST HISTORY OF VIETNAMESE MUSIC
The music of Vietnam and its history are too complex to be described briefly. True, to a large
extent, Vietnamese music was handed down from one generation to another. I am spending my
life studying music of every corner of the country, and am fortunate, however, in having some
various written and oral sources on my research.
It is hoped that the present information will prove both informative and entertaining to those who
have been attracted to Vietnamese music. The exact ethnological origin of the Vietnamese
music is not clearly known. In addition to the Chinese, Korean, Mongolian and Southeast
Asian’s influences found in archeological remnants, there seems to be something that can only
be explained as indigenously Vietnamese.
Along with Chinese literature, architecture, government, and religion, Vietnam had adopted
Chinese music models and developed music of her own. However, in the process of adaptation,
the system was likely reshaped by the Vietnamese people according to their own well
established habit.
Western music is easily understood by Westerners because it is part of their own heritage. A
large part of Vietnamese music is either incomprehensible to them or greatly oversimplified for
them by convenient stereotypes provided by only partially-informed writers, who sometimes
confuse it with that of China. Therefore, before Westerners could understand Vietnamese
music, they must first have an idea of its place in the general history of Vietnam.
Because of her geographical locations, Vietnam belongs as much to East-Asia as to South-
Asia. Moreover, Vietnam was under Chinese domination for a thousand years (from the 1st to
the 10th century). Besides, at the crossroads of peoples and civilization, Vietnam was also in
touch with the people of the ancient Indianized Kingdom of Champa (The Cham still exist in
greatly reduced number as one of the ethnic minorities in Viet Nam today).
Vietnamese music, like Vietnamese culture, is primarily East Asian rather than Southeast Asian.
Its closest affinities are to China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. This combination of influences
has produced a sophisticated and multifaceted musical culture, and it is not surprising that
Vietnamese music shares many characteristics with that of China. Among the common items
are the Pentatonic (five-tone) scale, and more than a dozen instruments, some of which are
central to the music of both cultures.
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of music is of a strictly private nature to be heard by a small audience and practiced by
professional or semi-professional people as hobby for their own enjoyment with a repertoire
which includes mainly songs accompanied by one, two or three instruments. One can enjoy the
beauty of the music and the mastery of the performers. The value of the ensemble is not in the
instrumentation, but rather lies in its use.
The “Nhac Tai Tu” is a popular and virile music which that offers great pleasure to anyone who
listens to it and who also learns what to listen for in it. By understanding some of the aesthetics
and formal principles of such music, one can develop a true respect for those Vietnamese
musicians who created it.
THE INSTRUMENTS
The Ðàn Tranh – Zither
It is difficult to tell the original character of the Vietnamese Dan Tranh, which seems quite
distinct from that of imported Chinese Zheng.
The standard length of the common Ðàn Tranh is 95 centimeters. It has 16 brass or steel strings
upheld by sixteen movable bridges (also called swallows or horses) and is tuned by means of
sixteen wooden pegs. The musician adjusts the pitch of the notes by moving these bridges in
both directions.
The said common 16-stringed Ðàn Tranh had disappeared since the appearance of those with
17, 19 and 21 strings, which were Nguyen Vinh Bao’s innovation in 1950. Nguyen Vinh Bao has
spent several years in trying to improve and perfect the Vietnamese Zither without deforming or
denaturing it.
In Vietnam, the Zither is used sparingly in most traditional music, and is the ladies’ favorite lute.
The crystal clear timbre of its metal strings, its delicate movements, and subtle execution give
the instrument its feminine character.
Traditionally, the strings are plucked with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. In recent
years, many other techniques have been added.
The Ðàn Nguyêt or Ðàn Kìm – moon shaped-lute
The sound-body of this 2 nylon-stringed lute has the shape of a full moon. Its long handle bears
8 high keys in bamboo called “phím dàn”. The traditional musician can get as many as four
notes from a single keyboard which requires a natural talent backed by at least ten years of
practice
The ñàn BÀu or ñàn Ƕc huyŠn – the monochord
This one-stringed lute is of ancient origin. Similar ones can be found under the name Ichi-genkin
in Japan, Gopiyantra in India and Sadiou in Cambodia. The manner of playing of the
Vietnamese monochord differs completely from that of the Japanese, Indian, Cambodian
musicians. The Vietnamese musician plays harmonic sound and alters its tautness by acting
upon the buffalo horn rod with the left hand to obtain modulation far superior to that of a
Hawaiian guitar.
The Ðàn Ty`Bà –
a four nylon strings pearl-shaped lute
This lute bears the name Biwa in Japan and Pipa in China. The typical tuning of these four
strings is usually:
Strings 4 3 2 1
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In order to understand and appreciate Vietnamese music, the ear must learn to distinguish
subtle nuances.
I. MODAL MUSIC
Each mode is characterized by:
1. a modal scale
2. intervals of this scale
3. specific ornamentations
4. determined mood
5. tempo
II. REPERTOIRE
In the Music for Diversion of the South (Nha.c Tài Tu+? Nam Bô.) there are four modes:
1. BAC MODE – cheerfulness and happiness music.
There are 6 pieces:
1. Luu thuy truong
2. Phú luc chan
3. Bình bán chan
4. Xuân tình chan
5. Tây Thi vn
6. Co ban van
2. BAC NHAC LE MODE – ceremonial, religious music.
There are 7 pieces:
1. Xàng xê
2. Ngu doi thuong
3. Ngu doi ha
4. Long ngâm
5. Long dang
6. Van giá
7. Tieu khúc
3. NAM MODE – includes 3 pieces of three characters
1. Nam xuân – (serenity and tranquility)
2. Nam ai – (grievances)
3. Ðao ngu cung – (solemnity)
4. OÁN MODE – expresses profound pain.
There are 4 pieces:
1. Tu dai oán
2. Phung cau hoàng
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3. Phung hoàng cau
4. Giang nam cuu khúc
III. THE NAMES OF NOTES
In Western music, one octave contains 7 main notes.
DO RE MI FA SOL LA SI
C D E F G A B
Which approximately correspond to Vietnamese words:
HÒ XU. XU XANG XÊ CÔNG CÔ’NG
L U U# S X C C#
But only five notes
HÒ XU. XANG XÊ CÔ’NG
L U S X C
Do ré fa sol la
C D F G A
are considered as vital.
Vietnamese music is the music of the Far-East countries and the pentatonic scale is most
frequently used.
HO XU. XANG XÊ CÔ’NG
L U S X C
Do ré fa sol la
C D F G A
Notice that this scale has three fixed notes:
HO XU. XANG
L U S
Do ré fa
C D F
and two auxiliary notes collectively known as “changing tones”.
XU. CÔ’NG
U C
Ré la
D A
In Vietnamese music, there is, however a concept of “happy” and “sad” tunings or scales which
is found in major-minor concept in the West. For the instruments, there are several tunings and
scales. There is no fixed basic pitch to which the instruments are tuned. The pitch of the HÒ
fundamental tone of the scale can take any pitch. If the HÒ takes the pitch of the DO (C), the
Vietnamese pentatonic basic scale will be as follows:
HÒ XU XANG XE CÔ’NG
L U S X C
Do re fa sol la
C D F G A
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1 tone 1 ½ tone 1 tone
In these five notes, the fixed notes are:
HO XANG XE
L S X
Do fa sol
C F G
XU(U) (ré) (D) and CONG (C) are auxiliary notes – literally “changing tones”
These two notes are to be regulated by the requirements of the Mode, specific composition and
play.
The XU (U) (ré) (D) can be raised to the pitch of the Mi (E) and the CONG (C) to that of the Si
(B).
It should be noted that the pitch of the XU (U#) (y) and CÔNG (C#) (oan) is slightly lower –
about 1 coma – than that of the Mi (E) and the Si (B).
The pitch of the XU (U) (y) varies between the Re # (D sharp) and Mi (E) while CÔNG (C#)
(oan) varies between the Sib (B flat) and the Si (B)…
IV. THE SCALES
There are several scales depending on the specific composition, genre, and tradition.
BAC MODE SCALE – Scale used for playing happy melodies.
HÒ XU XANG XÊ CONG
L U S X C
Do re fa sol la
C D F G A
This scale has the same aspect as the black keys Do ré fa sol la (C D F G A) on a piano
keyboard but different in pitches.
Except for peculiar cases, instruments are tuned as desired. The idea of absolute pitch is not
taken into considerations, a fact that gives a certain impression of false notes to Westerner’s
ears which are accustomed to the absolute pitch of the tempered scale notes.
SCALES USED FOR PLAYING SAD MELODIES EG.
1. The Vong co (longing for the past), Ly con sao (Lament of the Blackbird) …..
HÒ XU(y) XANG XÊ CÔNG
L U# S X C
Do mi fa sol si
C E F G B
2. Nam xuân (serenity), Ðao ngu cung (solemnity)
HÒ XU XANG XÊ CÔNG (oan)
L U S X C#
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Do ré fa sol si
C D F G B
3. Nam ai and Oan Mode (profound sadness)
HO XU (y) XANG XE CONG (oan)
L U# S X C#
Do mi fa sol si
C E F G B
As said, remember that the pitch of the Vietnamese Mi (E) and Si (B) corresponds
approximately to that of the Western Mi (E) and Si (B).
As a matter of taste, if the Vietnamese HÒ (L) of the scale takes the pitch of Ré (D), the dan
Tranh (Zither) must be tuned as follows:
4. BA(‘C MODE- happy melodies
HÒ XU XANG XÊ CÔNG
L U S X C
mi sol la si
D E G A B
5. VONG CÔ, LÝ CON SÁO
HÒ XU (y) XANG XÊ CÔNG
L U# S X C
Ré Fa# sol la si
D F# G A B
6. NAM XUÂN, ÐAO NGU CUNG
HÒ XU XANG XÊ CÔNG (oan)
L U S X C#
Ré mi sol la do
D E G A C
7. NAM AI and OÁN mode
HÒ XU (y) XANG XÊ CÔNG (oan)
L U# S X C#
Ré Fa# sol la do
D F# G A C
8. NORTHERN SA MAC SCALE
HÒ XU(y) (-) XANG XÊ CÔNG (oan) (-)
L U# (-) S X C# (-)
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Ré fa sol la do
D F G A C
V. THE ORNAMENTATIONS
Ornamentations determine the Mode. They are the predominant feature of Vietnamese music.
In speaking of Vietnamese traditional music, one must differentiate between many other styles
from the South, the Center and the North and has a correct mastery of the meaning of the note
pitches and their ornamentations.
VI. THE EXECUTION
Vietnamese music, quite sophisticated and dense in ideas presents a real opportunity for
interpretation by a range of fine musicians. The rhythm and temp may vary, but the music
always remains within the melody. In order to bring new vitality to the melody, the traditional
musician remains free to introduce different types of variations on it according to his inspiration
at the moment. The success of his performance depends on how effectively he builds up the
desired mood. Thus, each performance of a known piece so carried out takes on a different
aspect, and this counter-balances the limitation of the repertoire. This difference is similar to that
found between Jazz music as it is written and as it is performed. Very often, Vietnamese
listeners are not listening to a composition, but to the rendering of music by such or such
musician.
VII. THE IMPROVISED PRELUDE
Before interpreting a piece of music, the musician has the habit to play some improvisation
phrases of his own invention, in free rhythm, following an original and an unpredicted design in
the Mode of the piece.
There are no definite rules governing the prelude. The prelude allows the musician to check
again the tension of the strings, finding the inspiration for him, and creates a good atmosphere
for the listeners.
VIII. THE MUSIC TEACHING
The teacher’s home is usually his studio. Here, on certain days of the week, and for specified
number of hours, he is available for lesson. The problems of lesson scheduling do not bother
the traditional teacher. It is a matter of first come, first served. This has an advantage in that the
students are never late for a lesson.Usually, the students wait in an adjoining room where they
may talk or follow the course of the piece in progress.
The lesson itself consists from twenty to thirty minutes playing the particular composition under
study that week. Neither notation systems have a definite majority. The repertoire is maintained
entirely by memory and passed down through practice. Usually, the teacher also plays, or sings
as he plays, or illustrates each note of the melody on the edge of his closed fan. When all notes
have been learned in order, the rhythm is added. The entire melody is never played beforehand
so that one does not have any idea of the overall the piece.
There are some students who do not read the notation and learn the entire piece by imitating
the teacher. The exact notation system used and the resultant melody vary from teacher to
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teacher as well in different pieces. The rote teaching method sometimes is constantly in danger
of producing automatons.
The teacher has the right to expect loyalty from his student, and the student, instinctively feels
veneration towards him, and calls him « Su Phu » The word « Su Phu » in Vietnamese has far
greater implication than the term teacher does in English.
In 1956 a National School of Music was set up in Saigon. This school chiefly teaches Western
music, but does include a traditional section where pupils are taught to play Vietnamese musical
instruments; classes of Western music are far more popular than that in which traditional music
is taught. Applications for admission to the piano courses are numerous. Applicants who fall
short of the required marks are transferred to the study of the traditional section.
In recent years, however, the influence of Western music is very strong, and is usurping the
importance role of Vietnamese traditional music.
In Vietnam as in all colonial countries, the power of the conqueror leads the colonized people to
imitate the way of living, the outlook, the artistic, and literary style introduced by the conqueror.
Vietnam is called the most Westernized country in the Orient because of legitimate contacts
with the West, some traditions are dropped, and others will change their shapes. In recent
years, however, the influence of Western music is very strong and has displaced Vietnamese
music.
The West displays to the Vietnamese young people its flawless instruments, its accurate
notation, its varied repertoire, its orchestration, and its disciplined orchestras. In contrast, in the
traditional section young people find archaic instruments, a primitive system of notation, a
restricted repertoire, no orchestration, and a complete lack of discipline within the orchestra.
Thus, Vietnamese music often takes on the figure of a clumsy old woman for whom one can
have a certain respect, but whose company is rather boring. This inferiority complex makes it
impossible for the traditional teachers to instill a high opinion of their art into a younger
generation which is attracted for the most part by the bravura, and the scientific aspect of
Western music. It is therefore not surprising that part of young generation, through
carelessness, is neglecting their own art, an art which should be the pride of their nation. Such a
state of things is to be sorely regretted.
The fact may be explained by a number of reasons, mostly psychological, social, and political
difficulties. The study of Western music offers young people a prospect of being able to continue
their training abroad, considerable esteem and a top rung of the social ladder. In the traditional
music, musicians have difficulty in earning their living, and must have a second job if they are to
make both ends meet. They never attend an international meeting to make cultural exchanges
between East and West, to establish reciprocal relations with the traditional forms of music in
the East and the Far East. A small number of young Vietnamese remain faithful to the tradition,
but been won by Western music richness in the domain of harmony and have tried to build it in
a new orientation. This evolution takes away from traditional music its character, its originality,
and leads it towards the path of hybridizing. For example there have been traditional
instruments concerto with Western orchestra.
Vietnamese music is the most independent form. The thematic and the developmental
techniques of the Western composition are no commonly found in Vietnamese music. One must
distinguishes between a superficial understanding of both Vietnamese and Western music and
learn how to apply such principles to Vietnamese music in order to produce significant
composition. In both Vietnamese and Western music, scales are expendable and compositional
principles. To the extent that Vietnamese music attempts to imitate the Western music ideal, it
will lose its own most vital elements. In such a situation, it is doomed to eventual failure.
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CONCLUSION
As a partisan of progress, and conscious of the necessity for the traditional music to evolve, I
sincerely hope that the Vietnamese traditional music can adapt itself to the new condition of
modern life without affecting its essence. Every innovation in a tradition must be brought about
willingly, and by crafted masters of the traditional music. It is indispensable and in my opinion,
that the qualified authorities must shoulder their cultural responsibility, takes steps to perpetuate
the tradition. They must also review the position of the traditional musicians, foster musical
research, encourage the study of traditional music, and reorganize the school of music. If
Vietnamese music can maintain the interest of society, it can eventually take its rightful place in
World culture. When this happens, it could provide a better living for Vietnamese musicians, and
the young generation will no longer hesitate to devote themselves to the study of their own art.
But if the music cannot survive, it is safe to say that Vietnam, and indeed the World will have
lost one of the Greatest Musical Forms.
Carbondale, October 19, 1970
NGUYEN VINH BAO
Artist-musician
Former Prof. at Saigon National Conservatory of Music -1956-1964
Visiting Prof. at Southern Illinois University – 1970 -1972
Lute-Craftsman
Phone: 843.0454
Email : vb1908@gmail.com
NOTES:
(
1)
The Hat Boi
is a conventionalized and symbolic art form, not at all a realistic one. The
Vietnamese Hat Boi borrowed from Chinese opera the symbolic use of scenery, the costumes,
makeup, and the gestures. Its stories remain mostly Chinese or translations of Chinese
historical tales which have a Confucian moral. Musically, in Hat Boi the percussion is the most
important element. The largest drum is the “trô’ ng chiên” (battle drum), which punctuates
declamations and accompanies songs and dances, and also leads the orchestra. The second
most important musician plays the “Kèn” (oboe or sona). The “Kèn” in Vietnamese ears “rips the
heart from your intestines”, and it is therefore also used in funeral music. The “dan Co or dan
Nhi and the dan Gao” (2 stringed-fiddle) is especially used to accompany declamations.
Percussion instruments include Gongs and Cliquettes, and sometimes also the buffalo horn and
Cymbals. Today, the Hat Boi is in a period of decline
(2)
The Hat Cai luong
– The growth of the Hat Cai luong made it necessary to have a great deal
of additional music. The Nhac Tai Tu music was not enough; so many new pieces were written,
particularly shorter selections to fit particular kinds of action. Singing is the most important
feature, as 70 % to 80 % of a performance may be devoted to songs, accompanied by
instruments such as the “dan Kim” or “dan Nguyet” (moon shaped-lute), the “dan Tranh”
(Zither), the “dan Co” or “dan Nhi” and the “dan Gao” (2 stringed-fiddle), the “dan Tam” (3 nylon
strings fretless lute), the “dan Doc huyen” or “dan Bau” (monochord). The Hat Cai luong has
increased its popularity over the years compared with the Hat Bội

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