Veteran conductor researches Vietnamese music theory

Conductor Trần Vương Thạch, former director of HCM Ballet & Symphony Orchestra (HBSO), wants to make a contribution to find and build a theory for Vietnamese music.

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Conductor Trần Vương Thạch of HCM City Ballet & Symphony Orchestra. Photo HBSO

Conductor Trần Vương Thạch, former director of HCM Ballet & Symphony Orchestra (HBSO), has retired after a decade of efforts for the development of HBSO.

He spent lots of time conducting, which he had not had chance to do when he was director at HBSO. He is writing a three-chapter book on Vietnamese music theory.

HCM City Women online newspaper reporter Lam Hạnh interviews Thạch about his career and his upcoming book.

Do you enjoy your retired life? How do you feel when you are no longer at directorship?

I’m happy because it is time for my passion to conduct the orchestra. When I was a manager, I didn’t have much time to perform.

Plus, I also work with young musicians and Vietnamese and international orchestras.

At this age, I have a lot of experience from my career and life so I can do better as a conductor – a job that requires experience. I am also doing research on Vietnamese music theory.

Could you talk more about your work?

We develop music based on European theory and technique, but do not have our own. It is difficult for anyone to answer what is the identity of Vietnamese music.

Therefore, I want to make a contribution to find and build a theory for Vietnamese music. It is very important, because all genres of Vietnamese traditional music and songs are analysed based on the theory and thought of European music.

However, Vietnamese traditional music or folk songs are completely different from European music.

I do this as a musician and because of my responsibility as a Vietnamese artist. I started working on it several decades ago, finding documents while studying abroad. But now I have enough time to do it.

With historical changes, cultures often influence each other. Looking back to see what has been affected in Vietnamese music and what remains original will reveal the differences, and help pinpoint the definition of Vietnamese musical identity.

I think I have to prove what I see with solid theory to have a basis to talk about similarities and differences between Vietnamese music and others in the world.

This work has taken years of my life. But I really want to do it because there are not many people to research this.

In your opinion, should traditional instruments in general and Vietnamese traditional instruments play with European orchestras?

Yes. There are concerts with the participation of đàn tranh (zither), đàn bầu (monochord) and bamboo flute. This combination is colourful and the ethnic elements attract listeners.

I agree and support this because it is integration. However, I want to say that I don’t encourage developing Vietnamese music based on European music.

Indian music is known through the sitar around the world. It creates the uniqueness of Indian music and is famous all over the world, without being compared to the guitar or any similar instrument.

We have some traditional instruments too. They use typical Vietnamese musical scales, but they are always adjusted because they don’t have 12 tones like European instruments. This destroys the characteristics of the Vietnamese instruments.

I feel very sad to know that Central Highlands gongs are being made to fit the European scale.

You took different roles as an artist and as a theatre manager. Which image do you personally like?

Of course, it is the image of an artist. It is a big dream that I gained. I will continue to conduct until I can no longer stand, to live happily being an artist.

Now I have time to create big works that I haven’t had the chance to do previously. Conducting is not a job one can achieve success in a short time. To become a high-class conductor requires a lot of professional experience and life experience as well.

I was busy when I worked as HBSO’s director, so I did not have this experience.

What do you think about the character of a conductor at a concert?

The conductor’s character comes from a foundation of study and hard work. To have character, the conductor must know well the instruments in the orchestra. This is the foundation for handling orchestral ensemble techniques.

To understand the composer’s creative thinking in the musical work requires of the conductor a comprehensive understanding of orchestra, polyphony, music history and music aesthetics.

The conductor with his knowledge will lead the orchestra and all parts to co-ordinate with each other so that, right from the first note and the first chord, the performance touches the audience’s emotions.

For example, just setting up the work Scheherazade, I had to read The Thousand and One Nights again to remember the setting and atmosphere of the stories therein.

Do classical works enable the conductor to create beyond the score?

Yes, each conductor will have different feelings when reading the score. Working in an orchestra is like a small society, so the conductor and the orchestra work together to perform a musical work.

Even though the conductor does not have the right to make a sound, but through his gesture and his eyes, musicians will know how to perform.

You also write score for movie and theatre productions. Do you like composing?

One of my passions is arrangement and composing. I took responsibility for score composing for the orchestra performing in two cải lương (reformed theatre) performances Kim Vân Kiều and Chiếc Áo Thiên Nga (Swan Coat).

This was a challenge for me and thanks to doing this, I saw the difference between Vietnamese music and European music.

How did you begin with music?

My father loves music; even though he is not a professional, he still sent my brothers and I to study guitar, piano and violin at the conservatory.

Since then, I liked music but after high school, I was at a crossroads. I wanted to become a medical doctor and continue studying music, so I considered taking the medical school exam or continuing to study at the conservatory.

Studying violin or medicine is both very hard so I can only choose one. When learning the violin, I kept wondering why, although I studied so methodically, I couldn’t play like the artists in Europe.

I questioned myself why our orchestra couldn’t play as well as them. So I decided to study orchestra conducting to find the answer, and found that I still couldn’t find the answer. I went to Europe and studied at the Royal Conservatory of Liege and Conservatorium Maastricht in the Netherlands.

Why and how are questions about music that are always in my mind. And I have learned a lot in the field of music to resolve those questions. –

Theo Vietnamnews