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Ton-That Tiet - interview with the Vietnamese composer
Ton-That Tiet - interview with Vietnamese composer, Ton-Tat Tiet - Interview
Ton-That Tiet, who was born in 1933 in Hue, the former capital of imperial Viet Nam, and has lived in Paris since 1958, is a composer who has succeeded in marrying Western musical styles with a profoundly Oriental form of thinking and sensibility. Silence, as well as the expressive beauty of sounds, plays an important part in his works, which reflect their author's preoccupation with the harmony between humanity and the universe.
* How did you come to Western music?
Ton-That Tiet: When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I wanted to play the violin. My brothers and sisters clubbed together to buy me one, which they arranged to be sent from France. One of my cousins, who played the violin a little, gave me lessons, but when he emigrated to France, I found nobody in Hue to replace him and I had to work on my own, with a method and scores which I ordered specially.
* How did you continue your studies?
T.-T. T.: I dreamed of going to Paris and entering the Conservatoire. I worked and saved for two years in order to pay for the journey. When I got to Paris, I was introduced to a teacher at the Conservatoire, Georges Dandelot. My knowledge of music theory was so sketchy that I had to start all over again, or almost. I had so much work that I had to give up the violin. I soon learned that I could not work at an instrument and go in for advanced theoretical studies at the same time. I also studied counterpoint with Madame Honegger at the Paris Ecole Normale de Musique. At the end of two years, I obtained a degree in harmony and applied for a place at the Conservatoire.
* Were you already composing?
T.-T. T.: Not yet. However, in order to be accepted in the composition class, I had to submit something. I composed a piece for string quartet which left no abiding impression. When I started to study composition in the early 1960s, I was attracted by serial music and started studying it by myself. At the time, many of my fellow students were composing in that idiom. However, my teacher Jean Rivier advised me to give it up. One day he said to me: "Go back to Asia and try to find your own way". He encouraged me to go deeper into my knowledge of Asian traditional music and to study Oriental philosophy. Andre Jolivet, who took over from him, was also a considerable influence on me in that respect. Rediscovering Oriental thinking was an important step, because it created a mental universe which enabled me to find my own personal style. At the end of three or four years, Jolivet saw that the path I had chosen was beginning to emerge.
* How did you rediscover Vietnamese music?
T.-T. T.: The Guimet museum in Paris has a collection of recordings of Vietnamese music and used to hold concerts of Oriental music. The musicologist Tran Van Khe, who worked there, introduced me to Buddhist music.
* How did you come across the idea of composing on the basis of the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water?
T.-T. T: By studying Chinese philosophy, and especially the Yi Ching. My first work, an orchestral piece called Five Elements, which was based on the Yi Ching, was composed in 1972, and I returned to the same theme in 1981. However, I did not use the Yi Ching in a random fashion, like John Cage, or as a divinatory form, since that did not interest me. What fascinates me in the Yi Ching is the explanation it gives of the evolution of the universe. I also took an interest in Great Vehicle Buddhism, but strictly from a philosophical standpoint, since I do not practise any religion. The two main themes of my work are humanity and the universe. Buddhism and the other Oriental philosophies stress universal love and the fact that all human beings are brothers.
* Do you use Asian instruments in your compositions?
T.-T. T.: I used a single-stringed instrument on one occasion, in a piece for flute and magnetic tape commissioned by the French Institute for musical-acoustical research and co-ordination (IRCAM).
* What projects do you have in hand at the moment?
T.-T. T.: I am working on a second ballet for the Regine Chopinot company - I already wrote one for them in 1996 on the theme of fire, in harmony and opposition with the five elements. I am now looking into the concept of time. I am interested in handling this theme in the Oriental rather than Western manner. The West invented linear and cyclical time, whereas in Asia the concept of time draws on its absence, since time does not exist in the universe. The Yi-Ching speaks neither of beginning nor end. There is no original "big bang".
* You are also endeavouring to safeguard the musical traditions of Viet Nam.
T.-T. T.: In 1992, I had an opportunity to attend some courses on traditional music at Hanoi Conservatory and I was appalled at what I heard: the music had been altered and harmonized and new features had been tacked on to it.
The following year, in Hanoi, I met a very old woman who was a wonderful exponent of catru, a style of singing notable for its vibrato and special vocal techniques. She was the only surviving exponent of this style. I asked her to train some young singers, so that the tradition would not be lost. In fact, the family of musicians accompanying her had a daughter who sang some catru. Madame Quach Thi Ho agreed to take her under her wing.
In Hue, I contacted all the performers of traditional music. I organized a meeting with the three leading master musicians and asked them to recreate a court music orchestra.
They regularly sent me cassettes, so that I could hear what progress they were making. After one year, the imperial orchestra was proficient, but the younger musicians still had to be trained. I was amazed to find that the girl who was learning cairn had perfectly mastered the vocal technique. I was subsequently able to organize a concert of traditional Vietnamese music at the Maison des Cultures et du Monde in Paris in 1995.
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