Nguyễn Hồng Nhung, from Vietnam, recently spread her music through the web (and not only) under the Sound Awakener alias. Here’s she talking about her creative start and about the different shapes of experimental music, as seen from her peculiar point of view.
First of all, I can’t avoid asking you something about your country: how much important is it for your inspiration and for the music you play?
Hmmm I think I’d focus more on where I live – Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Nowadays it is a modern, crowded and noisy city. And that really helps my sonic exploration – I usually record tons of sound from the city, layer and manipulate them. I’m much connected to the urban landscapes here. For me Hanoi is an ideal place to make experimental music.
Though until now I don’t tend to add traditional Vietnamese material in my tracks, still, the mysterious and simple beauty of it remains in some of my ambient/drone tracks.
Actually, I don’t know many artists from south-east Asia, except from some indie-pop/shoegaze bands from Indonesia or Philippines: can you describe how the music is “lived” and produced there? Any chance of some kind of experimental scene?
Of course pop music is in the mainstream. But countries in south-East Asia do have an experimental scene, not “some kind of” (reference here http://syrphe.com/african&asian_database.htm, Ctrl F and type any country you want to search). I’d talk more about the experimental scene in Vietnam. Honestly it is a small scene, smaller than the scene in countries like Thailand, Indonesia or Singapore. Most of the artists live in Hanoi and we often perform in underground venue like Hanoi Rock City, CAMA ATK or Manzi. Some experimental artists in Vietnam have got help from foreign/cultural exchange organization e.g Goethe Institut to present their projects or go abroad to perform. Recently I’ve collaborated with local experimental musician Vu Nhat Tan and we form a duo called Hanoise.
There is a non – profit organization named The Onion Cellar who have been organizing film screening and underground shows, including some experimental music ones. Back in March they organized a show for thisquietarmy, Sound Awakener and Glitter Troff. Also, we have two annual electronic music festivals – Hanoi Sound Stuff Festival and Sonic Moon Festival which have a night for experimental electronic music. Back in 2009 and 2013 there was a festival dedicated to experimental music only – Hanoi New Music Festival.
Currently in Vietnam there are no music schools that teach experimental music but there is an educational center called Domdom, founded by composer Kim Ngoc, focusing on improvisational experimental music.
If you want to have a closer look at the experimental scene in Hanoi, here is a film called Hanoise by French independent filmmaker Vincent Moon. He made the film back in October, 2013 (I did not appear in this film): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiBE3aLrotw
How did you started making music? Have you got any musical training?
I studied classical piano from 2002 to 2007 under private lessons. At the end of 2007 I discovered experimental music. In 2009 I started my self-taught journey in improvisation and composition. I always consider this as a return to my potential, natural instinct and consciousness. Eventually in 2011 I formed Sound Awakener and start producing my tracks. Those early days were really really hard – I had never known anything about recording, sound manipulation and mixing before. I learned everything by myself and formed my own working methods. It was a quiet journey – no one near me knew I made experimental music until the end of 2014. I spent a huge amount of time to focus on every single detail in my music. My personal life merged with my musical life. It took me a lot of patience and I avoid everything that made me hurry. I let the sound flow freely instead of pushing it. In summer 2014 I pulished my first release “Shape Of Illusion” on Bandcamp and that one was finished a few months before being released. I first appeared in the experimental scene here in early 2015. It took local experimental artists here a while to find out who I was. Because people on the Internet already knew Sound Awakener as a Vietnamese musical project long before than they found out what I have been doing. It has been a tough process for me to make music, but I’ve always tried my best. I’ve learned to trust my own intuition as well as my musical vision.
How would you like your music to be perceived by the listeners?
I think the listeners just need to slowly open their mind and relax, like I do when creating music. Although I put a lot of conceptual ideas to arrange the tracks, there is no need to find out every single of them. Just enjoy them with an empty mind.
As a listener, what kind of music do you like to listen?
I listen to anything I like – classical, jazz, metal, rock, pop, traditional music (not only Vietnamese traditional music), world music, electronic and of course experimental music.
Your works as Sound Awakener are quite different from one to another, then you recently started making music also on your own name: do you know from the start of the composing process the goal of your music and the project that will host it?
Yes. Sound Awakener’s instinct is a dark, abstract sonic world. Sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes it’s noisy, sometimes it’s mysterious but it’s always intuitive and wide. No release is the same to each other. The name Sound Awakener was based on my inner life and mental experience – it is sort of close to my introvert side. Sound Awakener is focused on awareness much more than emotion. Nature is the biggest inspiration in Sound Awakener’s sonic landscapes. In those landscapes, human is not the central element, but one of the fragments that belongs to the whole picture. Sound Awakener’s music is something quite close to electroacoustic/noise music/industrial, although I don’t really like putting my music into any genre.
I’ve been making non-experimental tracks since 2011/2012 although I take a break from it often to focus on my experimental tracks. I recently put in on my second Bandcammp page named Nhung Nguyen – I could not think any better name than that. Just my real name is enough for those tracks. Releases under my name is something quite opposed to Sound Awakener’s. It is focused more on human emotion and daily life. The sound is more melodic, cinematic and less chaotic.
What’s your ideal condition for composing? How much does places, weather and feelings influence your inspiration?
Honestly I don’t have any ideal condition for writing music. I worked in poor condition for years. I’m much connected to nature – as I said before, nature is my biggest inspiration. I love observing landscapes, both familiar and strange ones. I love traveling to new places and recording some sounds from them. Weather and feelings don’t influence me much.
You recently published the wonderful “Belonging To The Infinity” with David Teboul: how did you get in touch with him? How’s been the collaborative working experience?
At the end of 2014 I remembered writing some featured blog posts about releases on Soft label (in Vietnamese). David liked them and started being interested in my music too. He sent me a message on Facebook, it was like this “let’s try something, I’m preparing a release for Assembly Field rec., so I have time for experimentations … Send me some sounds and we’ll see what happens”. So that was how the collaboration began. I sent him the drone track “In The Cage” then he added some field recordings. Eventually that track was included in Linear Bells’ album “Insides“, released by Assembly Field. Right after that we started working on “Belonging To The Infinity”. David Teboul created most of melodic/drone parts. I created a lot of texture based on sound manipulation and recordings of instrumentation/objects for this album. We have two different musical background, two different mind-set and two different sound motifs so “Belonging To The Infinity” is a new direction for both of us. I’m happy with the final tracks as well as the working experience.
You released “September Traveler” for a photo exhibition: did this affect your creation process? And do you think about the “visual” side of your music?
I had created the music in “September Traveler” long before I knew Irene Cruz which means I had my independent musical ideas at the time of creating those tracks. But when I had a look at all of her photos, I realised the strong connection between my sound and her image – the cold, hazy, soft and dreamy mood.
I admit having some images on my mind while creating some tracks but most of the time I don’t really think much about it. I’m getting familiar with people saying about the visual side of my music and I think maybe I should start exploring more about this side too.
Is there any other artist you’d fancy working with?
Right now ? Let me think….hmmmm. First one: Northumbria. I love their drone metal tracks so much and especially enjoy their latest album “Helluland”. Second one: Cinchel – I love Jason’s minimal approach. And so many more… I cannot think about all of them all right now.
As many experimental artists, you are quite prolific: generally speaking, do you think the fact experimental and electronic artists are more prolific means their music is “easier” to make than, e.g., an album of songs?
For me, personally and honestly: no. Let’s take an example from a noise release of mine: “Be whole”. It took me three years to finish it (from 2012 to 2015) – the same amount of time to make an album of songs. I cannot create then release my music instantly like what my friends said that they could record an E.P. for one or two days then release it.
The fact that I seem to be quite prolific can be explained that I don’t stay still. If I am not able to finish one work right now – I’ll move to the next one right after. Once I create music, I want everything to sound at its best. And that’s not an easy process. I’m not an perfectionist but I always make a honest and careful movement while creating music.
You’re not only a musician but you also run a music blog: is there a connection between these two sides of your personality?
Yes. As a listener I love writing and discovering new music. As a musician I love connecting to other artists. Both things are fun.
What do you think about the way music spreads nowadays through the web? Do you think it is helpful for independent artists like you?
I think it is an obvious thing to happen during this digital age. Internet is now an important and helpful tool for independent artists to present their works. Surely it does have its disadvantage.
With all the sounds floating around, what do you think is worth for keep writing music?
I think the awareness that I’m alive with all the sounds is worth for me to continue creating music.
And, finally, what else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
I’ve just finished an ambient album in collaboration with Gallery Six and we are waiting for the mastering process. I also have some other solo works and collaboration on the way.
Being alive with music is the most fulfilling thing, I don’t expect anything from it at all.