Emergence, three square holes with a hand emerging from them.

“Emergence” is a compilation of experimental music from Vietnam. Curated by Vietnamese artist Nhung Nguyen, it collects work by Vietnamese-born musicians living either at home or abroad, and also includes a contribution from a foreign-born artist living in Hanoi. In her liner notes, Nguyen writes that although there is not much awareness of experimental music practices in Vietnam, making work in this idiom brings great freedom: “We are the ones who choose to emerge from an overlooked part of the cultural context in Vietnam. Our emergence is not only to claim our musical identities but also to open up new possibilities, exploration and potential future collaboration. For us, experimental music is a direct way to construct our sonic language; to freely express a wide, complex range of personal experience, thoughts and emotions.”

It’s no secret that Nguyen is a big fan of the piano, and this instrument appears on numerous tracks in the first half of the album. Over a nasally drone of ‘The morning seems so strange today’, Đỗ Tấn Sĩ’s piano flutters and plonks with a slightly jazzy tonality, the piece’s simple form proving to be its strength. Fractured piano melodies alternate with quivering violin and fizzing gossamer chords in the atmospheric ‘Love I’ by Tri Minh ft. Trinh Minh Hien. The curator’s own piece, under her Sound Awakener alias, sees the piano wrapped in and obscured by murky echoes and reverberations, creating a dreamlike uncertainty. And piano features in the background of Xo Xinh’s ‘Conversation’, with the metallic sheen and ring of bowed cymbals being the most prominent sounds.

Many of the album’s tracks, particularly in the second half, seem to draw inspiration from experimental electronica and even acousmatic sources. Among the beeps, hisses, shuffling, and chirping of Parallel Asteroid’s ‘Humanized’, rough, throaty sounds are heard that have their origin in a saxophone. No Time, Nguyen Do Minh Quan, and Nguyen Huu Hai Duy continue the bleeping and buzzing electronic theme with their respective pieces. And the deep regular pulsing of Dee. F’s ‘If I could stay reasonably sane’ brings a dense, urgent energy, with swirling buzzing and whistling forming a tension that is somehow skilfully kept from imploding.

My favourite discovery from “Emergence”, however, is Tam Pham’s ‘Nỗi buồn với biển’. This piece uses reverberant bell-like chimes and breathy vocal gusts to create a lively yet meditative impression, calm yet razor-sharp. Tones from a stringed instrument that to me sounds like a guqin or zither add deft fragments of melody. It may be relatively lacking in visibility (audibility?) both at home and internationally, but this cohesive and well-curated collection demonstrates that in a world so saturated with different musics, Vietnamese experimental music is more than capable of holding its own.

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Nhung Nguyen / Sound Awakener

Tri Minh

Nguyen Do Minh Quan

Flaming Pines

Illustration by Dan Ni

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