P.Q. Phan: Reborn in the U.S.A.
Vietnamese Architect Becomes American Composer
by Mic Holwin
A Vietnamese architect tires of the aesthetic and personal restrictions under Communist rule in the 1970s. He makes repeated attempts with his family to escape to America, one by boat which ends in a Vietnamese jail. Finally managing to emigrate legally, he becomes an American citizen in 1982, when he is 20 years old. Exuberant with the freedom he has at last found in America, the émigré architect and self-taught pianist/composer decides to act on his love of music and studies composition at the Universities of Southern California and Michigan. Eighteen years later, he is an increasingly in-demand American composer, commissioned by the likes of performers such as the Kronos Quartet.
Sounds a bit fantastic for a movie scenario. But it's every bit real life for composer P.Q. Phan.
"Coming to the U.S. is like being reborn," Phan says of his new homeland. "When I was in Vietnam, it was like I was dead. It's almost impossible to live in a place where you cannot express your opinions. You can't even talk to people. Everything had to be propaganda."
Phan found it repugnant to write music for the purpose of trumpeting the splendor of the Communist party-in the same way that, he says, "I cannot write music and say, 'oh how beautiful the Republican party is, the Democratic party is!'"
Under Communism, architecture had become unbearably practical, so Phan turned to music as a means of expression. "With music I can be more abstract, more creative, less obvious," he says of his move from creating in space to creating in time. "There is no free speech in a Communist country. So music makes perfect sense-you can use it to express things in a very abstract way so that nobody can punish you. It's a very effective way to communicate without telling people what you really are thinking."
And once in America, Phan, now an associate professor of composition at Indiana University at Bloomington, did not find English his strongest talent, so music once again fit the bill as an ideal method of communication.
With the world premiere of his new orchestral work When the Worlds Mixed and Times Merged at Carnegie Hall with the American Composers Orchestra on October 15, Phan is obviously making himself understood. Commissioned by ACO to write a piece celebrating the new millennium, Phan, though schooled in Western composition, felt it wasn't yet an intuitive-enough style with which to make a personal statement about the new era. He opted instead to root the work in the fondly-remembered sounds of his youth, traditional Vietnamese court music.
Phan utilizes Western instrumental techniques, however, to conjure the sounds of traditional Vietnamese instruments playing processional music for the king as he approaches the throne in an outdoors dawn ceremony. He may call for quarter tones in the strings, multiphonics in the woodwinds, or a quick change from a major third to minor third to create the "neutral third" found in Vietnamese scale systems.
Initially conceived as a celebratory piece, When the Worlds Mixed ("How could one not be cheerful thinking about the excitement of the turn of the new millennium?" Phan writes in the piece's program notes) had a change of tone when, in the summer of 1999, an Indiana University student named Benjamin Nathaniel Smith went on an Independence Day weekend drive-by shooting rampage against Jews, blacks and Asian-Americans.
"It was absolutely terrifying," writes Phan, "for it was so close to home, my peaceful and sweet Midwest. The 'Heartland,' where life is supposed to be simple, friendly and promising, became the land of doubts and terrors to me."
A month later, a similar incident occurred in California when a white supremacist in California opened fire on a Jewish Community Center and a Filipino postal worker. "The foundation I had built for 15 years-to love and believe in my adopted country and its people-had partly crumbled," Phan recalls of feelings that resulted in When the Worlds Mixed's darker middle section. "A listener can certainly hear struggles in there," he says. But, he quickly adds, "You can hear hope in there as well."
For two weeks in October leading up to the "Pacifica" Carnegie Hall concert, Phan is Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with ACO, a composer-orchestra matchmaking program of the American Symphony Orchestra League and Meet The Composer. Phan will participate in a variety of educational and performance activities that are part of ACO's yearlong exploration of immigration, Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/ Immigrant Voices (see separate article). Part of his residency includes workshops at the High School for Environmental Studies and the programming of a chamber music concert of emerging Asian-American composers, called "Pacifica Mix," at the Japan Society on October 11, at which his work Beyond the Mountains will be performed.
A piece that also deals with social issues, Beyond the Mountains explores the duality of, says Phan, "how I understand people and how people understand me." A Vietnamese idiom, "beyond the mountains" is used to describe "the expectation of the unexpected," the passage into new and unfamiliar territory. "Let's say you have a mountain," Phan explains. "One side says 'this side is my home, the other side is the foreigner.' But the foreigner on the other side says 'this side is my home, you guys are the foreigner.'
"The first half of the piece is finding my way to understand the new culture and a way to express my culture to society. And the last part is frustration. Even small comments occasionally make me feel upset. Like people always say, 'where are you from?' I say 'Indiana' and they say, 'no, no, where are you really from?'"
An all-Phan CD, Banana Trumpet Games, was just released in August on CRI and features six of Phan's chamber works, including Beyond the Mountains and the title track, which is named for a Vietnamese children's game. All six pieces, says Phan, deal with how he feels as an immigrant through his blending of Southeast Asian with Western sounds.
In spite of past and present societal struggles, Phan is an optimistic and upbeat man. One would be hard-pressed to find a photo of him without a big smile on his face. Even terrible times are remembered for their good aspects.
Recalling that ill-fated boat escape, he laughs, "I tried to escape 10 times and never succeeded. Thank goodness they caught only one! I was very, very lucky that way. I finally came over here legally, so I'm very fortunate!"