Interview with Viet Cuong

Viet Cuong’s Re(new)al, a piece celebrating renewable energy, will be given its west coast premiere by Kaleidoscope and Sandbox Percussion on February 10th and 11th. Viet was kind enough to speak with me about himself and the inspiration behind his amazing piece.

Irene Kim: How did you get started with music?

Viet Cuong: I started piano lessons when I was five years old. My mom is an engineer and read that piano lessons could make me good at math…I guess I just ended up taking music too seriously! But I actually didn’t like piano very much when I was that young. So I stopped piano for a couple of years, and later on I joined middle school band as a percussionist. Band directors like having pianists play percussion because they already know the layout of the keyboard percussion instruments. Middle school was when I started taking music more seriously and that’s also when I took up piano again.

IK: When did you start composing?

VC: Even though I took up piano again, I still didn’t love to practice. But what I did like was making up my own music on the piano—instead of practicing the music my piano teacher actually wanted to me to learn, I would usually improvise instead. Eventually in 8th grade I downloaded Finale Notepad, the free version of music notation software of the time, and I started writing down what I was improvising at the piano. Those became my first compositions. I also remember learning Pachelbel’s Canon and I would make up my own melodies over the left hand bass line. I think that’s how I first learned how chords, consonants, and dissonances all worked together. From Pachelbel’s Canon, of all things!

And as a percussionist in band, I was often counting rests. So, while counting rests, I would listen to what the ensemble was doing and see the roles that the different instruments could play in the ensemble. So I’d say that I also learned how to write music by listening a lot.

IK: So, did you start taking compositions lessons officially soon after?

VC: I never had a composition teacher in middle school or high school. When I got to college I started taking lessons, and having a teacher made a huge difference! I think one of the most useful things about having a teacher is that they can give you thoughtful suggestions on music to listen to. Before I got to college I didn’t know much rep outside of band and old piano music, so just having some listening suggestions from my teacher back then was really impactful.  

IK: Did your background in percussion help you write for percussion? Did you write any other percussion pieces before Re(new)al (2017) and Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine (2015)?

VC: Other than some percussion writing in my wind ensemble and orchestra music, I hadn’t really focused on percussion before Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine. I think because I grew up around so many percussion instruments I have so many associations with standard instruments like the xylophone, marimba, and snare drum, and I found it hard to shake those off when I tried to write my own percussion music. So when I wrote Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine for Sō Percussion, I decided to use only crystal glasses. I found it quite freeing to approach percussion with a blank slate; though I know a lot of percussionists and had experience with many percussion instruments, I didn’t know anything about using crystal glasses as instruments!

IK: I see the crystal glasses made it into Re(new)al! I want to ask you about that, but before we do, can you tell me about how the commission came about with General Electric?

VC: The Albany Symphony is located very close to Schenectady, which is a big landmark for GE. They have a large facility there, and many people from Schenectady work for GE. GE is also one of the sponsors for the Albany Symphony. Basically, they asked the Symphony if they were interested in commissioning a work that celebrated renewable energy, and then the Symphony asked me if I wanted to take on the project. I went to Schenectady to meet with the people who work at GE Renewable Energy, and on the lawn at the entrance, they have this gigantic wind turbine blade—you don’t realize how big they are when you see them from a distance. I also learned about how renewable energy operates at GE. They showed me the control room that is the “brain” for many wind turbines around the world.

Many of the works that the Albany Symphony commissions are often inspired by water, since they’re located on the Hudson River. They saw my crystal glass piece for Sō Percussion and thought that I could incorporate that idea into the piece to symbolize water. It was fun to come up with some equally interesting ways to evoke wind and solar power.

IK: Like the compressed air, and metallic instruments to mimic the sun’s brightness! I read that in your program notes that you wrote for the piece. Can I include that here?

VC: Yes!

[Program notes by Viet Cuong for Re(new)al:

I have tremendous respect for renewable energy initiatives and the commitment to creating a new, better reality for us all. Re(new)al is a percussion quartet concerto that is similarly devoted to finding unexpected ways to breathe new life into traditional ideas, and the quartet therefore performs on several “invented” instruments, including crystal glasses and compressed air cans. And while the piece also features more traditional instruments, such as snare drum and vibraphone, I looked for ways to either alter their sounds or find new ways to play them. For instance, a single snare drum is played by all four members of the quartet, and certain notes of the vibraphone are prepared with aluminum foil to create buzzy, nearly electronic sound effects. The entire piece was conceived in this way, and it was a blast to discover all of these unique sounds with the members of Sandbox Percussion.

Cooperation and synergy are also core themes of the piece, as I believe we all have to work together to move forward. All of the music played by the solo quartet is comprised of single musical ideas that are distributed evenly between the four players (for those interested, the fancy musical term for this is a hocket). Therefore, the music would be dysfunctional without the presence and dedication of all four members. Midway through the piece the quartet divvies up lighting-fast drum set beats, but perhaps my favorite example of synergy is in the very opening where the four members toast crystal glasses. We always toast glasses in the presence of others, and oftentimes to celebrate new beginnings. This is my simple way of celebrating everyone who is working together to create a cleaner, more efficient world.

The piece is constructed of three continuous movements, each inspired by the transcendent power of hydro, wind, and solar energies. The hydro movement transforms tuned crystal glasses into ringing handbells, the second movement turns each member of the quartet into a blade of a dizzying wind turbine, and the closing movement evokes the brilliance of sunlight with metallic percussion instruments. Heartfelt thanks to David Alan Miller, the Albany Symphony, and Sandbox Percussion for their dedication to this music, and GE for their generous support.]

VC: When I saw the wind turbine control room in Schenectady I was struck by how many people are working together all around the world to make renewable energy a reality. So the piece itself is not only about renewable energy, but also about synergy. Almost all of the music the solo percussion quartet plays consists of hockets, so the piece simply would not work without the dedication of all of four members. I really conceived of the piece as a percussion quartet concerto, so I treated the quartet as a single entity, as one soloist, one organism. Sandbox has actually commented that it’s very difficult to practice the piece individually. For example, in the beginning of the piece the crystal glasses are being clinked with the other members of the quartet. If you’re alone you can only clink your own two glasses, and that would get boring quite quickly! Ultimately, the piece is about the idea that we’re better together than when we are alone.

IK: That’s saying a lot in one piece!

VC: Especially with everything going in the world right now, the piece ended up taking on a deeper meaning than what was originally intended!

IK: Is there anything you don’t want us to miss when listening to the piece?

VC: The piece is as much a visual experience as it is a listening experience. You can keep an eye out for these visual elements of the piece: the crystal glasses working together to make melodies, the percussion quartet becoming a wind turbine as they spin around a snare drum, and certain instruments that are set up to evoke the solar panel.

IK: I can’t wait!! There’s so much thought put into this! How do you think it’ll work with Kaleidoscope without a conductor?

VC: I think it’ll work really well! Sandbox is so awesome, and Kaleidoscope is really amazing—if Kaleidoscope can play Shostakovich symphonies without a conductor, they can play my piece. I put in a lot of cues in the parts so everyone in the ensemble can follow along. And in the second movement, it’ll be really great to see everyone grooving together to the beats. I’m really excited!

IK: Me, too! I’m really excited to be part of this amazing work! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, and I’ll see you in Los Angeles very soon!

Irene Kim