Musical Fusion for Modern Ears in Vân-Ánh Võ's '3L: Love, Life, Loss'

Vân-Ánh Võ performs 3L: Love, Loss, Life at the San Jose Museum of Art on June 20, 2019. (Courtesy of Sangam Arts)

Vân-Ánh Võ started studying music in Vietnam at the age of four. She trained with six different musical masters. "We have 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam, and we have so many different genres! But regardless of what regions they come from, they shared the same thing: the same quality of belief. Music doesn't have borders. Culture doesn't have borders."

Võ lives in Fremont now with her husband and children, and her work here as a musician and composer resonates with U.S. audiences. She's won an Emmy, collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, and played at top venues like the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. She's even played a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. (At 6:30 in, listen to her witty take on Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 3, performed on the dan Bau.)

So it was the South Bay non-profit Sangam Arts commissioned Võ to writing something new blending the Vietnamese, Chicano and African-American cultural traditions of the Santa Clara Valley.

Võ started as she typically does, by interviewing people to hear their life stories. "To share the voices of immigrants, the strength that immigrants bring to this country, the ways that our immigrants built this country, right? Altogether," she said.

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The national conversation around immigration is toxic these days — even as, here in the Bay Area, we live alongside multiple cultures, many of which blend in remarkably harmonious ways. "In a time like this, it’s important that we have more music, more stories to share, to connect everyone together," Võ said.

From left to right: Mikhael Khalikulov (cello, viola, electric bass) , Jimi Nakagawa (taiko, percussion), Joshua Mellinger (frame drum, trap set, tabla, marimba), Megan Ai, Vân-Ánh Võ (đàn tranh).
From left to right: Mikhael Khalikulov (cello, viola, electric bass) , Jimi Nakagawa (taiko, percussion), Joshua Mellinger (frame drum, trap set, tabla, marimba), Megan Ai, Vân-Ánh Võ (đàn tranh). (Courtesy of Sangam Arts)

But how to communicate that idea musically without it sounding awkward, or forced? This is where you find Võ in her element as a border crossing artist.

For instance, in her research for 3L: Love, Life, Loss, she discovered two traditional spiritual songs: Cô Côi Thượng Ngàn from Vietnam, and Viene La Muerte Echando Rasero from Mexico. Both reflect on mortality, but also resonate musically.

"They both start out with the major key, and then they both change into minor key when the song go into the body of it, and then they both end the phrase with the same chord structure and start the phrase with the same chord structure! They are very different in rhythm, but they actually work side by side. Isn't that amazing?" Võ said with infectious enthusiasm.

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Sure enough, when you hear Queen of the Night, the second movement of 3L: Love, Life, Los, her argument is readily apparent. It is a natural fit.

 In 3L: Love, Life, Loss, Võ’s ensemble includes musicians who specialize in Japanese taiko drumming, marimba, and cello, among other things. She employs traditional Vietnamese instruments to make sounds and melodies that delight modern ears. In a similar fashion, Võ pulls forward bouncy rhythms to make heady spiritual themes accessible. 

It's a talent she demonstrates on most of the projects she works on, like The Odyssey: From Vietnam to America, a multimedia suite about the terrors the boat people faced.

Võ explains she only engages in work that feel personally meaningful for her. "My work has to have a message. It has to have something for people to go home and talk about." 

3L: Love, Loss, Life runs June 22, 2019 at Sunnyvale Theater in Sunnyvale. For more information, click here.

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