Stay, My Beloved (Vietnamese Guitar Music) An Tran
I know it’s only late April as I write this, but I can already tell that An Tran’s just-released Stay, My Beloved (Vietnamese Guitar Music) is sure to make the year-end Top Ten list of my favorite classical guitar albums of the year. Although An Tran has spent much of his still-young life studying and playing in the U.S. (he earned his master’s degree under Ben Verdery at Yale), he is still very much a product of his native Vietnam, where he started playing guitar at the age of 8, tutored by a guitarist named Nguyen Hai Thoai, and later attended the Vietnam National Academy of Music, where he studied with Vu Viet Cuong. Though his guitar education in the U.S., years of participating (successfully) in competitions, and also teaching have given him a thorough grounding in the classical guitar repertoire of every era and style, it’s clear he’s never forgotten his roots in Vietnam.
The proof is in every minute of his Stay, My Beloved album, which contains seven solo guitar pieces written by or arranged from traditional songs by a pair of contemporary Vietnamese composers, Nguyen The-An and Dang Ngoc Long. Now, I am an unabashed fan of many Asian music forms, from traditional Chinese and Japanese instrumental music, to Javanese gamelan, to Indian ragas and other folk forms. I’ve had relatively little exposure to the music of Vietnam, but I can still recognize in it elements that I’ve heard and loved in the folk music of other Asian countries, particularly China. And though many of the traditional instruments of Vietnamese folk music are unique to that region, they have analogs in other countries—zithers; fiddles; flutes; all sorts of stringed instruments of varying numbers of strings, some akin to banjos, others more lute-like; etc. Vietnamese music also employs various modal scales and particular intervals that give the music much of its character. I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to describe what’s going on musically to create the skipping quality of some melodic lines, or the spare, deliberate approach to others, where the combination of notes and the way they fall together, perhaps encased in an irregular rhythmic thrumming, is so distinctively compelling. But I appreciate its haunting beauty and also its power.
Stay, My Beloved is filled with those moments (including ones where An Tran is clearly mimicking the sounds of traditional instruments), and yet is still undeniably a classical-guitar album, with reference points Western audiences will recognize–highly virtuosic passages that display what a gifted guitarist An Tran truly is, whether effortlessly flying through dazzlingly speedy runs, or complex rhythmic shifts, unusual harmonies, or the many “effects” he employs: damping and snapping strings, bending notes, percussive strumming up and down the neck, fluttering cascades of notes; his uniquely Asian tremolo. It’s an amazing potpourri of styles and approaches, but they all hang together marvelously, and coalesce into a sort of enormous impressionist watercolor that depicts landscapes and the sounds of nature, and tell stories and talk about human emotions. (An Tran’s descriptive liner notes about each tune are very illuminating in this regard.)
The video presented here is a performance of the title track of the album, and will give you a good feeling for the music on this album. If you’re intrigued, by all means listen to more of it; all of it! It’s an unforgettable journey to a world you’ve probably never been to, but is definitely worth visiting repeatedly. Highly recommended! —Blair Jackson
The Legend of the Bamboo Child: I. Introduction, II. Childhood, III. The Threat of War, IV. The Rise of the Hero, V. War and Victory, VI. The Ascension of the Hero (Nguyen The-An); Lullaby (Nguyen The-An); Drifting Duckweeds, Floating Clouds (traditional arr. Dang Ngoc Long); Rain (Dang Ngoc Long); Central Highlands of Vietnam (Dang Ngoc Long); Remembrance (Dang Ngoc Long); Stay, My Beloved (traditional arr. Nguyen The-An)