Music & Speech

Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.

The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.

 

Mưa Sớm

Hanoi shop keepers — because their goods spill out onto the sidewalk — have a seemingly infallible sixth sense about when it is going to rain. When you see them putting up their awnings or moving things indoors, take cover because it will rain soon (mưa sớm).

How Old Are You?

It’s common in Vietnam to be asked your age, even by people you don’t know very well. In the little restaurant I’ve been going to on Lư Quốc Sư, the woman who owns the place has been kind enough to tolerate my halting Vietnamese & I have achieved the status of a regular customer. So the other evening, as she was cleaning up my table, she asked, “Ông bao nhiêu tuổi?” and when I replied “Sáu mười một” (sixty-one), she replied, “Khỏe!” which means “healthy,” but in this context meant something more like, “Wow! Not bad for an old guy!”