Van-Anh Vanessa Vo is a veteran when it comes to taking risks, and it pays off in her compelling music. As a young girl in Vietnam, she knew she wanted to be a traditional musician, even though it was a world dominated by men. It was risky, then, when she pestered a master teacher for three years to give her lessons. He finally gave in, taking her on as an apprentice.
Vo also takes risks in blending East with West in her music. She lends a trippy sound to Frenchman Erik Satie's Gnossienne No. 3, performed on the dan Bau, the traditional Vietnamese monocord. The instrument ("invented by bad girls on the street") has a single string, but by bending it with a kind of whammy bar made from buffalo horn, Vo creates a haunting landscape of growls, hushed vibrato and graceful slides, all with the exquisite phrasing of an opera singer.
Vo's infectious enthusiasm erupts in her own compositions. "Three-Mountain Pass" (also the title of her recent album), for voice and Hang drum, is based on the sensuously evocative texts of Ho Xuan Huong, a groundbreaking female poet (and concubine) from the 18th century. And with "Go Hunting," Vo introduces another traditional instrument, the dan T'rung, a bamboo xylophone from Vietnam's south highlands. This instrument, which looks a bit like a skeleton, is struck with double-headed mallets. The theme starts peacefully at a relaxed pace, but heats up to a dizzying frenzy as Vo's mallets become indistinguishable blurs of speed.
Her adventurous spirit moved her from Vietnam to the U.S. — another risk, but one that paid off with more opportunities for composing; she even won an Emmy Award for her work on a documentary film. Vo is also fond of collaborating with new-music ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, and of playing in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and, of course, Bob Boilen's Tiny Desk. --TOM HUIZENGA
Gnossienne No. 3 (Erik Satie, arr. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo)
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Tom Huizenga; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Becky Harlan, Abbey Oldham, Meredith Rizzo