Barley Norton’s recent documentary Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh offers an intimate view of the making of a recording by the group Dai Lam Linh in communist Vietnam. From the moment the film opens, the intensity of both the music and personalities behind its creation is immediately gravitating. Norton notes in the thorough film study guide that accompanies the DVD (available at www.der.org/films/hanoi-eclipse.html) that the group is most often understood as performing “‘experimental music’ (am nhac the nghiem).” He continues to explain that
this term is often used loosely to refer to music that does not conform to a mainstream genre, but rather pushes the limits of conventional genre boundaries and perceived musical norms; any music that is perceived to be “different and strange” (khac la) or “freaky” (quai la) is typically referred to as experimental.(3)
It is in fact extremely difficult to describe the sound of this group in words.
Dai Lam Linh’s performance style does not easily fit under any single genre, but instead incorporates a wide range of traditional Vietnamese, global, and popular idioms, including screaming and growling female vocals at times mixed with African percussion, piano, electric guitar, and traditional zither. The result challenges the very idea that distinctions between popular, traditional, and art can be clearly drawn in the global moment. The fact that this group is extremely influential on other experimental, contemporary, and electronic music supports the understanding that the boundaries between such music are increasingly difficult to identify.
The global sound that is produced through this type of blending and blurring of styles is truly compelling, and Norton takes full advantage of the impact of the music in the way he structures the film. He opens and closes with footage of a performance of the powerful piece “Solar Eclipse,” for example, framing the subsections within the film. Norton takes care to continually intersperse interviews and more casual conversations with the key performers of the group with shots of rehearsals and live performance. In doing so, he connects the stories of the performers, and the contemporary context of Vietnam, with the actual music that the group produces. Thus the sound and techniques on stage are made particularly significant. The primary composer of the group, Ngoc Dai, for example, relates his musical development and how he was influenced by the trauma of the Vietnam War, which he feels actually fostered great creativity in his music. Norton elegantly weaves this personal narrative into coverage of the group performing the song “Evening,” a piece Dai wrote for his fallen fellow soldiers. Not surprisingly, the horrors of war continue to be a powerful influence on both Dai’s discussions with Norton and on the music of the group in the film.
The female vocalists of the group, Lam and Linh, take center stage in the section of the film focused on the piece “Dreaming,” a song of sexual longing. In one particularly provocative scene, Linh even discusses how she envisions a woman exploring her own sexuality through the work. Consistent with the rest of the film, the actual performance of the song is further connected with larger social issues by Dai, Lam, and Linh’s comments and footage from everyday life in Vietnam. In this case, Norton includes comments from Dai, Lam, and Linh on sexuality in contemporary Vietnam and images of a young couple having their wedding photos taken. The sound of the group remains central though as Norton shows the ways in which traditional performers, specifically the Ca Tru Thai Ha Ensemble, actually worked with Dai Lam Linh on several of the pieces, bringing in diverse musical practices both visually and aurally.
The authorities in Vietnam do not appear to know quite what to do with Dai Lam Linh and the music they create as the film comes to a close. The group is portrayed as independent with no state support, though they are seen performing for the government authorities to obtain permission to release the CD. But this CD project was actually funded by a French organization. It is even noted that because of the experimental nature of the music that the style...