This article appeared in the Experimental Musical Instruments Volume 12 #1, accompanied by a generous helping of photos of Ta Tham and his instruments.

©Copyright 1996 Jason Gibbs


by Jason Gibbs

Tucked into a comer of the Hanoi Music Conservatory campus is a spare building that doubles as the workshop and living space for Ta Tham and his crew of musical instrument artisans. The front room is both a living room and an instrument showroom; the back room is where the work is done, evidenced by the wood trimmings, an assortment of bamboo tubes, and the various manual and power tools found throughout the room (see Example 1, putting the finishing touches on a dan bau in Ta Tham’s workshop). Upon entering the building, one cannot help but notice the variety of unusual instruments hanging from the walls. These are both traditional instruments of Vietnam and instruments of Ta Tham’s invention.

Ta Tham was born in 1929. He came of age during the time Vietnam was fighting for its freedom from France and took part in the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Soon after North Vietnam achieved its independence he enrolled in the first class at the Hanoi Conservatory in 1956 where he studied both classical Western and traditional Vietnamese instruments. While studying the violin and the piano, he came to realize that these instruments were the result of continuous improvement and development over time and asked himself why Vietnamese instruments should not also benefit from such improvement. Many traditional Vietnamese string instruments are soft in volume, better suited to playing in intimate chamber settings or personal contemplation than for the concert stage. He felt that instruments needed to be built with fuller resonance and louder volume. Another dream behind his work and research has been to create a Vietnamese orchestra made up of instruments with a degree of expression and precision and in a variety of tessitura like the Western orchestra.

In 1957 he set out to research Vietnamese traditional instruments in order to understand their history and construction with a view towards improving them. From that time he also began to design his own instruments. In a traditional society like that of Vietnam, going against the grain and venturing into new areas is often not encouraged and Ta Tham’s visions were often neglected and at times even obstructed by the musical authorities. For this reason he often had to work independently. This independence, however, made it difficult to earn a living. Periods of poverty slowed the realization of his dreams. At times, he had to work in rice fields, as a laborer and even as a fisherman in order to support his research. Despite many years when he hid his work for fear of derision, he was rewarded in 1987 when he won several national prizes for his inventions. He has been building traditional instruments at the National Conservatory of Music for several years already. During their American tour in October 1995, I met several Vietnamese musicians touring with the Thang Long Water Puppet group from Ha noi, some of whom used traditional instruments constructed in Ta Tham’s workshop.

Ta Tham’s invented instruments use the raw materials common to traditional instruments, such as hard and soft woods, various sizes of bamboo, gourds, etc… He bases his inventions not only on the instruments of the ethnic Vietnamese, but also upon those of Vietnam’s many ethnic minorities. To further his research, he has traveled extensively in North Vietnam’s mountainous regions, searching out the instruments of the country’s minority peoples. During my stay in Ha noi in 1995 he took several trips to Hoa Binh, a city on the edge of mountainous home of the Muong people.

Vietnam is best known for its string instruments, like the 16 string zither dan tranh a cousin of the Chinese zheng, the Japanese koto and the Korean kayagum; the 4 string lute dan ty ba a cousin of the Chinese p’i p’a and the Japanese biwa; the dan nguyet, the 2-stringed moon-shaped lute; and the dan nhi, the two stringed bowed lute (similar to the tro duong from Cambodia). There are also a wide range of percussion instruments like drums (trong), woodblocks (mo and phach), bells (chuong and qua nhac) and gongs (cong and thanh la), and castanets (senh). Two string instruments unique to Vietnam are the dan bau, or monochord, and the dan day, a 3 string lute used primarily in hat a dao music, a highly literary entertainment song form performed by professional singers. Vietnam’s many minority peoples have also created a wide range of distinctive musical instruments.

Many of Ta Tham’s instruments are hybrids of existing Vietnamese instruments. In Example 2 is a dan bau made of a mixture of wood and bamboo with two strings and necks allowing for two fundamentals and two harmonic series. [Readers on the World Wide Web: most of the photos are not included with the as posted here on the EMI web site. They do appear in the print version of the article in Experimental Musical Instruments Volume 12 #1, Sept. 1996.] On the right is his Nam Tranh Kep, using design characteristics of two traditional instruments, the angular-shaped dan day and the flower-shaped dan sen. It has two necks, each with a string one made of silk, one made of metal. The Trang Thau (example 3) is based on the moon-shaped dan nguyet, that uses the heightened frets common to Vietnamese lutes allowing for liberal pitch bending. An innovation of the Trang Thau is the adoption of two different fret systems side by side. In example 4, Ta Tham is pictured with what he called, in French, a contrabasse vietnamienne, in fact modeled on the much smaller tinh tau lute used by shamans of the minority Thai people of northwestern Vietnam.

Many of Ta Tham’s creations are percussion instruments. The nhac tien (example 5) is a variation on the traditional song loan and senh tien. It has a clapper connected to a woodblock like the former and a number of rattling coins, augmented by bells like the latter. The dan mo trau (example 6) uses a series of tuned water buffalo-shaped cowbells that are rattled side to side.

In a traditional country like Vietnam, there is no concept of experimental music like we have in the West there is no avant-garde to speak of. Vietnam’s cultural policy encourages the unity of the nation’s peoples and the development of culture that serves them. An inventor of musical instruments like Ta Tham is less interested discovering new sounds or performance techniques than in working with the raw materials and musical system at hand. He is curious about activities outside Vietnam and is interested in meeting his colleagues in the world of musical instrument invention. You can probably find him and workshop at the Hanoi Conservatory.

If one sound had to be chosen to evoke Vietnam, for many it would be the sound of the dan bau, also known as the dan doc huyen (single-string instrument). The word bau means gourd and refers to the dried gourd fastened to the handle, surrounding the string at the point where is connects to the handle. In the past this gourd may have served as a resonator, but today it survives as a decorative feature. Nowadays the dan bau is constructed using hardwood for a frame and softwood for the surface. The handle is made of flexible carved bamboo or water buffalo horn, and the string is made of metal. At the present time it is almost always amplified (example 7, a dan bau side by side with gourd). Historically the dan bau was played by blind street musicians or xam. The earlier dan bau xam (example 8) is constructed from a split bamboo tube. It used a silk string and occasionally substitutes a half coconut shell for the dried gourd. In the days before amplification a trunk could be placed under the instrument as a resonator.

Historical records trace the invention of the dan bau to 1770. but some scholars have claimed earlier origins and antecedents for the instrument. Some speculate that it originates from a string stretched from the teeth, others believe its antecedent is the trong quan — a « drum » consisting of a rope fastened to the ground at both ends stretched over pole that serves a bridge. This pole is positioned over a trunk, or empty pit that serves as a resonator. Ta Tham believes it originates from the tan mang, an instrument of the Muong minority constructed from a bamboo tube with a bamboo thread carved from out of it that is plucked like a string. None of these instruments, however, employ harmonics, the performance technique that makes the dan bau unique. It uses these harmonics exclusively, produced at nodes at 1/2, 1/3, l/4, 1/5 and 1/6 the length of the string. A small bamboo plectrum held in the right hand plucks the string while the lower side of the hand stops the string at the appropriate node. The left hand moves the handle to bend the pitch downward by moving in the direction of the instrument, or upward by pushing the handle away from the instrument. The pitch can bend as much as a 4th or 5th in either direction. The left hand also produces a variety of vibratos, glissandos and grace notes. The instrument’s virtuosity and expressiveness are to found in its left hand technique, which should have a subtlety that mimics the sound of the Vietnamese singing voice or declaimed poetry.

Traditionally the dan bau has played in the groups of blind musicians, in Vietnamese chamber music (nhac tai tu). More recently it also takes part in the ensembles of cheo and cai luong theatrical music. In Vietnam today there is a growing virtuosic literature with solo works and concertos for the dan bau.

Jason Gibbs is a composer, bassoonist and librarian living in San Francisco. He can be reached at PO Box 420217, San Francisco CA 94142, or by e-mail at Jasong@sfpl.lib.ca.us

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