Interview with P.Q. Phan, Part II: Cultural Representation and Authenticity

In the first part of my interview with composer P.Q. Phan, we discussed his latest work, the opera The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, and other works composed by him in the past twenty years. He discussed certain external influences on his compositional output, including ritual, philosophy and current events, and also described how he considers the role of personal expression in his work. In addition to speaking about the Vietnamese music with which he is familiar, he also makes reference to composers in the Western classical music tradition and other genres of world music; certainly, music is not a universal language, but one sometimes draws upon the music one knows intimately to gain insight and access understanding of other musics. To watch The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, please click here.

In the second part of my interview with the composer, I began with a question directed toward legacy, but our conversation quickly turned toward representation, and more specifically, the attempts of some composers to represent in “Euro-centric” music a culture with which they identify. This discussion led us to topics of vanity, dualism and authenticity; these themes encouraged me and may encourage the reader as well to consider how we approach representation in artistic production.



CANNON: What other pieces of yours could I encourage my students, colleagues and others to play?


PHAN: One of the pieces I really like is called From Perseus Cluster. Have you heard that one?


CANNON: I haven’t heard this one yet.


PHAN: It’s challenging to listen to. I love my own stuff, but some of my own stuff I don’t want people to play again. For example, Tragedy at the Opera, is kind of fun to listen to but it’s not something that represents me at the very deep level. But AC/DC or From Perseus Cluster represents me at a very, very deep level because I represent myself in a more objective way than a personal way. I try to represent something so people don’t need to like me to like it. Some say, “we must know Beethoven well in order to like Beethoven’s music; we have to like his personality.” Good luck. Don’t even think about it. But in AC/DC or From Perseus Cluster, I can express myself detached from my very personal life. Does that make sense?


CANNON: Yes, it does.


PHAN: You could be a jerk, you could be a nice guy, but what we try to say in the music is more important than that. I think sometimes it is important that we express ourselves more objectively. I don’t think we have the right to say, “oh, I think you should like me first before you can like my music. I think you should understand first that I’m Vietnamese American before you should like my music.” I think a certain political correctness actually does more harm than good in a way. I understand that political correctness makes my life a little easier, but sometimes, it could devalue me in some certain way.


CANNON: Has that ever happened?


PHAN: I think it happens all the time. Don’t you think so? When you’ve been represented as a sub-category, it’s a way of being devalued in some certain way. Don’t you think?


CANNON: Yes, I can think of circumstances in my life where I’ve been represented as one thing and I say, well, wait a second, there are all of these other aspects of me that kind of work together to produce this whole…


PHAN: Exactly…


CANNON: In many ways, this is very resonant with what one musician has said to me when we’ve talked about traditional Vietnamese music. He says: “although I perform drawing upon my own memories, I don’t want you to understand this music through my memories.” Sure, he wants his students to understand something about sadness, heartbreak and happiness but many of these things come out through modal usage and through his understanding of điệu Oán versus điệu Bắc or điệu Nam. These musical differentiations evoke sadness and happiness, but how he gets to that personally, it doesn’t matter. Are you saying something similar to that?


PHAN: I think it requires a certain maturity. When I was younger, I was too eager to sell myself. I think the older we get, we look at things a bit differently because the more we realize that by doing some certain thing, it brings more harm than good to your own self, not to mention to a particular culture that you’re a part of. If you have a child, let’s say, you want people to appreciate your child not because he or she is physically beautiful, but how beautiful he or she is from the inside. So to say that I’m doing the work to represent the interaction between the East and the West, or to bring Vietnamese and American music together—for example, by bringing the đàn bầu into a work—I don’t find it interesting. Not to mention that aesthetically speaking they cannot merge. I think an amplified đàn bầu sounds awful. When you amplify the đàn bầu together with other amplified Vietnamese instruments, it sounds fine. But when you amplify it to play together with non-amplified orchestra, I think it sounds poor. It’s like you try to mix water and oil together. You can shake very hard so they will mix together, but once you let it stand still for a long time, they will separate. But to mix it in the way that is not as obvious, I think it will work a lot better.


I don’t use any traditional instruments in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính for several reasons. One of them is practicality. Another is that I don’t want people to think this is a Vietnamese opera. It just happens to be an opera with a Vietnamese theme or that employs a Vietnamese story. At the beginning of the opera, for example, the percussion sounds, such as the claves or phách, are more from the vernacular Vietnamese tradition. Toward the end of the work, the percussion is still vernacular, but it serves a Western function. The Western function involves the way that you hit the gong and you hit the bass drum to enlarge the sound or to accent something or to create more colors. For example, in Southeast Asia, the gong and the drum represent wealth and power so when you use them in those contexts, listeners know the meaning. But that doesn’t work in Western society. You strike the gong because you like the sound of the gong. You strike the drum because the drum can wake people up. That is the “East meets the West”—when the Asian instrument serves a Western function, you make the East meets the West. Does that make sense to you?


CANNON: It does. It seems that a lot of these kinds of experiments of bringing together the East and West—and I’m thinking all of the way back to Claude Debussy, Benjamin Britten, and other composers who came after that—there is this attempt to blend together in a certain way. What you are doing, it seems, is not so much “East plus West,” but you bring them together in dialogue in order to create some sense of musical narrative within the work. At the beginning of the opera, you use primarily hát chèo aesthetics. When you get to the end, you can’t hear hát chèo as easily anymore. It’s blended together in the way that you describe. The meaning of the use of instruments has changed too. It’s no longer simply, “well, I’m going to pick up the gong now and hit it” or “I’m going to adopt the shakuhachi for this passage” or something like that. The opera is a two hour and 15 minute conversation where the aesthetics blend and communicate in one way at the beginning, and blend and communicate in another way at the end.


PHAN: I am very proud of this piece because the intention of it is really complex. At the beginning, I want people to say, “okay, I am going to a theater,” but toward the end, they say, “I am in the theater itself” or “I am in the play itself,” or “I’m a part of it.” That’s what I want to present…


CANNON: So at the end, they’re a part of the story.


PHAN: Yes, that’s a big part of it. Actually, I find Western opera very fascinating. Now, people complain: why are Madame Butterfly and Carmen played all of the time? Both have a very, very clear concept in them. They’re very deep; I learn a lot from them in a way. They have some sense of dualism, and I also accept dualism. It’s so important. Dualism exists in the music and in the text. The text of Thị Kính, for example, compares the love between the husband and wife and the love between Thị Mầu and her servant. So the comparison makes everything transcend from one level to another level. This changes gradually as a journey. The five biggest arias of Thị Kính are linked together as well in one macro-form. These journeys and links are important to me; they may not be important to listeners, but they are important for me.


Finale scene - Cảnh thăng hoa. Photo: Anvi Hoàng.
Finale scene – Cảnh thăng hoa. Photo: Anvi Hoàng.


I think sometimes we need to represent music blindfolded, and let people see properly what it’s supposed to mean. And if people are curious about it, then you have the right to tell people why you represent it that way, but you should not tell people before they have a chance to listen to it several times and start to ask questions about it. I think when composers try to represent work that they think will be culturally representative then they will do more harm than good. What do you think? I’m almost saying that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But the more I look at a lot of what Asian American composers are doing, the more I realize that Debussy did things that were more sophisticated.


CANNON: One of the things that Claude Debussy did was that he went to the Universal Exposition over and over and over and over again in 1889. In his music, one doesn’t hear necessarily certain passages and think “oh, this is gamelan here,” but he presents a much more nuanced and complicated understanding of Javanese gamelan, and I think that’s because he spent so much time with the music.


PHAN: Henry Cowell’s understanding of Asian music is also like that. He represents his understanding not through sound, but through the concept of time. The Banshee is not the representation of sound but of time. In the Western tradition, we represent time through the ticking clock; you go by the metronome’s time to know when it’s time for you to play. In the Eastern way of thinking, you represent time through the internal ticking clock. So whenever the internal clock tells you to be ready to strike it again, you do that.


When you listen to Debussy’s La mer, you hear fragments or motivic ideas and sometimes he never really presents a melody. Sometimes a melody in gamelan music is never really made by one person but by a group of people working together. The subtleness of La mer also maybe represents quite a lot of non-Western ways of thinking—not like Beethoven, not like Brahms. It’s very, very subtle. When you think about it, for Debussy to do this one hundred years before all of these Asian American composers, he’s a lot more sophisticated. It’s very, very profound. People are so eager to sell the physical appearance, and they don’t understand the substance of it. I think that’s problematic.


It’s really interesting when you talk to old pipa players, and they’re always opposed to the technique of equal tremolo on the pipa. They don’t like it for a couple of reasons. When you hold the pipa vertically, you play it differently than when you hold it at the angle. The sounds come out differently. Through the Mao Zedong era, they were so eager to make the so-called traditional instrument orchestra. When you play in that ensemble, you have to teach your performers to tremolo equally so they can synchronize the sound. But any southern Chinese pipa player will say that the personality of the player is reflected through the tremolo. When this particular revolution made the tremolo even, you get rid of the personality. So, you’re gone. It’s like making two qin players produce equal and synchronous movements of the left hand so they play in an orchestra. It’s impossible! And once they can do it, it means that they kill the spirit of what an instrument’s supposed to do. I’m saying that I oppose the Asian traditional instrument orchestra. It’s not going to work because I think the aesthetic is based on the concept of individuality. It’s funny, when we talk about philosophy in the Western society, they encourage individuality, yet through individuality, they make harmony. In the Eastern society, they encourage harmony, yet the harmony allows people to be individuals.


CANNON: How do you mean?


PHAN: Some say, “let’s make an orchestra of đờn ca tài tử.” You cannot do that!


CANNON: Although people try.


PHAN: It’s not going to work! It takes four or sometimes five individuals to make an ensemble. But when you expand the group, they cannot project their individuality as part of an orchestra. I often tell my students that very often we do the opposite of what philosophy teaches us. Western society encourages us to be individuals and to act as individuals; yet through the action of the individual, we produce harmony. Eastern society asks you to do things in one voice, so through that one voice, you operate through one melody. You’re not allowed to produce that melody in harmony but you are allowed to produce the melody through heterophony. So through one unified melody, you find a way to become an individual. They’re not allowed to play the melody in harmonization, but they’re allowed to play slightly different melodies at the different time. They accidently create a sense of individuality, and I find that really interesting. So if you take heterophony and try to force it onto a fixed orchestra, it doesn’t work. It will work in the Western way of perception, but it won’t work in the Eastern way of perception. It will work in the cultivated tradition, but it will not work in the vernacular tradition. When you move away from the vernacular tradition too much, you kill the spirit of it.


In the traditional Eastern society, the value of an opportunist is considered low. The word “opportunist” means that you lean wherever the wind blows. That is a way of characterizing bad people because they never stand for what they believe in. You are taught that you should never be an opportunist; yet when they come to a new society, they turn themselves into opportunists and are very proud of it. Before the 1970s in the US, the word “vanity” was a bad word. From the 1980s to now, the word “vanity” becomes a positive word because they say that if you don’t sell yourself, who will do that for you? But before that, if you sold yourself to other people, you have no value; yet, a lot of people now lean toward opportunism.


CANNON: And how do we see that in music? When I think of the notion of the “amateur” in the Western art tradition, as well as in the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions, historically one was an amateur because one did not need to make money from performing. This was a sign of prestige. If one needed to make money off performance, one was considered not as good a musician. Now, in this country and in Vietnam and in China and elsewhere, the professional musician is revered. Do you think there is a connection between this notion of vanity and professionalism?


PHAN: I think the only way that people can resist opportunism is: do not count on any musical performances as a cultural representation. Don’t adopt that notion. Because sooner or later when you do something like that, who will be in charge later to make sure that that cultural representation is a worthy one? Or even a correct one? Everyone has a different opinion, even between father and son. Put two of them together with my opinion, I will have a different opinion too. So when all these agents try to present a musical event as a cultural representation, they do more harm than good because they pick something, make it as exotic as it can be and make it into a cultural representation. Don’t do that!


CANNON: How does this relate to the notion of intimacy that comes or maybe doesn’t come from a performance? In other words, does this idea of cultural representation go against the notion of intimacy created between performer and audience in performance?


PHAN: First of all, you present an idea that recalls a certain intimacy for people to understand it, and that idea may not be good to represent in a foreign setting anyway. I think it is important to say that we exhibit it the way it is, but please don’t think of it is as a cultural representation. In other words, take this napkin; view it the way it is but don’t assume that this brown napkin represents green culture and recycling. This company does this because it’s cheap! It has nothing to do with being green! The people at Panera, they may give us this—I would prefer a white napkin by the way—but they use this because they can use it as an outfit that represents being green so we patronize the restaurant; they might be doing this because it is cheaper.


CANNON: Are they also doing this perhaps because they want to represent themselves as a green company?


PHAN: Nobody knows! You can use an outfit to say whatever you want to say; but once you use words to protect what you do, then you lose the substance or the subtlety of the work. It’s stupid for you to say before you perform something, “by the way, if you don’t understand it, you are ignorant and stupid.” Right? If you want to represent something that truly is a cultural event, exhibit it in the most authentic form as it could be; but you have to be so careful. You might say, “oh that’s nhạc cung đình Huế that’s normally performed in the 19th century,” but it is not necessarily that way today. I remember my first class with Judith Becker at the University of Michigan where she asked us to avoid using two words: the first word is unique because nothing’s unique and the second word is authentic because nothing’s authentic. We can represent something, the so-called authentic, from a particular time frame, I think, but once we use music to represent music as a cultural agent, we run into problems.


So, now, I come back to my opera. It is not a Vietnamese opera. Before the performances, we have question and answer sessions, and the only thing I like people to understand is that my job is not to create anything exotic. I say that it is a Western opera embedded with a lot of Vietnamese aesthetics, and I tell them that if they can recognize the essence of a Vietnamese sound or a Vietnamese aesthetic or any Vietnamese-ness in it, consider it a bonus. I don’t require people to understand those things in order for them to appreciate the work. Cải lương, hát chèo, those are Vietnamese operas. An opera with đàn tranh or đàn bầu doesn’t make it into a Vietnamese opera. A person who wears áo dài doesn’t make that person a Vietnamese person at all. All of these things that we’re talking about involve separating between being genuine and being exotic.


So, to make a final comment, I think it’s very absurd for people to represent something exotically to sell their products. I think it does more harm than good. It’s better to sell your products using a very deep level of expression rather than because of its outfit. I think the sad part is that a lot of the cultural agents don’t understand this, and they quickly embrace an outfit more than the deep substance because they don’t understand the deep substance to start with, so how can they sell it? I think that’s a serious problem.





Alexander M. Cannon is Assistant Professor of Music History and Ethnomusicology in the School of Music at Western Michigan University. His research investigates the changing nature of đờn ca tài tử, a “music for diversion” in contemporary southern Vietnam. He is published in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies and the journal Ethnomusicology; when not writing and teaching, he endeavors to improve his skills on the đàn tranh zither and đàn sến lute.


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