A Joyous Experience: An Tôn Thất In Conversation with Abbigail N. Rosewood

An Tôn Thất is a Parisian born Vietnamese composer based in Taipei. He has composed for contemporary dance, theatre, film, instrumental music as well as art exhibitions. In 2013, he premiered The Legend of Thánh Gióng (2013), a symphonic tale commissioned by The Berlin Symphony Orchestra. As a singer-songwriter, he has made three studio albums: Circlesong (2005), Hyperbody (2010) and We were (t)here (2017). He also co-wrote and arranged songs of Forgotten West 西部 (2018) by Taiwanese singer Sam Liao, for which he received the ‘Best Arranger’ award at the 2019 Golden Melody. In 2015, he launched the first edition of [FEEL] in/out, an indie art project in Saigon; Vietnam, with local Vietnamese artists, as an immersive experience that blends performing arts, film, photography, music, dance and fine arts. He has scored music for The Third Wife and Between Shadow and Soul directed by Ash Mayfair, Song Lang by Leon Le, Goodbye Mother by Trịnh Đình Lê Minh, Ròm by Trần Thanh Huy, and True Mothers by Naomi Kawase. He is currently working on Rain, a film documentary by Lee Yong Chao.

We’re excited to share a conversation with An Tôn Thất and author Abbigail N. Rosewood where they chat about the creative process, how we dream, and living in the joy of making art together.

An Tôn Thất at the piano.

I was listening to your album Hyperbody—your music has a haunting, ethereal quality that both soothes and aches.

I like that, soothes and aches! Those songs were written during a crucial time in my life: I was about to leave France, where I was born and grew up, to start a new life in Asia, Taiwan. So yes, all those songs were like mini-films reflecting things that were going on in my life, or around me.

I was privileged to get to know your work through The Third Wife, a film by Ash Mayfair, for which you composed the score. Artistic collaboration is naturally very different from work you might do for yourself. Which parts of you do you get to express through collaboration, and which do you repress? Do you consciously hold back certain musical utterances while working with another artist versus working for yourself? As an author and a creative person myself, I imagine that it would be challenging to work on another artist’s vision, but at the same time rewarding. Do you have a preference?

It would have been interesting to have been asked those questions at various stages of my life. I think things in our lives are interconnected in many, many ways. Twenty-five something years ago, I was just beginning to discover myself, as a person, as a young grown-up. I didn’t even know then that I would become a composer. I had dreams: I wanted to be an actor, not a musician! But life experience and my intuition thankfully led me (back) on the right track.

Fifteen years ago, I was a composer, or beginning to develop as one. I was finalizing my first album, and also starting the composition of something more ambitious musically: a full-scale dance piece with Japanese choreographer Jo Kanamori.

Now in 2020, I’m having this wild creative orgy with film, as I have scored for seven long features in just the past three years! I live a life I absolutely fully enjoy and embrace all aspects of it, positive or negative. With the years, my approach to creation has changed, evolved, or shall I say: it has been stripped down to its core: the sheer joy and pleasure to create.

I actually love collaborations, as working with someone challenges me to step beyond my self-given limits. And that’s also the only way I can expand. I guess my ‘skills’ expand as I grow as a human being. My work mirrors my life experience. I’m self-taught as a composer. I may have been a classically trained pianist, studied music theory and music analysis, I would listen to tons of music, all styles of music, but I never studied composition. When I write music, I actually play, like children do. It’s a game. The way one approaches the game determines the outcome. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I do not pay attention to the technical side. When I don’t know something, I try to figure out how it works for others, then I try it for myself and see what works for me. A bit like a mad scientist!

That factor is essential for me: to make it a joyous experience. The funny thing is that some of the people I love to work with, Jo Kanamori, Ash, or Trần Thanh Huy (the director of Ròm) create intense, profound if not dark works, but the creative process on the other hand is extremely joyful. You should have seen me and Ash in the mixing studio!

I wouldn’t talk about collaborations as ‘working on another artist’s vision’. That vision is a point of departure but I’m no less of myself musically when I work with a choreographer, a film director or a painter. What matters to me is that I find them inspiring. Of course, I have to adapt my musical language to the project, however, I don’t have the feeling that I repress anything, paradoxically the limit of the frame gives me a great space for freedom. It’s as much what I do for/with the people I collaborate with than what they do for/with me. Inspiration goes both ways! That doesn’t mean that I get it right every time, as I’ve had some frustrating experiences with people who task me to replicate something they’ve seen, heard and loved. Once, a famous dancer who loved my work with Jo Kanamori, asked me to do ‘the same thing’ for her. The only small detail being that… she was not him, and if indeed she did inspire me (she was a wonderful performer), I wanted to create something different for her, which I did. But when she heard the music, she was not satisfied and kept asking for alterations, more of this, then less, then more of that, then less. The result was naturally not very gratifying and we never worked again together. It’s what happens when people love the look of something without comprehending or sensing the nature of it.

Ah, that does sound frustrating. I quite loathe the idea of replication, having been myself asked to replicate my own first book. In publishing, there is a belief that an author must be consistent, that their next work should reflect the previous. It’s a false ideology that gets perpetuated, and I believe, poisons and prevents writers from evolving. I see this happening across all artistic disciplines. Personally, I’m not interested in repeating what anyone else has done, least of all, what I’ve done.

Repetition is a good exercise, a bit like studying anatomy, to understand how a piece of art works. Pure and exact replication of course isn’t interesting. Replication for commercial reasons is a sad reality in the art (or entertainment) ‘industry’. On the other hand, so many artists have worked on a core theme and have kept recycling, honing it their whole life. That said, even if one asks you to use a known pattern (yours or someone else’s) for your next book, your personality and creativity will surely turn it into something original. That’s called talent, I think!

When I began to write my first songs, I found a lot of inspiration in others, I imitated, I tried to walk in other artists’ footsteps. I was touring with Michèle Atlani, a French singer/songwriter. Her world was so far away from mine, yet I must admit that even if I had lots of ideas musically, I was still an amoeba creatively. I didn’t yet feel ‘legitimate’. It would take a few more years. There was also the shadow of my father that crushed me – a great and respected composer he was – still is. I felt numbed next to him, not that he judged me or expected greatness out of me, he actually let me free to follow my path. But it took time for me to let go of the pressure of success and achievement. With the years, the sense of enjoyment of the creative process has become the one that matters to me. And the same can be said about a person. It would be hell to constantly try to please others, wouldn’t it? Something we all do at some point in our life, especially when we are younger. It isn’t that I don’t care whether people might like my music. My drama teacher once said that if you enjoy yourself, so will the audience, but if you’re trying too hard to please or convince, the audience will sense that as well. I remember that one recital given by my singing teacher with me at the piano. A program of art songs. I had not played classical music in years, so I was extremely nervous, and the nervousness combined with the pressure to perform impeccably took away all the pleasure or making music. It was disastrous! But I understood what happened. A hard lesson learned!

I’m familiar with that feeling of legitimacy and the pressure of being the child of gifted parents. I’m glad that you’ve resolved those difficult feelings and are able to separate yourself as an artist from your father. Did you have a chrysalis type of moment where you shed the “illegitimacy” and came into your own as an artist or was it more of a gradual evolution?

I talk about that legitimacy topic in those terms now. When I was younger, it was more a question of finding my own identity, or shall I say, finding a way to feel in tune with myself. I wasn’t yet aware of the question of identity. All this was a long process for me. Professionally, as a composer, things only started to bloom after I turned 35. I kept at a slow pace, however, I gladly embraced all the various projects that came to me. When you think of it, I only started to compose for films about three years ago. Some have been striking geniuses at a very young age. I’m a late bloomer – at least it eventually bloomed, and all the life experiences I have acquired through the years are precious. For example, you know how at school, we learn and quickly forget after the test or the exam? For me whatever I remember from my school years – whatever struck my interest, has been useful for me, as if school was a reminder of what I would later need in my life. So the creative freedom improved the more I trained to be ‘in the moment’. I guess that, whatever the question, I will always go back to that idea!

Which painting and/or book would be the creative equivalent of your work? More specifically, perhaps an image that you look at that makes you say to yourself, “That’s me. That’s what I’m trying to express through my work.” Or perhaps even a statue, what would your latest album We Were (t)Here look like as a sculpture? Would it be made out of wood, marble, clay, or some other materials?

What would that album be as a sculpture? That’s a tricky one! Perhaps a collage by Al Hansen of the Frankenstein monster, which then would be filmed and projected on an old Khmer statue…? Actually, that would apply more for Hyperbody! I see it as my “Frankenstein album”.

I relate to Frankenstein quite a bit myself. 

Joke aside, when I write music, there is no conscious will to express anything. I feel that I have to do it, and I am more like an antenna that transmits a flow of sounds and colours that I may not even understand, and BANG, there it is! A new song, a piece of music or whatever else. My artistic taste, my senses, everything I know only serve to fine-tune what I have just done. If there was an intention to express anything, I’m usually aware of it retrospectively. I guess as a writer, you proceed in a totally different way because you’re using words. But in your book, I was struck by how you actually paint a picture with your words. Once read, each word seems to drop its meaning and become a floating sensation around me – the reader, that stays there with me as I would progress forward in the novel. I like that way of writing!

When I was a young teenager, I dreamed of being somebody else. As so many at that age, I had no self-confidence, I was bullied at school, I had to face racism and discrimination. I looked for people who would inspire me, take me to some other, better place by their mere presence. Fortunately, because I was a strongly creative person – being creative was my only way to survive, those role models were doors through whom I could enter unknown parts of myself. I wouldn’t say that there is a painting, a book or a work of art that makes me think “This is me!”. But I do recognize a kindred spirit, and that gives me hope, strength and a sense of relief to continue what I do. I guess we all are a ‘door’ to someone.

An Tôn Thất composing.

I love this idea of people being doors to new sensations, realities, possibilities. Thank you for the kind words about my writing—my process might be quite similar to yours. I also don’t begin with an intention to express anything; I just follow an image, a spark of feeling, the dream logic of the work. I never plan it out in advance. The act of writing itself will let me know what it is I’m trying to pursue. Who was the somebody else you dreamt of being? My high school years were also some of the worst—I always thought it interesting that many people reminisce about their teenage years with such fondness, but I couldn’t wait to get out. I’m getting slightly mad at myself for the question I’m about to ask, but do you think there is an escape quality to art-making, to construct a world that you would want to be in? I think that I write in order to delve deeper into difficult emotions, to interact with life more honestly, so I often resist the insinuation of art as therapy or escape, but I also write in pursuit of beauty, symmetry, resonance. I’m quite fond of the ugly as well. 

I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to be. As a boy constantly bullied at school I wish I were one of the X-Men with super-powers! There was also lots of anger that I could not express, against my schoolmates and classmates – one should find another word than ‘mate’ when speaking of bullies, but also anger against my teachers for failing to notice anything – they pretended it was ‘just’ a game between children, mute anger against my parents for being totally oblivious to anything, much less help or rescue me from the daily hell I was living. But somehow, having to cope with that hell compelled me to discover ways to escape it. Through creativity and – later, art. Naturally, at that time, I had no tool to create anything. I was merely improvising music on the piano, but I wasn’t the composer prodigy or anything. I attempted to write. Nothing. Drawing? Barely… It was vague and shapeless. I wasn’t aware of the process. And yes, there was music. I was desperately looking forward to the music classes at school. They were my brief moments of haven.

I had a very curious nature so I loved to explore and discover more. I read a lot. The public library was my temple – and my parents’ too. And more often than not, I ended up reading books that were not appropriate for my young mind. But that didn’t matter. What I didn’t understand then, I would slowly process and understand later. But creativity per se came much later. I dreamed of big projects. I loved dance for instance. But as a child such ideas were considered impossible dreams. You can imagine the situation twenty + years later when I worked on my first contemporary dance piece with Jo Kanamori in Japan. It’s not even that I had that in mind the whole time and had my dream fulfilled. It was just sitting there in a deep corner or my mind, and when I found myself in Japan and saw the dancers moving to my music, I smiled at my younger self. So, you shouldn’t be mad at asking the question.

I do think that creating is indeed a way to escape the hardship of our lives. But escape doesn’t necessarily mean forgetfulness or oblivion. Some may forget themselves when they create – perhaps also with the ‘help’ of some substance. Some others may erase their former self and become what they dreamed of. In my case, I was fortunate that I learned to accept and love myself a little bit more each time, so that creation is part of my everyday life as much as everything else. Everything is connected. People can call it therapy, escapism, to me  it’s life experience, to which we add our sense of the beautiful – or the non-beautiful. Perhaps I would prefer to talk about the joyous experience that it is. I never compose music with the thought of making something beautiful.

Ash Mayfair and An Tôn Thất.

Thank you so much An, for sharing and being so generous in your answers. A final question, what are you working on right now? If you were told you only had enough time left for one project, what would it be?

Ah!!! I hate that kind of question, ha ha, although death is often on my mind. You know how it must have been for so many of us this year. A lot of projects have been cancelled, postponed or KILLED IN THE EGG (take the mad scientist’s voice for that). Since last winter, there has been a lull which led to a blank – good time to regain some strength, though, and I began to wonder what would be happening next. Up to two weeks ago, I had no clue, and suddenly, it was just some deity heard me and thrust a few new projects on my head. I just did the music for a fashion film by Johan Ku, a Taiwanese designer. I am going to compose music for two films, one for Mauricio Osaki, a director who shot his film in Vietnam! It’s a first feature film. The other film project is a documentary by Lee Yong Chao, a super talented director from Myanmar. I just love his work. The way he films is very DIY but it’s visually gorgeous. He just asked me tonight! But time is very short! I’m starting to get used to that kind of situation. Other than that, I’m finalizing things for Fukaeri, a collaborative album with a Portuguese singer named Bévinda, and I’m putting together music for a possible new dance piece with Jo Kanakori.

Then, to answer your question about “if I only had time for one last project,” it would be an immersive multimedia opera that would talk about the many dimensions we live in. It would blend music, contemporary dance, film, VR, and be performed in two theatres at the same time, each of them presenting a parallel world of the other’s, and both connected by screens so that the audience can catch what goes on in the other theatre. A project that would take so long, that I would have time to do other projects in the meantime!

Those are ideas that I have been developing for more than a decade now. I’m dreaming and imagining it in my head now, but who knows what can happen. As a child, I was unaware of the notions of creativity or art. I just knew that it was essential to me. How, what, when, I absolutely had no clue. But I never thought it impossible. Never thought it possible to think it impossible.

If you told me that you can fly, I would believe you.

Abbigail N. Rosewood is the author of If I Had Two Lives from Europa Editions. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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