Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ Premieres Songs of Strength at Zellerbach
By Lou Fancher
Vietnamese composer and multi-instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ loves collaborative, risk-taking projects based in the traditional music and complex history and culture of her native land. One such project was on display Saturday evening at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Playhouse as Võ led her Blood Moon Orchestra and guest artists in the world premiere of Songs of Strength.
Although the results were mixed, the concert showed artists erasing the divides between genres and people. Highlights of the show ranged from Võ’s charismatic-to-delicate interactions with her instruments — the 16-string Vietnamese zither (đàn tranh), monochord (đàn bầu), bamboo xylophone (đàn t’rung), and handheld percussion instruments — and her ethereal vocals that floated from under her crimson headpiece like sonic clouds, and extended to percussionist/taiko drummer Jimi Nakagawa’s fiercely physical engagements with an array of surfaces. The cool, elegant, expressivity of Kai Echkardt on electric bass was balanced by the drive and resonance of Joel Davel’s marimba lumina playing.
The evening’s guest artists brought their own daring to the concert: rap artist/composer Kev Choice, breakdance and ballet dancer Tunjie (Babatunjie Johnson), a fluid and dynamically gifted mover; and Iranian vocalist/composer and human rights activist Mahsa Vahdat. Based on poems — one by Atabak Elyasi; two by Rumi — Vahdat delivered song lyrics as if she was handling the most delicate lace; placing the texture of each syllable with utmost care upon currents of rippling notes or elongated passages.
The 11-song program’s most memorable moments came via a collaboration with two innovative composers of earlier eras. A mashup transcribed by Võ for đàn bầu and arranged for the orchestra of French composer Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3 and “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. This piece had the musicians cycling through dreamy layers that called attention to individual notes, then on to hallucinogenic, funky passages deep in the groove and psychedelic screams and howls rendered predictably by Echkardt on bass but also by Võ on the monochord. Simultaneously recognizable and transformative, the mix of Satie, Hendrix, and Võ became something much more than the sum of three parts. It was new and invigorating, yet a recognizable tribute.
The extended online program notes included lyrics written by Choice, but his vocals in the mix left many of his words lost in transit. And on the songs in which Võ and Choice sang together, her Vietnamese sounded much like punctuation or changing font colors: underlines, commas, ellipses, exclamation marks, or statement-stopping periods — and words that became a rainbow of sounds lined up and fluttering like prayer shawls in the wind. But Choice’s lyrics spoke powerfully to Songs of Strength themes. Võ mentioned in program notes the relevance of traditional music in the modern world, “the generative power of cross-genre and cross-cultural collaborations,” and the importance of creating “ ... a new vision for traditional music making in a deeply interconnected world.”
Born to Rise was inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird,” and heralded the resistance and resilience of people of color in the face of systemic violence and historic oppression. Choice sang:
Living on land that’s been occupied/
Colonized, genocide, homicide, slavery modernized/
They can’t lock me down/
They can’t hold me down/
This a new day and age/
You’d be amazed/
The beauty, the love, from the soul of a bird, even locked in a cage.
The piece titled 86,400 provided Choice’s and Vo’s response to a scenario posed by Asian Women of Power leader AnhLan Nguyen. “Imagine if you have $86,400 [the number of seconds in a day] in your bank account every day … but you have to spend all of it because at the end of the day, it will all be gone ... How would you spend this money?”
I wish Choice’s sung response had been easier to digest his words in context or that there was a program insert with lyrics for anyone who did not read them before the show.
While appreciating the obvious artistry of Tunjie in his brief appearances, his role was the night’s only empty gesture. Dressed entirely in white and sock-footed, he seemed an add-on, a lovely element, but an under-explored one. The ballet passages were classroom excerpts, striking me as inauthentic and inserted into his more convincing modern and breakdance segments. I wanted to see more of him.
The program’s most deeply satisfying pleasures came in the thoughtfully re-interpreted “The Trouble” (Xẩm Lưu Lạc), a traditional Northern Vietnamese folk song that closed the program, and “Summer Rain” (Cơn Mưa Hạ by Trầm Tử Thiêng), played as an encore. Together, the works showed that traditional music heard in contemporary times is nothing less than magical in its power to bring people together.