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Reviewed by:
  • Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam
  • Alexander M. Cannon (bio)
Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam. Barley Norton. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xvi + 256 pp., photos, figures, tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, indices, DVD. ISBN 978-0-252-03399-5 (Hardcover).

Barley Norton’s study of lên đng mediumship rituals in northern Vietnam expertly interrogates the interaction between the music performed for the ritual called ch u văn, embodiment, and politics in contemporary Vietnam. Norton draws from his wealth of experience conducting fieldwork research to illustrate how musicians and mediums associated with the Four Palace Religion or Mother Religion creatively enable communication with a pantheon of spirits during the ritual of lên đ ng. He balances descriptions of music from festival, temple, conservatory, and theatrical performances, depictions of the numerous subjectivities of those musicians, mediums, and officials with whom he conducted his [End Page 129] research, and thought- provoking theoretical asides in order to highlight the effect of modernity upon lên đ ng. He supplements his articulate analyses with an impressive DVD featuring video clips of lên đ ng rituals, theatrical productions developed from ritual contexts, and twenty- eight musical examples.

The monograph consists of three sections. The Introduction and first two chapters comprise the first section; the third, fourth and fifth chapters comprise the second section; and the remaining chapters, including the Epilogue, comprise the final section. In the Introduction, Norton describes a typical lên đ ng in the contemporary period and remarks on how his role as both observer and observed influence the study. The first chapter traces the history of lên đ ng and ch u văn from the colonial period to the present. Many, including French authorities, revolutionary writers living under colonial rule, and Communist officials viewed lên đ ng as a practice of “fickle” or “temperamental” (đ ng bóng) individuals who wasted money on costumes and offerings for the spirits (26). The second chapter reveals how individuals experience lên đ ng and outlines the main theoretical perspectives of the study. Norton cites extensively from Gilbert Rouget’s Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession and even finds terms in the Vietnamese language that express the distinction made by Rouget between “possession” and “obsession”—namely t nh táo and mê, respectively. Norton therefore establishes his study as one of music and ritual; however, he also employs Thomas J. Csordas’s concept of “cultural phenomenology” to foreground the medium’s “bodily engagement with the spirits” (56). The application of this concept is crucial, Norton suggests, as mediums “adopt culturally constituted modes of somatic expression for the presence of embodied spirits and for the interactions with ritual participants” (57). The music produced in ritual settings, which he describes in the next section, enables this corporeal interaction.

The second section investigates Norton’s theorization of the “songscape” in lên đ ng, or the demarcated space and time organized by ch u văn for a particular spirit. The interaction between the musicians, as well as between the musicians and the mediums, produces the “songscape,” actualizes the spirit, and enables communication between the spirit and ritual participants. The third chapter introduces the “songscape” as a theoretical term and describes the defining musical characteristics of ch u văn. In a short but instructive passage, Norton invites the reader to read comparisons of two rituals and then view video extracts of these rituals on the accompanying DVD. This allows readers to not only hear ch u văn and view a medium’s “embodied possession” in context but also understand how the ritual actors interact with one another. In the fourth chapter, Norton describes how musicians establish the “song scape.” They purposely make use of sounds to specify the gender and ethnicity of the spirit, and which of the four palaces the spirit inhabits. For example, musicians evoke [End Page 130] sounds of instruments associated with ethnic groups living in Vietnam in order to produce an aural representation of ethnic cohesion or a “pan- ethnic minority identity” subsumed under nationalist rhetoric (123). In other words, the sonic evocation of...


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