Life, liberty and the pursuit of music

imgresDeafened by the whirling blades of the stealth chopper I check my parachute clips for the last time. Anti flak fire arcs towards us from the steaming jungle below. I shout over the din to Agent Sponberg:

“Free bowing? Phrasing? Piano trios? Quartets? Solo playing within an ensemble context?” He gives a double thumbs up. “Just as they told us in training.”

We nod and solemnly high five. “We’re going in.” We release the safety catches and jump.

This is ‘Nam. This is chamber music. Anything can happen.

Or so I’d fantasised when invited to be on the faculty of Saigon Chamber Music, South East Asia’s first EVER chamber music festival. Because for us Westerners the word Vietnam is synonymous with war, insanity, sweat, horror, jungle and the political upheavals of a generation.

imgresMartin Sheen as Captain Willard in this iconic image from Francis Ford Coppolla’s epic stoned masterpiece Apocalyse Now. 

Even the best of Hollywood’s efforts to evoke the nightmarish nature of the U.S. Vietnam conflict can only hint at the inhuman depths to which both sides sank in their wilful destruction of each other. The war museum in Ho Chi Minh City is home to a harrowing exhibition of photographs taken by American war reporters during the conflict, incontrovertible evidence of the unspeakable atrocities committed on both sides.

One simply can’t write a post about being in this complex and beautiful land without mentioning the war, so bear with me while I do before we get to the good stuff, the music.

A few facts:

  • The war, which lasted 20 years, is the longest in US history.
  • The US bombing of North Vietnam surpassed the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany, Italy and Japan in all of World War II.
  • More than 3.5 million died in the conflict. A large proportion of these were defenceless civilians.
  • Severely deformed and disabled children are still being born in Vietnam as a legacy of the extensive US chemical bombing campaign. Much of the countryside is still highly toxic and laden with unexploded landmines.
  • Many thousands on both sides are still listed as MIA – missing in action. People continue to employ clairvoyants to hunt down the bodies of loved ones.
  • The direct cost of the war was officially put at US$165 billion (1975 rates), although its real cost to the economy was double that or more.

And for what???

urlThis horrifying image of children running from a napalm attack won photographer Nick Ut a Pulitzer Prize and was awarded picture of the century by several publications.

The badly burnt girl in the centre lived to tell the tale.

Having now read a few sickening accounts of this most pointless of pointless wars, I still struggle to understand what happened. If you’ll forgive a grossly simplified overview of events, let’s kick off with the French military invasion of Vietnam in 1847 and their brutal rule over the next four decades of colonial enterprise. Think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Belgian Congo barbarities.

In 1941, responding to the seething desire for Vietnamese independence brewing amongst the unhappy workers, Ho Chi Minh formed the largely communist Viet Minh. Intellectual, populist, polyglot and political pragmatist (if you’ll permit such alliterative frenzy), Ho’s brand of communism was first sparked by his study of French philosophy and fanned by his profound humanitarian desire to mitigate the slavery and oppression he witnessed on his extensive travels around the world.

imgres-5Ho Chi Minh (1890 – 1969). A fascinating figure, about whom you can read more here and here if in the mood.

Under Ho’s leadership the Vietminh somehow single-handedly managed to resist both the French and the Japanese during the Second World War. Alas, there was nothing they could do to prevent a fifth of the population dying in a hideous famine caused by dodgy Japanese rice requisitions.

In September 1945 Vietnam declared independence from France. Unfortunately, neither France nor the U.S. took this seriously and a full on Franco-Viet war ensued in which President Harry S. Truman backed France to the tune of 2 billion dollars. But the fierce nationalism of the Viet Minh overcame even these odds and after eight long blood-spattered years Indochine rule collapsed. Hats off Vietnamese, do admit.

The battered French were forced to agree to peace talks in Geneva and in 1954 the country was officially divided in two at the 17th parallel with a U.S. supported Catholic regime in the South headed by psychotic despot Ngo Dinh Diem (later killed by US generals who decided he was a liability, only to be replaced by even worse), and Ho Chi Minh’s communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, dedicated to the “liberation” of the lower half of the country.

It didn’t go well.

url-1With full-blown McCarthy pinko paranoia just round the corner, the US military presence in Vietnam stepped up exponentially over the following two decades in an increasingly desperate bid to halt the spread of communism in Asia, spearheaded by communist guerrilla forces the Viet Cong.

It was at this point that things went really tits up.

In August 1964 the North Vietnamese fired on a U.S. destroyer anchored in the Gulf of Tonkin which, research now tells us, had been helping a secret South Vietnamese (ie anti-commie) commando raid. President Lyndon Johnson then claimed that there was then a second attack on the destroyer, which we now know never happened, and consequently an infuriated and grossly misled Congress passed the lethal Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorising full-scale U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. Until its repeal in 1970, the resolution was treated by US presidents as carte blanche to do whatever they chose in Vietnam without any congressional control.

Sound familiar?

imgres-6A woman mourns over the body of her husband after identifying him by his teeth, and covering his head with her conical hat. The man’s body was found with 47 others in a mass grave near Hue on 11 April 1969. The victims were believed killed during the insurgent occupation of Hue as part of the Tet offensive. Photograph by Horst Faas.

Horrified by reports of massacres and other atrocities started to emerge from the blood-soaked villages of Vietnam, global anti-war protests began in earnest. In 1969 Richard Nixon was elected on the strength of of his so-called “secret plan” to end the conflict, which in fact began to escalate to an all time high. In an intensified bid to flush out “Charlie”, the US name for the VC rebels, the war now expanded to include extensive bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos.

On May 4, 1970, National Guard units fire into a group of demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio. The shots kill four students and wound nine others. Anti-war demonstrations and riots occur on hundreds of other campuses throughout May.

url-1Perhaps like me you know stories of American friends of friends who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid the draft. One drank coffee and kept himself awake for a week to appear insane enough to avoid the draft. Another simply played the outlawed homosexual card, others managed to fool the army board by staging a showcase of physical and psychological infirmities.

Faced with a State order to maim, torture and kill I’d have probably done the same.

Off their faces on psychedelic drugs, barely trained, average age 19 (as Paul Hardcastle’s 1985s hit explains), can you IMAGINE the horror these kids faced?

The American Declaration of Independence makes interesting reading at this point in the story…

In the spring of 1972 the North Vietnamese launched an offensive over the forbidden 17th parallel and the Americans retaliated by bombing the North to a pulp. In 1973, at long, long last, a ceasefire was declared and the U.S. withdrew troops, leaving behind a raging North-South war of such ferocity that half a million Vietnamese chose to escape in boats in hope of finding new homes abroad, braving the treacherous waters of the South China Sea, pirates, pillaging and worse rather than stay put.

imgresThe Vietnamese boat people. I remember them on telly when I was a kid, but only now understand something of what they’d been through. 

The South, no longer supported by the US, finally collapsed in 1975 as North Vietnamese troops crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace in Saigon (just round the corner from the Conservatoire). Six years after his death, the North-South reunification that Ho Chi Minh had fought so hard for finally took place and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honour.

(Rumour has it that our very own man of letters James Fenton, a journalist in Vietnam at the time, was on the very tank that signaled the fall of Saigon. Amazing, if true. Am awaiting confirmation from inside sources.)

Years of political oppression and appalling poverty now follow as the country, brought to its knees by war, Western trade embargoes and the costly Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, staggered to independence under the stringent new communist government.

imgres-5After this lot you’d think the Vietnamese would harbor a grudge or two against Americans, not to mention white Europeans, but far from it. Without exception, every Vietnamese person I spoke to on the subject explained that this war was simply the latest violent blip in centuries’ worth of oppression from invaders including the Khmers, the Chams, the Mongols and the Chinese, who ruled for a thousand years. They see it as a mistake made by a few deluded American politicians rather than the people themselves, and have already moved on.

It is to the children of all these wars that I have been invited to bring chamber music, the art of making music together, in their own land.

Behind every seemingly impossible yet marvellous project lies a big thinker with unreasonable amounts of charisma who won’t take no for an answer. In this case, in the form of Norway’s former Ultima festival director, now composer, conductor, writer, lecturer, entrepreneur and general force of nature Geir Johnson who I first met at the Bergen Festival some 15 years ago. Whilst sending a few Norwegian musicians out to help the Saigon Symphony Orchestra a couple of years back, Geir met multi-talented ex-pianist, BBC World Service broadcaster, music administrator and organisational polymath Nguyen Tran Sa (henceforth, Sa), who happened to be working for the orchestra at the time. They discussed what else Norway might be able to do to help classical music in Saigon.

photo 4Thanks to Norway’s talent with cash and the tireless efforts of Geir, Sa and the Transposition Programme team in collaboration with the Ho Chi Minh Conservatoire and the British Council, the first Saigon Chamber Music Festival was the result and reason I now found myself standing outside the HCMC Conservatoire with impossibly handsome Norwegian violinist Atle Sponberg and beautiful Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen in this picture.

Before meeting in person the three of us selected our SCM participants from YouTube audition videos and finally agreed on a lineup of 6 pianists, 4 cellists, 6 violinists, 2 violists and one double bass player for our week-long training course. The students were aged between 13 and 24 and of a playing standard from roughly Grade 4 merit (if you’ll forgive the Associated Board nonsense) to gifted international conservatoire undergrad. A couple of the students had already done some extracurricular study at the Curtis Institute and in Norway and meant business.

photo 4Finding suitable rep, chamber groupings and a schedule that would keep this mixed bunch happy and busy for a week was one of the toughest jobs I can ever remember, but finally we landed on a perky programme of music by Bach, Brahms, Bridge, Schumann, Saint Saens, Dvorak, Shostakovitch, plus assorted tangos, thanks to Atle’s handy experiences with the night-prowling tango meisters of Buenos Aires.

In truth, none of us knew what to expect.

Our wonderful bass player, Nam.

What a lovely surprise to find our new charges far from the robotic note generators many of the audition videos had implied! We met a lively group of intelligent, bouncy, sunny students, ravenous for any information we could impart, chuffed to bits to be chosen, beside themselves with the joy of playing classical music together and delighted with our constant invitation to play expressively. Not to mention their extremely polite, obedient and deferential demeanor to us teachers – a pleasant surprise for those of us accustomed to Western kids’ you-owe-me attitude.

photoBouncy SCM members defying gravity and over-strict piano lessons outside the conservatoire. Note French colonial architecture.

Again and again our clichéd Western notion of the inscrutable Asian muso replicant, planted by those scary images of a thousand mini Lang Langs, fields of Japanese lady speed typists dressed as flowers at international piano competitions, and identikit Suzuki mass violin play-ins for Tiger Mum-terrorised under fives, was refuted by the warmth, intelligence and heart-felt musicianship demonstrated by our students. Plus, most importantly, a healthy sense of humour, again not something that fits our prejudiced idea of Asian facelessness.

Unlike, say, the Hungarians, the Vietnamese have emerged from the blood-soaked centuries very quick to see the silly side, and to meet are the giggliest people I’ve ever encountered, quick to find the simplest things funny given half a chance. I instantly fell in love with the entire nation for this trait alone.

imgres-3Familial strength beams from every street corner where whole communities hang out in the embrace of the steamy monsoon heat; cooking, eating, flirting, laughing and playing together until late into the evening. Vietnamese littlies are the most ridiculously cute I’ve seen in my entire life, clearly loved and treasured, if a little spoiled, and spectacularly well behaved in concerts.

It was a rude shock on the way back home to hear frazzled western parents yell and slap at their kids, who yelled and slapped back. Back home we pay a heavy price for the prevailing 21st century dissolution of communities and increasing isolation of the nuclear family.

Put simply, the Vietnamese people look happy. Really happy. Which is a truly magnificent achievement under recent circs. Undoubtedly my lenses are rose-tinted, but my strong impression was that of a whole nation on holiday from trauma, determined to have a good time together and put politics on one side for once.

photoThe current Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one party system led by the communist party of Vietnam. Marxist-Leninist doctrine is a staple of all standard Vietnamese education, including that of our kids at the Conservatoire, and political brainwashing (as we would see it anyway) more stringent in the traditionally communist north. Friends told me that those speaking out against the system pay a hefty price. Yet unlike recent experiences in China, I was unaware of any obviously oppressive police presence. Just occasionally I’d trip up in seminars and mention a state-censored something, like Spotify, but for the most part forgot I wasn’t in a democratic country.

Name that fruit. This stuff comes straight from the tree, no messing around via Tescos.

Aside from a profound national longing for time out from political wrangling, the current relative material stability must also be contributing to the palpable sense of Vietnamese well-being and reluctance to rock the boat. Now the biggest rice exporter on the planet, Vietnam suffered punitive rationing right up until the mid 90s and had to import everything, a ridiculous scenario when you consider the wealth of abundant natural resources that should have been available to them. Since the lift of Western trade embargoes, the economy is now recovering fast and in the cities at least there appears to be a ready availability of the most heavenly food on the planet.

imgres-4The best of it is made by women with makeshift cooking units on the streets using fresh ingredients straight from the source. Traditional Vietnamese cuisine employs principles of balance and harmony that have doubtless been in place for thousands of years. The inspiration for each dish hinges not only around the perfect blend of five elements: sour, spicy, sweet, bitter and salty, but also takes into consideration the weather, local environment and the constitution of the eater. No wonder everyone looks so healthy.

At restaurants waiters prepared dishes in front of us, often proffering servings by hand, not spoon, a wonderfully warm and personal approach that some Westerners might find a little full-on. In Vietnam, it’s clear that food is to be shared.

Again and again I had the best meal of my life. There was a lotus root, chilli and prawn salad that practically made me cry it was so delicious. Supposedly a third world country, for me Vietnam is right up there with highest gourmet royalty. In comparison we Europeans are barbarians.


Traditional Vietnamese dress. Tra is trying to persuade me to have one of these made next time I’m in town. Can’t help feeling it would make me look like an over-upholstered chaise longue, but see where she’s at with the sexy side split thing.

An equally sophisticated national art form is practised by tailors in tiny street booths who make clothes of surpassing elegance from the finest fabrics, fitted to almost surreal perfection within hours of ordering. Atle came home laden with exquisite suits and silk shirts molded to his Viking splendour for only a few million Dong.

Ah yes.

The Dong.

Best comedy currency ever, as illustrated by conductor Nicholas Kok, ever on the case with the difficulties inherent in his surname. As his now legendary story goes, whilst waiting to cash to be exchanged in a Vietnamese hotel lobby Nick heard the following immortal line piped over the tannoy system:

“Mr Kok, your Dong is ready”.

photo 1The upside of centuries’ worth of invaders is Vietnam’s absorption of their best art, philosophy, medicine, science and food. Recent archeological finds indicate that homo sapiens was present in Vietnam some 500,000 years ago. Which has given them plenty of time to hone a thing or two.

A millionaire at last… This lot is worth about 50 quid.

Many troubled spots on the planet would do well to take on board Ho Chi Minh’s wise policy of letting the Vietnamese live as they have done for thousands of years. As a result, not only these ancient arts still flourish, but different religions happily coexist without the conflict we now see over so much of the globe.

Beneath the childlike playfulness of the delightful Vietnamese people lies an intractable will of steel one soon encounters, giving insight into how this proud race could survive for so long against the odds. The nature of this gritty strength was perfectly illustrated for me one afternoon on seeing a bike crash just outside the café in which Atle and I were quietly conversing with jet lag.

imgres-2Before telling you the story, you need to have a sense of Saigon’s crazy traffic situation. Entire families sit on one small bike, packed together amongst hundreds of others in the smog. Crossing the road was one of the first truly scary things I had to master on arrival. The general rule is to step out in front of oncoming traffic and know that bikes will flow around you like fish, whilst cars will deviate for no one. Traffic lights have pretty much zero authority.

So – a heavily preggy young woman sits sidesaddle behind her young husband on a typical Vietnamese scooter, which suddenly gets bashed into by an impatient van behind. She falls onto the road, picks herself up, clearly in pain, gets briefly brushed down by her man, then hobbles straight back on the scooter. Everyone drives off again after approximately one minute. No discussion, no argument. In the UK this would have triggered major road rage drama with hours of insurance wrangling, ambulance arrival and crowds of onlookers taking sides and pictures for Facey.

photo 3Taking my life into my hands, I got onto the back of bikes with strange men on corners and zipped around the city in a cheap and efficient manner. Note head gear. Needless to say, it wasn’t just the Vietnamese who found this pic extremely funny.

For the record, while watching this little scene I was also drinking an avocado smoothie – sinh to bo in Vietnamese – a ludicrously heavenly drink which quickly became the working title of our Nor/Viet/Brit piano trio.

Our initial concert was in the HCMC Conservatoire’s beautiful Japanese-designed concert hall, with acoustics way better than any hall we have in the UK. Like every subsequent concert we gave it was attended by at least one TV station, radio, live internet streaming and a packed house who listened through a full programme of varied classical music from baroque to the present day with rapt attention made all the more remarkable by the presence of many young children, who appeared to be absolutely spellbound by what they were hearing.

photo 4From this point on we were greeted like rock stars wherever we went, which was frankly a bit weird. Unlike the UK, it would appear that classical music has some clout in this country.

Atle and I on the red carpet, living the moment. (Actually we were outside a kids community centre, but what the hell.)

A limited amount of Western music, mostly from the church, was initially introduced by the French at the end of the 19th century but didn’t arrive with any import until the mid 20th century via Soviet Russia. Current instrumental teaching is 3rd generation Soviet disciplinary hardline, and it was clearly a shock for our students to experience praise and encouragement from us while we worked together, rather than the scary Eastern European knuckle rapping with which they were all clearly more familiar.

Right from the start our intention was for the week to be fun as well as informative, and I guess these students are now going to be more problematic to teach, given permission think for themselves.

photo 4When asked what music the students listen to, it emerged that most like a mixture of traditional Vietnamese music and Western classical music, and a couple liked Broadway musicals. No one mentioned Western pop music, which is interesting. Whilst all seemed at home with the music of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch, they appeared to struggle with Brahms and Schumann, an aesthetic unfamiliar to them. With our centuries’ worth of  symphonic DNA, it’s fascinating to see how this music works within an entirely different cultural sensibility.

“Hanoi chicks” Mie and Hua decide who is going to introduce the piece in the concert.

The Vietnamese language is tonal and requires considerable aural sophistication to distinguish between sounds. As a result, many of the population have perfect pitch. For example, the word “Ma” can mean mother, horse, graveyard, milk or ghost according to how it’s inflected. I know I made several unintentionally filthy faux pas whilst having a go at a few basic Vietnamese phrases.

imgres-7It’s also a highly melodic language, which is a feature of traditional Vietnamese music, some of which I heard whilst visiting the fabulous Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Two sets of four musicians, all of whom both sang and played an instrument, sat either side of the stage-width pool whilst behind a curtain puppeteers operated animals, fish, flowers and people in a magical show of pure fantasy whose origins go back at least a thousand years to peasanty rice-paddy productions. The music was almost operatic in structure with recitatives and arias, and driven by horizontal melody and sung narrative rather than by rhythmic or harmonic development.

All this helps to explain our SCM students’ astonishing ability to pick up melodies by ear, in a league way above their European counterparts. Although the idea of improvisation was entirely new to them, they leapt on it as if their own and it’s hard to think of holding the same workshops back at home with such instant success.

photoThese impressive aural skills also stem from the rigorous general musicianship training in Vietnam which integrates solfège, harmony and score analysis with instrumental lessons from an early age. Most of the students were completely unfazed when I asked them about the harmonic structure of a Bach prelude. Which is more than you can say for many professional musicians in the UK. Alas, we have much to learn about ear training, which is still more or less non-existent for the majority of music students.

So much for western supremacy.

What we did need to work on however, was the students’ sense of pulse, essential for chamber music playing, along with group listening skills hitherto more or less ignored by teachers bent on solo repertoire. The few of our pianists who had some experience in playing with others had been taught to be as discrete as possible and simply follow the instrumentalist, rather than working as a team. Likewise, all the instrumentalists viewed pianists as an invisible accompanying commodity, rather than an equal to be listened to.

photo 1Not unlike certain singers one has encountered, it must be said…

It would seem that the Vietnamese musical default setting is to rush, play loudly, steam through phrases and cut the rests, something you can understand more clearly once you’ve spent time in this crazily hyper active city. Silence is a rarity in Vietnam: all lectures, conferences and school lessons are given with deafening amplification. Traffic honks and roars, music blares. Learning how to play using a full dynamic colour range from very quiet to very loud was something we returned to again and again in coaching sessions.

And yet bless them all, our students were every one of them more than ready to have a go at this chamber music thing, to learn new ways of making music.

photo 4The invaluable early morning daily warm up sesh, essential to set the happy group tone for the day, although a killer with jet lag.

In this pic Atle’s clearly not yet had enough coffee, and I appear to be afflicted with an uncharacteristic “early music” look. Tra is as cool and beautiful as ever.

Incidentally, from what I could gather most of the students are from fairly well-off backgrounds with parents who can pay for lessons, whilst a couple came from very poor villages in the countryside. Two of our students, plus our young violin assistant Thinh Minh, are students of the Hanoi Conservatoire, which to date offers by far the best musical training in the country, another spur to bring Saigon up to speed.

And now, a brief time out to consider my problem with the term “chamber music”.

Is it just me, or does the term “chamber music” smack of cashmere, 18/19th century aristocratic light entertainment salon values, Hampstead and the worst of Wigmore pashmina punters?

Along with that equally problematic term, “classical music”, perhaps it’s time to find new terminology for this otherwise marvellous activity.

Thank you.

Now back to Saigon, which I’m having trouble calling by it’s less appealing HCMC title, so will stop even trying from this point onwards.

imgres-9Tra Nguyen our pianist, who divides her time between London and Saigon, was one of the talented handful of children chosen by Ho Chi Minh’s visionary administration to go and study music in Moscow at the tender age of 14. Her first hand knowledge of Vietnamese language, culture and musical training was invaluable during our time together, and her clutch of diligent pianists clearly adored her.

Tra is so photogenic she cd get a job as a Thai Air hostess, although I suspect that barely one in five of those ridiculously perfect creatures is actually human.

If you’ve read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, you may remember the chapter concerning waitressing bio-robots semi-aware of their predicament who had been genomed for perfect customer service and/or sexual allure, depending on the wishes of the controlling corporation. He must have flown to Asia a few times.

Her beautiful and elegant mother Tra Giang is a famous film star in Vietnam who is still very much a national icon. She was pregnant with Tra during the two week US bombing of Hanoi, and explained to me over tea at her beautiful apartment in Saigon that her pregnancy made her too big to fit into the bunkers, so was forced to hide under the bed for the duration.


During this blistering bombing attack, the Hanoi-ans somehow managed to build an underground music conservatoire and concert hall, a miraculous feat unthinkable without the steely determination mentioned earlier.

Tra Giang on set for the 17th Parallel, Nights and Days, a war film for which she won Best Actress at the eighth Moscow Film Festival. She was pregnant with Tra at the time this photo was taken.

The father of one of our violinists, who now runs a very successful violin business in the city, was also present during the bombing of Hanoi and said that although there was absolutely nothing to eat during this time, people waited in line for hours to get a chance to practice on the single functioning piano, any time of day or night.

Geir told me that students had to dig practice rooms before they could use them. There’s an Australian TV documentary called Vietnam Symphony about this extraordinary story which is now top of my watch pile.

Mrs Giang stopped making movies once they became too commercial and is now a respected painter. She showed me a photo album of pictures from her heyday – one with Jane Fonda who had come over on a war protest mission, others with prime ministers, intellectuals, statesmen, the rich, the famous. Unaffected by her celebrity status she is as wise as she is beautiful and the fact she doesn’t speak English didn’t hamper communication at all. Whatever “it” is, she’s got it in droves.

urlAs ludicrously handsome as Tra is beautiful, Atle Sponberg instantly became a violin god for the SCM kids, and inspired all with his spectacular playing, insider knowledge of Argentinian tango music and ability to drink limitless quantities Vietnamese killer coffee, each cup the equivalent of at least ten espressos. Principal of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra for sixteen years and member of at least a couple of extremely expensive international string quartets, Atle is unfazed by group dynamics and handled our excitable charges with quiet authority, doubtless assisted by the art of his new tailor and lifelong talent for snooker.

His advice to one of the star struck boy students on how to improve his tango playing: “Think of the girls, Andrew, think of the girls.”

(One or two of the students liked to be called by English names, although I much preferred to go through the daily entertainment of trying to get somewhere near pronouncing the real thing.)

Atle told me that in his view there have only ever been two genii: Mozart and Ronnie O’Sullivan.

photo 4It’s hard to describe quite how intense those two hot heady sleepless weeks were, with the daily group early morning warm up and pep talk sessions, full coaching days, concerts, workshops, public seminars, often in the presence of TV, radio, journalists and photographers, official dinners lurking in the shadows plus daily schedule to organise.

Our trio in action on live telly. We hit on the matching colour scheme completely by accident, yet another of the countless small miracles that characterised this trip.

Atle’s laid back confidence was the perfect antidote to my occasionally OCD hyper zeal, as was our more or less constant coping strategy of pretending we were special agents in a combat zone and nightly exploration of Saigon’s rooftop bars, a combo that led to completely clash-free teamwork, surely a miracle given the extreme scenarios we negotiated on a daily basis.

photo 5One of these involved a last minute workshop and performance at a children’s cultural centre somewhere in the city. The noise was cataclysmic.

With genius crowd psychology, a bunch of inspired, highly amplified and extremely camp group leaders got these kids singing, playing, clapping, yelling, happily slapping each other around and eventually doing a full-on gay disco dance sequence after which they THEN got them sitting down and listening attentively to our lot playing a very slow, slow movement of the Schumann piano 4tet.

After this lot, can you imagine what it felt like landing HERE?

photo 4This is Da Nang, the place on the mid Vietnamese coast where the French invaded, followed by the Americans. How anyone could manage to invade anything here is unthinkable. The hot sensuous winds rustling the swaying coconut palms breathe of love, the shoals of flying fish leaping in the warm gentle sea of abundant life, the phosphoresce in the moonlit waves of magic, of the Goddess, of Eros.

We were here for a final concert and masterclass session. Banners for our concert were splashed over the entire town.

This was Da Nang’s first EVER chamber music concert, again taken for live TV and radio. The children and parents who showed up at the class the following day pleaded with us to return and teach. Aside from a few classical guitar teachers, descendants of Sa’s husband’s class back at the HCMC conservatoire, there is pretty much zero classical music training here, and no concerts to speak of. Once again, it was down to the dedication of a few visionary souls determined to bring art music to the people who somehow managed to get us on board and persuade our fabulous hotel to sponsor our visit.

photo 5It took six men the entire day to tune the piano in time for the evening show. Pianos and piano tuners don’t really exist in this part of Vietnam.

While we’re in this tropical paradise part of the post, mention should be made of Saint-Saëns who, unbeknownst to most, visited Vietnam in 1895. He’d agreed to finish his late teacher Ernest Guiraud’s unfinished opera Brunhilde during the trip, and needed a quiet spot to write.

A seasoned traveller (not always for the most wholesome reasons) he chose the idyllic Poulo-Condor island in the Côn Đảo archipelago, which turned out to embody the outer extremes of both heaven and hell.

imgres-10From the front of his composing hut the composer of La Cygne could see the azure waters of a blissful tropical lagoon, whilst a few metres behind him stood one of the most notoriously blood-drenched political prisons of the entire region, used in grim succession by the French, Vietnamese and the Americans. Many of the inmates had been incarcerated for decades in unimaginable conditions.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Not the first composer that pops to mind when you think of Vietnam. For the record, his opera “Samson and Delilah” topped the bill at the 1900-01 opening season at The Théâtre Municipal de Saigon.

Appalled by the misery of the chain gangs paraded in front of him each morning and unable to work within earshot of such inhuman cruelty he left the island, but not without first writing a letter to the prison governor begging him to release the inmates for good.

photo 1Incredibly, the letter did the trick, the men were released, and there’s now a Saint-Saëns museum on the island. Geir Johnson describes trying to find the museum for several days (it’s not a big island) and eventually stumbling into it by accident one night whilst en route to the restaurant loo. Apparently it contains a few faded LP covers of S-Saens hits, and a carefully framed copy of the famous letter to the governor.

View from the private beach of our Da Nang hotel. At night the sea gleamed with phosphorescence, one of the most magical sights I have ever witnessed, aided by a tropical full moon..

One of the systems of thought inherited by the Vietnamese from the Chinese was Taoism, that most elusive of philosophies. Based on the principle of duality, yin yang, and the eternal balance twixt two, for me it helps make sense of the many contradictions and paradoxes of this beautiful and troubled land. Within this system of thought, the greatest evil that has existed here must also be balanced by it’s absolute opposite.

photo 3And this I experienced in our final concert with all our students in our final performance at the conservatoire, a night of pure joy, pure light, one of the happiest of my life.

Here I am, just about to go on stage to chat to the audience with the assistance of Sa’s professional translating services (her extensive CV also includes a stint with the UN…). 

Every one of the students played their hearts out, giving to the best of their ability. The audience was enraptured and for many it was the most memorable concert that they had ever been to. Whilst the notes may not have been perfect, the intent behind them was and the music had tremendous power as a result.

Whilst leafing through a spot of philosophical Taoism, I came across this beautiful aphorism by its founder, Lao Tzu:

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”

It’s clear that the seeds of music’s healing force have been firmly planted in Vietnam and that as the greatest art produced by one great civilisation becomes devalued on it’s home soil, it is rising with even greater strength in another. A Taoist scenario if ever there was one.

I’ll leave you with the text (or SMS for you non-Brit readers) I sent to Atle on the way back to London.

“Made it to Bangkok after unexpected skirmish on runway and a couple of sniper setbacks. Viktor says arrangements are in place for you tonight. Go to level 53. Codeword Sven. Don’t look down.  We’re moving out.  Mission successful.”

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Until the next Z Blog, may your souls be full of music…


You can follow the progress of Saigon Chamber music on their Facebook page. They badly need more cash to maintain and expand the programme, so if you have any to spare, do get in touch. Big plans are afoot….

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From left to right: Sa, Tra, moi, Geir, Minh and Atle.

Post script:

By the way, if you’re thinking of popping over to ‘Nam, there is now a fabulous brand new and comprehensive guide on the 50 best things to do in Vietnam on Lonely Planet’s sister site, “Your RV Lifestyle”. It is completely free and you can find it here: