Innerviews, music without borders

Nguyên Lê
Calling to Another World
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2016 Anil Prasad.

Nguyen Le

The pursuit of musical hybrids comes naturally to composer and guitarist Nguyên Lê. In fact, he’d be the first to acknowledge he’s a hybrid himself. He was born in Paris to Vietnamese parents. The combination of that city’s diverse global musical culture and his desire to connect with his origins have yielded one of the most unique jazz worldviews imaginable.

In a Lê composition or recording, virtually any combination of musical possibilities can emerge. Vietnamese, Arabic, African, Indian, Japanese, symphonic, rock, jazz, pop, and funk influences have all found a home in his work. His nomadic approach is borne out of a personal vision that involves no boundaries between musics. It’s a perspective one can experience across his 16 solo albums and dozens of collaborative recordings to date.

Even with his penchant for pursuing the unexpected, Lê’s latest recording project was a surprise to many: an interpretation of the entirety of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Created in collaboration with Hamburg’s acclaimed NDR Bigband, Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon reimagines the classic rock album through a very personal lens. His goal was to take the album’s universal subject matter of material desire, alienation, aging, and death, and unite it with universal musical influences. Jazz, fusion, funk, Vietnamese, and other global sounds are woven into the iconic album’s fabric to engaging effect.

Lê is involved in many other current projects. He’s created and performed a live score for A Page of Madness, the 1926 silent film by Teinosuke Kinugasa. He worked closely with composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s as the key soloist on his epic Symphony No. 5 project. Lê also continues performing with his cross-cultural Saiyuki trio, featuring Prabhu Edouard on tabla and Mieko Miyazaki on koto. In addition, Lê regularly joins forces with multi-instrumentalist, composer and vocalist Vân-Ánh Võ for concerts in the U.S. and Vietnam.

Innerviews met Lê in his home studio situated in the midst of the 10th arrondissement in Paris. Like his music, the area reflects a mosaic of people from every conceivable origin and demographic. His studio is overflowing with exotic guitars, percussion instruments, effects, and recording gear. Lê is decked out in black clothing, with pants featuring an artfully-embroidered octopus. He’s relaxed and in his element. Fueled by green tea and Petit Ecolier biscuits, the soft-spoken Lê opened took a deeply philosophical approach when exploring his career trajectory.

Nguyen Le

Describe how the Celebrating the Dark Side of the Moon project came about.

The album was the idea of Siggi Loch, who runs my label ACT, as well as NDR Radio in Hamburg. Initially, I was going to be the key soloist of the project with Michael Gibbs from the NDR Bigband doing all the arrangements. I said “Of course, I’d love to be the soloist, but I’d also love to write arrangements, too.” For me, it has become important for me to possess everything I’m doing. [laughs] I knew the guys from the NDR Bigband and they’re all very open-minded. They accepted my proposal and said “Good idea.” So, I wrote my first arrangement, which was for “Money” and they liked it very much. That led me to doing the majority of the arrangements on the album.

How did Dark Side of the Moon influence you growing up?

When I was a teenager, it wasn’t a main musical reference. I preferred bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. Pink Floyd was either too experimental or too soft for me. Of course, the album was there and everyone, including me, knew it. What I love most about the album is its ambience and vibe. The whole progressive rock era is one of psychedelic poetry to me. The bands were always researching. They always wanted to find new ways to create sounds. It’s similar to the world of jazz and its attitude of diving into the unknown.

You were dealing with one of the biggest-selling, most well-known albums in history. That must have created both an artistic and credibility risk for you. How did you handle that pressure?

I almost didn’t think about those things because I wasn’t a first-degree Pink Floyd fan. When I did my Purple - Celebrating Jimi Hendrix album, I wasn't a huge fan of Hendrix either. I didn’t sleep with his albums under my pillow like some guitarists. At the same time, in both cases, I understood the historic weight of the material I was working with. So, when I started working on arrangements, I really dug into all of the information I could find about the albums, including the lyrics. It’s all part of the poetry. After that process, I shifted into the realm of my own inspiration.

As far as credibility goes, I love challenges. Some musicians only want to do their own thing and develop their own material. My concept is whatever the project, it’s important to bring my own identity into it. The world is a very big place to me. What that means is my goal as a guitarist and composer is to express myself in every situation. I want to deliver unique approaches and sounds, including Vietnamese and North African influences, even if I’m doing Hendrix or Floyd. No matter what the material, I’m still the same musician.

I try to make all of this material my own. The idea is repossessing the material and reconsidering it as if I had written it. My attitude is “Now, it’s my tune. I’m going to do whatever I want with it.” I realize it’s not true—that it isn’t my tune—but it’s an approach that allows me to bring something new to it. It can even go the other way around when it's about playing the music of others and being a sideman. I believe the best way to play other composers’ music is to play it as if I had written it myself, with the same dedication.

Describe how you went inside the material to reimagine it.

Let’s use “Us and Them” as an example. It’s a very simple song as many Floyd tunes are. I understood that my own ideas had to be rooted in the original piece. I also understood that the delay on the vocal was very important to the song. I thought “I think I can develop the repetitive element even further.” If you talk about repetition with me, I think about Asia and immediately go to the gamelan. So, I came up with the idea of creating a gamelan arrangement for the tune, with every musician playing one specific part that builds up to create polyrhythms. However, the original melody remained the same. Even on my album Tales From Viet-Nam in which I worked with traditional Vietnamese rhythms, I kept the vocal melody totally pure, but added bass and guitar between the phrases. I typically like keeping the melody intact, but everything else changes below and behind it. That's my main way of keeping a close and respectful relationship to the rewritten material.

On some pieces, you serve as the lead vocal line via guitar. How did you balance the David Gilmour guitar parts with the vocal parts you’re also performing?

That was part of the challenge. In fact, it wasn’t my idea to have the guitar so centered. If you look at my catalog, I’m not always the one who plays the melody in the music. Stefan Gerdes from NDR Radio wanted to have either duets or duels between the guitar and big band. After some thinking, I decided that was an exciting idea. Typically, I never take the role of the singer on guitar. Taking a vocal and turning it into an instrumental line can sometimes be very corny. I try to avoid it. But going back to facing challenges, I said “Okay, I’m going to try and do this.” One of the best examples of a guitarist taking the lead vocal melody is Jeff Beck. He does it so well. He’s really the lead singer of the guitar planet. So, I thought a lot about him when I did this project. Also, when you put the guitar in the center of a project, it changes the mix. The instrument has to be mixed like a singer and that means it’s loud. [laughs]

Was there any pressure involved in interpreting Gilmour’s iconic guitar parts, known by the more than 50 million people that bought Dark Side of the Moon?

I like Gilmour a lot. He really has a unique sound and is of course, very lyrical, but I didn’t care much about that concern. I heard the guitar parts and knew they were by Gilmour, but for me, it’s just part of the composition. The way I think about it is it’s now “my composition.” [laughs] In addition to considering his parts for guitar, I also redistributed some of them to the orchestration of the big band.

Nguyen Le

There are five new track titles inserted into the running order of the album, which I found intriguing. Describe your decision to do that.

All of those new titles are part of the new arrangements of the tunes. So, you’ll see “Inspire” before “Breathe.” In fact, “Inspire” is already part of “Breathe.” I said to myself “It might be valuable for the audience to understand which parts are mine and which are just arrangements.” These parts are often very far from the original music. Sometimes, there’s no obvious reference to any melody of the original, so I felt I could allow myself to have some new titles in the running order to signify “that’s my part.” This was done after the fact. During the creative process, everything was part of a global arrangement.

One thing I like to say is “Arranging is about working on music which doesn’t need you.” I love that idea. Hendrix, Floyd and traditional Vietnamese music are already great by themselves. So, the challenge becomes repositioning the original material. I look at the process as one that’s about question marks. It’s as if “Money” said to me “Okay, here I am. What are you going to do with me?” [laughs] It really is a dialog. I say something and then “Money” says something back. I have to answer “Money” with something of my own.

Walk me through how you created your arrangement of “Money.”

It’s an interesting tune because it was one of the first pop songs written in 7/8. I wanted to keep the 7 beat idea. I thought to myself “How can I develop this iconic bass riff?” I felt the melody was less important than the bass riff. One way to keep the 7 beat was to use double time and within double time, do lots of funky syncopation. This goes deep into the groove and gives it a funky vintage vibe. I also felt there were some questions and answers to deal with between the original melody and counterpoint for saxophone. The point at which the saxophone solo emerges on the original version wasn’t very interesting to me. So, I thought, given that I want to keep the 7, I’ll create some darker rhythms, keep them modal, and also go into some Oriental modes too.

The tune develops in many different ways in this arrangement. The final version finds us starting in funky, vintage double time, then we have the guitar solo done in a psychedelic way accompanied by Oriental polyrhythms—two bars of 7 divided in 3+3+5+3. Then comes another groove, still in 7, in which we play the main theme with many variations. Next is a West African inspired groove with lots of ostinatos around. Then we get to the big coda, which is a reharmonization of the bridge melody, but in 3/4 half-time. So, we start in double time and end in half-time. The coda is based on a North African clave I learned from Karim Ziad, but it’s so slow, you won’t recognize it. For live concerts with my band, I even added a new coda to support a drum solo. It adds another unheard "sad" mood to the tune based on a reharmonization of the bass line. I love to write stories. This arrangement shows the many faces of Roger Waters’ tune. Going from one to the other creates a journey down an unexpected path.

Describe how you incorporated Vietnamese elements into the album.

For some listeners, they’ll seem hidden, but I like that. The most obvious example is the guitar solo in “Any Colour You Like.” It’s easier to sound Vietnamese on a soft tune, because that’s the way traditional music usually is. It’s not loud or rhythmic. I like being able to apply things I’ve learned from traditional Vietnamese music and incorporate them into high energy, very rhythmic situations. “Any Colour You Like” has a very difficult groove in 9, sometimes in 5+4, sometimes 3x3, with many complex subdivisions. I’m using lots of quarter tones which I learned from Cai Luong music, which is the theater music from South Vietnam. It’s very specific when it comes to vibrato, quarter tones and phrasings. I put them into this fusion guitar solo.

Youn Sun Nah contributes vocals to several tracks. What made her ideal for the project?

It took time to find the right singer. The original concept was for the guitar to be in the center, but NDR Radio also wanted to have three songs sung. It also wasn’t easy to incorporate a singer because of the power of the big band, and because the score wasn’t written with the singer in the center as usual. For the last tune, “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” Michael Gibbs wrote an arrangement with the band in unison with the vocalist, which is something you don't do if you don't want the singer to be drowned out. It was my idea to use Youn Sun Nah because she can deliver incredible energy and was able to play off the power of the big band. Especially in this tune, we worked hard on finding spots where she could contribute to the question-and-answer thing I discussed earlier. She’s not always singing the melody at the typical place because the melody is also played by the band. Essentially, she’s answering to the original melody.

I’ve known Youn Sun for a long time. She used to live in Paris and we got along very well. We have a shared background, so there are a lot of things we don’t have to talk about when it comes to music. We just make music. She seemed a natural for this project. She can sing softly and intimately and also deliver lots of power when needed.

Nguyen Le

How did Gary Husband get involved with the album?

The big band wanted Gary involved which I was very happy about. I admire him and had never played with him before. He was so committed to the thing. He knew all the music inside and out. He also understands that when you’re a drummer in a big band, your job isn’t just to play what’s written, but also what’s not written—all the figures and the things you need to play inside the hits which brings the band together tightly.

You also have a new band called The Dark Side Nine dedicated to playing your Dark Side of the Moon arrangements. Tell me about it.

Playing with a big band is very expensive and very difficult to plan. The NDR Bigband is also very busy. I wanted to be able to take my score on the road, so I created a band built around my Songs of Freedom quintet, with Illya Amar on vibraphone, Gergo Borlai on drums, Romain Labaye on bass and Himiko Paganotti on vocals. Next, I added four horns: Stéphane Guillaume on tenor, soprano sax and flute, Sylvain Gontard on trumpet, Daniel Zimmermann on trombone, and Céline Bonacina on baritone and alto sax. Initially, I thought I could do a simple reduction of the big band arrangements, but what I realized is I had to rewrite a lot of things to make it work with fewer musicians. The concerts have gone really well.

What was it like to take part in Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No. 5 project?

When I first got the call, I was asked to be the guitar soloist in this kind of concerto for electric guitar, symphonic orchestra and big band, without any input into the arrangements. It looked interesting, so I said “Great, let’s do this.” Then time passed and nothing happened. I asked the producer “Can you send me the sheet music?” He replied “I’ll try to find something.” Finally, the answer was “Nothing is written.” I realized it’s a guitar concerto for improvised guitar. Only the intro and outro of the parts were written. So, for me this was paradise. [laughs] For an average music reader like me, contemporary classical music can often be very difficult to read and interpret within the orchestra. I’m not that kind of guitarist, so I was a little worried initially, but when we started the rehearsals it was so exciting. It was also so loud. [laughs] The composer also kept asking me to play louder.

The composition is written for guitar, big band and symphonic orchestra. It’s very heavy. It’s like music from the inside of the earth. Imagine lava and volcanoes and you’ll understand the kind of energy the composition represents. I had to play with that same energy.

Erkki is a wonderful, crazy guy. His path is very interesting. He started out as a rock musician and turned into a very serious composer. He’s very gentle, but the music he writes is very complex and intense.

Saiyuki, with Prabhu Edouard on tabla and Mieko Miyazaki on koto, is another important ongoing band of yours. It combines Vietnamese, Indian and Japanese elements. How deeply do you personally explore those musics in order to make them all work together?

It's a really interesting band to consider in that I’ve chosen not to be the leader of it. I would even say it's a political decision because what we do is world music in the real sense, which is giving an equal voice to every part of the world. We’re all leaders. The idea of creating this band is to show that there are no borders within Asian music. I wanted to show the identity and beauty of each country and civilization. Prabhu and Mieko are both traditional musicians. They aren’t jazz musicians, but they’re both super open-minded and ready for every improvisation and unexpected challenge.

As for what I do in Saiyuki, I just go for it. [laughs] I’ve studied the Japanese modes. I initially learned Indian elements by ear and then studied them. But when you play with musicians, it’s a completely different experience. You suddenly realize the truth of the musics you’re working with.

What made you want to create a score for A Page of Madness, the 1926 silent film by Teinosuke Kinugasa?

The Musée des Confluences in Lyon, France asked me to do three concerts in December 2014. The theme of the concert was the music of Asia, because the museum has collections from all over the continent. Saiyuki was the center of the concerts. We did “Saiyuki in India” and “Saiyuki in Vietnam” concerts. The third one was about performing a score for A Page of Madness. I thought it was a great occasion to do this particular piece. At one point, I saw every Asian silent movie I could find and encountered this one. Its intensity and creativity is fantastic, both on the dramatic and technical sides, which is fascinating considering this was the beginning of cinema. It also has many cryptic elements and themes. I fell in love with it and wanted to score it.

It’s a very dark movie about madness. A woman, who tried to drown her child, is shut in a psychiatric hospital, where her husband takes a job as a janitor in order to help her escape. But in fact, she doesn’t care. She’s afraid of the outside world. The movie looks at life inside the hospital with the other patients. It also looks at the daughter the woman tried to drown. The film shows her grown up, visiting the hospital to announce she’s getting married.

I precisely tracked every scene of the movie and created a score that corresponds to the theme of each one. It’s done very precisely with indexes created on Digital Performer. During the performance, I play the video from my laptop, because I needed complete synchronization between the pictures, the electronic grooves and noises I programmed, and the live music I wrote. It also enables musicians to play to the click so everything stays on track.

In addition to the band version, I’ve performed a solo version of the score, which is a very challenging thing to do. It puts me into atonal and dissonant territory in order to communicate the story. It’s a very exciting project for me to be a part of, because it has pushed me to work on some of the darkest and edgiest moods I've encountered so far.

You’ve collaborated with Vân-Ánh Võ several times in recent years. What’s your perspective on her approach to combining traditional Vietnamese music with other genres?

For me, Vân-Ánh is the symbol of new traditional musicians, and not just from Vietnam, but for musicians from all over the world. I call them "young traditional musicians of today." Vân-Ánh was educated by masters, so she knows the tradition inside and out, but at the same time, she is living in the modern world and is so open-minded. This attitude is the future. I have great hopes for these new, young traditional musicians in all cultures. I've met people like that in Korea, India, Morocco, Turkey, and Vietnam. These musicians are often conservatory-trained and read music better than I do. It’s fantastic—I can give them any music and they can play it on their typically diatonic instruments, whether it’s atonal or chromatic music. Vân-Ánh will do it on a dan-tranh, which is a pentatonic instrument. Because of musicians like Vân-Ánh, the future feels bright. I’m very happy that Vân-Ánh has a lot of recognition in America. She helps create a pathway for other local musicians who wouldn’t typically have access to wider acknowledgement. She’s been working with Kronos Quartet. She has no fear of collaborating with anyone. When she wants to do something, she goes for it and makes it happen.

Nguyen Le and Van-Anh Vo

Describe your relationship with Vietnam today.

Since my first album Miracles in 1989, I've been searching for a definition of Vietnamese soul in my art. I was born in Paris. I have Vietnamese parents, but grew up in French society, not speaking Vietnamese. I had to struggle to heal my broken relationship to Vietnam. I started with some very philosophical approaches as I tried to define this soul as an abstraction independent from the choice of notes and sounds. But I realized how wrong that approach was when I started my Tales from Viêt-Nam album in 1995 with Huong Thanh, the Paris-based singer. I learned so much working with live traditional musicians, feeling the good and the bad in the tangible interplay. I then produced four albums with or for her on ACT, all based on my new versions of traditional tunes.

With our band, we played in 2004 in Vietnam, but I was still missing something. I still felt I was a foreign musician for the local audience. Then in July 2011, thanks to Vân-Ánh Võ, I got invited to play my music in Hanoi with local musicians that were chosen by the producer of the show. Those days were pure joy for me. I met some wonderful musicians and singers who loved my music and were dying to learn from me. During the concerts, I could also feel the love and pride the audience had for me. The long search for my Vietnamese identity ended there. I realized I was very naturally Vietnamese! I think that situation was possible because the country has evolved so fast since the end of the war. Minds needed that time to open.

During the war, the North was closed and jazz, being American music, was forbidden. Now, I work in Vietnam twice a year, playing my own music, and collaborating with other musicians and singers. I also teach over there. Vietnam is becoming my second country. I even got invited twice to perform in America by Thuy Nga, a Vietnamese company based in Los Angeles. It's famous for producing huge Vietnamese pop shows in America. In 2015, I played two nights in a packed, 6,000-seat theater in Las Vegas with Cuong Vu, for a Vietnamese audience. Since then, I've met some wonderful "young traditional musicians of today" like Ngo Hong Quang and Hoang Anh Nguyên that I'm collaborating with as much as I can. Perhaps it's time for a second Tales from Viet-Nam album, to showcase and make the most of those new talents and new states of mind.

You’ve also started working with Baraji, a Korean group. Describe the nature of that collaboration.

In July 2015, I was invited by Youn Sun Nah to come play at the National Theater of Seoul with the traditional group Baraji. Youn Sun was the artistic director of a month-long festival dedicated to cultural exchanges between western and traditional Korean musicians. Baraji is a band focused on trance music with nine young musicians, including three girls on vocals and string instruments, and five men on percussion and horns.

For me, Korea has the most grooving and intense music of East Asia. Their percussion tradition is really happening. It’s strong, swinging, complex, heated, with lots of 3/4 and odd meters. It’s unique on that side of the world. Their melodic side—especially their vocals—is passionate and poignant with a very wide and characteristic vibrato. Think raw blues and hardcore flamenco. I’ve loved this music for many years. Million Waves, my first album on ACT, is named after a piece of Korean court music that inspired me.

Baraji is a band typical of these “young traditional musicians of today." They’re very strong in their identity. They’re virtuosos on their own path and are very open minded. I learned their pieces, transcribed them and wrote my guitar parts. Without fear, they played a difficult arrangement in 5/4 that I wrote for a traditional Vietnamese song. The singer even sang in Vietnamese. The first rehearsal wasn’t easy. I felt that their artistic director was afraid I would take up too much space and betray their identity. Two days later, the first concert was one the most intense stage performances I've ever experienced. There was so much emotion, magic, love, and joy that we burst into tears after the show. I'm so glad that we're going to play more in France soon.

You’ve led bands with some of the world’s most important jazz and world music performers. What’s your approach as a bandleader when you work with them?

That’s a big question. It’s a question I’ve started asking myself a lot these days. When I started out as a leader, it was always in the context of people performing my compositions. I naturally learned how to work with musicians early on. During that phase, I was just writing music for myself. Once I got involved with record companies, they would make you aware that you have to be positioned as a leader.

I think the first time I was aware of myself as a leader was when I made my first album Miracles in 1989 with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson. I didn’t think of myself as a leader. I was just giving my music to these guys. They’re so great that I didn’t have to say much at all. I was so surprised when Peter came up to me after a take and said “Nguyen, is what I played good? Did I play your music the way you imagined it?” I was only 25 and this legendary musician was asking me such a nice question. [laughs]

When I started touring after Miracles, I think I really learned how to lead. I had to direct the musicians on how loud and fast to play, of course. But there’s so much else involved in being a leader, including dealing with schedules and buying plane tickets for people. It’s all part of the leadership role. I truly do want my musicians to be happy in my band. They need to like the music, but I also ensure every one of them gets their own long solo spot. I learned to be a responsible band manager, but also to let go of things, in order to leave space and freedom for improvisation and expression.

How do you look back at Miracles?

It was such a great experience. It was the first chance I had to work with a record company which was willing to pay for production. They sent me to New York to record and allowed me to hire those incredible musicians. I learned so much during the sessions. I remember working on the tune “Question Mark” for it. It was the first swing tune I ever wrote. During the first take, I took a solo that was very jazz-like, inspired by bebop phrasing. I wasn’t happy with it. We did a second take and I decided to go with distortion and less notes. I was trying to sing with the instrument rather than phrase with it. If you listen to the tune, you can feel the moment happening when I’m doing the first note. There’s a brief pause during which everybody is surprised by the distortion sound. The band wasn’t prepared for it. That’s the take on the record and I was a lot happier with it. It was at that exact point when I learned I always have to be myself every time I play.

Is there a spiritual element involved in music for you?

Oh yes. It’s not religious or about a specific god, but it’s definitely a call to another world. I consider my instrument a tool. I’m not obsessed with guitar. I’m obsessed with music. I play guitar, almost by chance, and it works for me, so I’m still doing it. But I live in the world of music and in this world the best approach is to not try and control it. I’m in a kind of trance state when it comes to music. This is related to how I learned to play guitar. I never learned to play songs. It was more about a trance-like experience as I got into it. At some point, I became a lot more intellectual about it, because I love jazz. Jazz can be so theory-based. There are many theories to learn. At the same time, I always wanted to keep that feeling of the trance throughout everything I do. I’m always looking for the moment when I lose control and become the messenger for a voice from another world.