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TON-THAT Tiêt (b. 1933)
Les jardins d’autre monde (1987) [30:38]
Et la rivière chante l’éternité (2000) [16:38]
Poèmes (2004)a [13:29]
Ensemble Les Temps Modernes, Ensemble Thai-Haa
rec. Salle Varèse, CNSMD, Lyon, September 2006
HORTUS 046 [60:45]


Born in Hué (Vietnam), Ton-That Tiêt ( studied in Paris with Jean Rivier and André Jolivet. The latter undoubtedly had a great influence on Ton-That’s musical thinking, for his music is deeply imbued with mysticism. That element was part of Jolivet’s humanistic concern, as may be found in works such as Incantations, Mana, Mandala or Yin Yang. As with many Eastern composers of his and later generations, Ton-That Tiêt aims at a blend of Eastern and Western traditions, in much the same way, but often with different results, as Takemitsu, Tan Dun, Zhou Long, Nishimura, Hosokawa and his fellow countryman Nguyen Thien Dao (b. 1940).

Les jardins d’autre monde is in a single movement and consists of four tableaux linked by three short interludes. The tableaux evoke the four emperors who reigned in Hué during the 19th Century up to 1883, each of whom had a grave built for his afterlife. The graves are situated in a garden, and each grave and garden have thus a character of their own reflecting each emperor’s personality: the first emperor’s grave is "austere and majestic", that of the second is "geometric and mystic", that of the third who reigned a mere eight years is "peaceful and almost without character" whereas that of the last is "a garden full of life ... where Time ceases to exist". The work opens with an arresting gesture: heavy drum strokes and a wind chord suggesting some primitive Eastern instrument such as the shô (like a mouth organ). Then, each section evokes in often vivid instrumental touches the character of each grave. This colourful and attractive work is scored for a small mixed ensemble in which the harp’s part is prominent without being truly soloistic.

The layout of the string trio Et la rivière chante l’éternité is not unlike that of the preceding work, in that it, too, consists of three sections ("Chants") separated by three trios and two interludes, the whole played without break in an appropriately free-flowing structure.

Of the three works recorded here, Poèmes is the one in which East meets West, in the most explicit way since it is scored for the "Debussy trio" of flute, viola and harp and a Ca Trù trio – the latter on tape as I understand. First, a short piece of musical erudition: Ca Trù is a scholarly Eastern music type with its own precise rules as to modes, rhythms, ornamentation and even improvisation; and a Ca Trù ensemble consists of a singer, a lute and a drum; information drawn from the booklet. The work is based on poems by Li Po, and may be perceived as a suite of haikus, in turn introspective and vividly colourful, by way of brief, but telling brushstrokes. The piece ends with an accompanied recitation, in French, of a few words by Li Po I suppose. In many ways, this beautifully suggestive work is similar to Tan Dun’s Out of Peking Opera, Qigang Chen’s Iris dévoilée or Zhou Long’s Out of Tang Court, which all confront and at times reconcile Eastern and Western musical traditions while clearly eschewing any all-too-easy picturesque clichés.

These often beautiful works are characterised by remarkable subtlety and great sonic refinement, and each is perfectly balanced so that none outstays its welcome. Ton-That Tiêt’s sound-world is entirely his own, but it clearly demonstrates that music transcends all borders and is able to address any audience willing to take the plunge. If you know and like any of the music the Eastern composers I have mentioned in this review, Ton-That Tiêt’s music is for you too, even if it will soon be clear that he draws on another tradition with its own age-old history. Excellent performances and recording, although the composer’s own notes might have told us a bit more about the music; but perhaps the composer wants to leave much to one’s imagination.

Hubert Culot


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