The music of refuge

Keith Gallasch

soft silk…rough linen is the title of an emotionally charged, simply staged (a small orchestra including 2 singers playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, 2 speakers and slide projections) work from City Moon and The Seymour Group. It is expanded in the program notes to the aphoristic “never dream of soft silk…never despise rough linen.” The fusion of text (Vietnamese poetry from the 18th century to the present and current political statements about refugees) and music (traditional Vietnamese and contemporary Western) creates rather a nice dialectic (rather than simple opposition) between the smooth and the rough, between the simple and the sophisticated. The poetry is elegantly imagistic next to the rawness of the politics of refugee-bashing, while the traditional components of the music speak with immediacy and strangeness amidst the more familar language of modernism. The music is by Ngoc-Tuan Hoang. The process of compositions sounds intriguing:

I did not “write” the music as a conventional Western composer would do, but I was working with the ensemble to “make” the music…In our workshops I gave to the ensemble some musical materials (a Vietnamese folk tune, a poem sung in different ways due to different dialects, a note with different timbral changes due to linguistic inflections, for instance), and we together explored possibilities on the Western instruments and experimented with how to create a suitable soundscape for the Vietnamese poetry chanting.

The Seymour Group and Ngoac-Tuan Hoang (performing with Dang Lan) carry off this synthesis with verve, while the show’s director and librettist (and speaker with Phong Do) Bruce Keller marshalls the poetic and political texts with a mix of delicacy and didactic fervour. The litany of statements from politicians and observers of the growing international refugee crisis are given an additional charge by being chorally recited by the performers. Although fundamentally effective this is one component of the work where the linen is, for me, a bit too rough-the collective choral skill of the company simply doesn’t correspond with the instrumental and solo vocal abilities. Even so, the commitment of the company to these unaccompanied passages is never in doubt, and the construction of the first is striking in its spatial deployment of voices.

soft silk…rough linen is an engaging cross cultural experience, a fruitful cross-artform collaboration and another example (coming soon after Richard Vella’s Tales of Love in the same venue) of a concert work enriched by the layering of simple performative and visual elements. The participation of 3 Vietnamese refugees, including the composer, in the performance lent it poignancy.

The Seymour Group & City Moon (Vietnamese Australian Contemporary Theatre Company), soft silk…rough linen, Parammata Riverside Theatres, March 2, 8pm

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002