Bryan Wilson is a cellist, composer, educator, and author. He offers a uniquely modern perspective on the cello that is sure to inspire. He introduces students to the innovative and exciting roles that the cello can play in contemporary music.
CANAJOHARIE Promo Video - Celebrating 25 years of Nirmal Nagari - Canajoharie - USA - YouTube
I am humbled and honored to have two of my tracks from, "Inner Peace" featured in this wonderful video promoting the 25th anniversary of the International Shri Krishna Puja to be held at Nirmal Nagari, Canajoharie, NY. The music fits perfectly with the bucolic scenery and it's a fantastic event. I hope you enjoy the video, music, and good vibrations!
After an unbelievable year of performing, composing, and collaborating in Vietnam, I have finally returned to my hometown of Teaneck, NJ. It’s bittersweet because I really did have an amazing experience abroad, but I’m also excited to be back and teaching my students, playing gigs, and composing more music.
I had so many performances in Vietnam that I’ll never forget. I played cello in a running stream of water while people danced and frolicked around me as my wife led a Dance/Movement Therapy workshop. Was I the only one wearing rain boots instead of being barefoot because I’m a curmudgeon? Of course I was. I had to take the cello on a rickety canoe across a river and then walk through the jungle to get there, too.
I collaborated numerous times with the superbly talented, Duyệt Thị Trang. Our cello and đàn tranh improvisational duo took us everywhere: the U.S. Embassy, a packed to the gills show at Heritage Space, and even the jungles of Vietnam.
I had the real pleasure and fortune to collaborate with Phan Y Ly and Eliott Malderez as well. We created the group, Mandala, which combined cello with đàn tranh, sào meo, and percussion. They became my really good friends and we’d often hang out and just improvise for hours. There were so many improvisations that I am super proud of. They came over on my birthday and surprised me (I was taking a nap and wasn’t exactly Mr. Friendly when I opened the door). I remember we improvised one song that really brought me to that next level, following which they made me eat a Vietnamese specialty called, Chân Gà Đông Tảo, which is a chicken foot that looks like it came from a chicken that was a professional bodybuilder.
I had some really beautiful solo performances in Vietnam as well. I played to packed houses at Vincom Center for Contemporary Arts and The Hanoi Social Club, where I got to debut some new compositions that I had written since being in Vietnam. After going to Trang An and taking a canoe around the staggeringly beautiful rock formations in the water, I was inspired to write a piece about it. There was something really mysterious about these geological structures that resonated with me.
I had the great fortune to be selected for two music residencies in collaboration with Lune Production and Phu Sa Lab. I met musicians from across Vietnam and got to make music with instruments I had never even seen or heard of before. A lot of them were custom made, one-of-a-kind instruments. These residences were really intensive, no days off, but the opportunity to create, explore, and make connections with these superb players was invaluable. I certainly will collaborate in the future with a lot of these musicians in some capacity.
I collaborated with my wife a bunch for her Dance/Movement Therapy workshops. I played for her workshops across the country, but the most powerful one for me was working with the Vietnamese soldiers from the American War. It was a small group, but the connection that we had was extremely powerful and made me quite thankful for the opportunity. I hope that my wife and I can expand upon this premise of working with soldiers (hopefully from both Vietnam and the USA) in order to help them heal from the war.
What I’m most excited about taking back the USA and expanding upon is my studies and compositions with the đàn bầu. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel like it’s going to become an integral part of my writing and hopefully performing as well. I busted out a small đàn bầu solo for the first time at a gig that my fellow residents and I played at this beachside restaurant in An Bang. As I grow more confident on the đàn bầu, I’ll definitely be working it into my live performances more. There’s a world of possibility with this instrument, especially the combination with cello.
Well it was truly an eye opening year in Vietnam and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’m back now at the Bryan Wilson Cello Studio in Teaneck, NJ and I’m getting ready to teach a bunch of new students, to record cello for artists across the globe, and to write some new pieces for cello and đàn bầu.
Yesterday was the culminating concert of the residency and to be honest I had mixed feelings about it. There were a lot of positives, though. First off, Ro Cham Ti, the master musical instrument maker got a traditional Jarai outfit sent down from the highlands of Vietnam just so I could wear it for the show. I got to show off my shoulder hair while being cool for once.
My wife, daughter, and mother and father in law came down for this concert and it was an absolute joy having my family there and especially seeing my daughter dancing and calling, “DADA!” I told everyone near me on stage, you’re going to hear my daughter and sure enough within about 30 seconds of the beginning of the show, you could hear her laughing and hollering with excitement. I proudly turned to my friends, “yep, that’s my daughter.”
The concert definitely had some great parts to it. We covered a lot of ground musically and showcased combinations of instruments that I’m sure have never been done before. Sometimes I felt like maybe there was actually too much. Maybe we tried to cram a bit too much musical material into one concert.
The sound on stage was not good, however. There were many times that microphones weren’t on and players couldn’t be heard and even when they were on, the mix was poor and it was difficult to hear one another. I wish there had been a more comprehensive sound check because when you are playing and can’t hear yourself (or others that you need to hear) it’s enormously frustrating.
People seemed to enjoy the concert, I even got an email shortly after the show from a guy who happened to be in Hoi An, heard the music, followed the sound, and came for the final number. He was bummed that he missed most of it but he really was excited by the music.
Sometimes when you’re performing it’s difficult to be objective about how it went. I think overall the concert was good and that the residency was worthwhile. I met a lot of really awesome musicians, who I hope to collaborate with in the future. I will say that I wish it was a bit better organized. Like I explained in previous blogs, there was a lot of downtime at rehearsals. So much downtime that I ended drawing a whole series of cartoon fruits with different fun expressions. I used to love drawing cartoons when I was younger, so it was nice to reconnect with that part of my brain.
I do wish I had learned some more traditional tunes from a lot of these musicians’ cultures. I feel like that element was lacking a bit. I know that organizing and coordinating something of this magnitude in creativity and scale is monumentally difficult. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have taken part in this residency and I hope to do a lot more experimentation, creation, and cultural exchange in the future.
This was a really nice way to end my year here in Vietnam. I’m currently writing this on my phone from the train from Hoi An to Hanoi (a 15 hours ride). Now we have about 5 days to pack everything up and leave to go back to New Jersey. It’s been such an amazing year musically and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to cap it off.
A sublime musical collaboration between LinHafornow and Bryan Charles Wilson.
Last night I played a gig with a bunch of the residents from FAMLAB at this beachside restaurant in An Bang. I got there and was stunned at how beautiful the scenery was. The sun was setting over the ocean, the water was angelic, and air had a salty twang to it. There were 7 of us on total: Esther Swift on harp, Tom Bancroft on bodhran, David Shedden on tin whistles, LinhHafornow on vocals/electronics, Scobi Wan on electronics, and Escuri on electronics. I of course was playing cello, but I brought my đàn bầu as well.
The gig was incredible. It was one of those times playing music where you totally lose yourself in the moment. There’s nothing else besides just playing and creating.
Esther, Tom, and David played a bunch of traditional Scottish tunes from their home country and they absolutely killed it. Just amazing musicianship combined with some really cool music. It was a pleasure to watch them because I rarely get to hear that style and especially done so well.
I went on second with LinhHafornow. She is an amazing vocalist who combines her ethereal voice with looping and effects. I was quite excited to play with her because we have a similar musical aesthetic and I knew that our instruments would blend really nicely together. We had literally nothing planned, it was all going to be improvised. Honestly, I like that approach because it makes you really be in the moment. You’re responsible for creating every second, nothing is determined.
We started playing as the sun had just set and the music turned out so sublime. As I had expected, her lush vocals combined with my cello just created this sonic landscape that had me captivated. I’m a fan of doing ambient, slow, and melodic music and this hit the nail right on the head. I even jumped over to the đàn bầu for one song and messed around. People were actually surprised that I made it sound halfway decent. So was I. It’s nice to take risks on stage. I’ve been in situations before where I just felt like nothing was at stake when I was playing, no risk, no nervousness. That kind of feeling is kind of the death knell of creativity.
After a bit, we were joined by Escuri who added some sweet beats. It sounded fantastic and was so much fun to play over. Over the next couple hours we all did various configurations of the FAMLAB residents on stage. After sitting out for a bit, I hopped back on with Escuri and David on tin whistle and we created some Scottish folk techno cello madness. Unbelievable and awesome.
At the very end of the gig, we all got on stage and did an amazing slow meditation piece for the crowd. People were invited to lay down on the grass and look up at the stars as we lulled them into a different universe. It was truly beautiful.
Playing a gig like this really hit me deep. Not every gig is like this. Sometimes it’s a job, people don’t want to admit that, but it’s true. But this was different. This was why I love music and why I continue to do it everyday.
The residency is starting to come together. The pieces are shaping up and are sounding cool, we just need to trim some fat off them. Rehearsal isn’t exactly riveting. I spent the majority of this morning drawing a fully colored cartoon eggplant on my iPad, but hey it came out pretty cool.
Other than music, I’ve been sampling a lot of different Vietnamese cuisine. Every region of Vietnam has specialties, for example Hoi An is known for its Cao Lau and Mi Quang, which are noodle dishes with a bunch of things in them. I gotta be honest, those were okay. I know my wife is gonna kill me, but the best meal I’ve had here has been a hamburger and french fries. I KNOW, I KNOW. I’m a culture-less misanthrope who can’t enjoy anything beyond his sad provincial upbringing. I get it, trust me. But, you don’t know how happy that burger and fries made me. Jesus Christ, I almost cried.
That being said, I have opened up my horizons a bit. I’ve never really eaten that much seafood before. I just never really got into it. Honestly, fish with bones scare me. I’m not trying to get one of those stuck in my throat. I didn’t even know that was a possibility until I saw my buddy Eliott choke on one as I was eating a fish with him that honestly wasn’t that good anyway and I thought to myself, okay, that seals the deal, I’m out. Look, I grew up eating tuna out of a can, I couldn’t pick a tuna out of a line up. It never even occurred to me that fish had bones.
But I am growing as a person (though my growth is microscopic compared to that of the average person, but hey I’m trying). We went to a seafood restaurant for one of our colleague’s birthdays and I tried a bunch of different things. Squid, clams, stingray, shrimp salad, fish soup, and of course….french fries. I swear I didn’t order them, someone did it for me…but I ate a lot of them. The clams were my favorite. You dip them in this salt with lime sauce and it’s fantastic. People got these huge raw oysters to eat, but I tapped out there. I don’t know, I just couldn’t do it. What’s in the oyster shell looks like what comes out when I clean the pipes underneath the sink (which also is a sign of growth for me that I know what that looks like because earlier in my life trying to do any sort of manual labor quickly devolved into me shouting obscenities and kicking the wall).
I will say that the river right by our hotel is quite pretty at night when it’s illuminated by quaint boats with picturesque colored lanterns. Too bad it’s right next to a tourist hellhole. It’s all foreigners here and you walk down the street and after barreling through 400 Korean tourists taking photos, all the people at the restaurants are aggressively trying to get you to come in and eat there. This is just because we are in the tourist sphincter of Hoi An. When I stayed here a couple months ago while my wife was teaching a workshop, we stayed off the beaten path and I barely saw any foreigners at all. You could walk two minutes to some really beautiful rice fields and drive to the beach as well. That was a lot more enjoyable.
You know you’re not exactly in the most authentic part of Hoi An when there’s an Irish pub a two minute walk from your hotel. But hey, at least I can get a burger.
I couldn’t believe it myself, but I’m actually able to ride the bike with the cello on my back. I have fully assimilated into Vietnamese culture.
Well, I gotta be honest, the honeymoon period of this residency has definitely subsided. The past couple of days have kind of been a bit of a bummer. We split up into two large groups, the other group going back to the hotel to rehearse. The first day of this type of rehearsal the air conditioning wasn’t working right in the practice hall. We were working on a section where I was instructed to make ‘noise’ on the cello, which I really don’t like to do. It’s okay for a little bit, but making noises that sound like I’m shredding a tree through a wood-chipper is not really why I like playing music. It brought me back to my days at CalArts, where they loved this HORRIBLE experimental music that made me want to jump out the window headfirst. Couple this terrible noise music with the fact that it was 1,000,000 degrees while we were practicing and you get a recipe for what we will call: Not Nice Bryan. I had to take my shirt off it was so hot and my cello was sliding off my body because I dripping in sweat. My wife gets annoyed when I take my shirt off in public, she doesn’t want me to show off my hairy monkey body. She’s afraid that the authorities are going to cart me off to the zoo. Sorry, Minh, once it reaches a certain temperature, I don’t care who sees my thicket of shoulder hair.
I just felt like there was no reason for me to be there. The music was so painfully loud and had so much sonic BS going on that there was no way anything that I did was going to make a difference. That’s the thing with playing cello. You can’t compete with drums and electronics and, the ken bau, which is this horrifically loud oboe-like instrument that sounds like a bagpipe and a rubber chicken had a demonic baby. That thing has become the bane of my existence while being here. I found out they play it at funerals here in Vietnam. I think it’s because when you hear it all you can think about is wanting to die. Okay, I know that’s harsh and culturally insensitive, but you try listening to that thing blast your eardrums to pieces at 9 in the morning. You’ll see what I mean.
Today was a little bit better. I think they scrapped the noise music part and I actually got to play HONEST TO GOD REAL NOTES THAT SOUND GOOD. I still had to wear earplugs on stage because it was ridiculously loud with all those instruments. Honestly, it’s probably all going to come together very nicely despite all my complaining. Sometimes rehearsal is pretty boring but that is a function of how large the ensemble is.
I know the main guys who are doing the artistic direction are stressed out and understandably so. It’s a lot of people to manage and a ton to put together in just 20 days. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge. I’m hopeful that this has just been a bit of a lull and once we put all the pieces together it’s going to sound great.
A partial view of the Seaphony. Not everyone was on stage and there’s people offstage too that can’t even fit.
Yesterday we finished up the first piece in our concert. It is mostly very arhythmic and droney, but it has so many different elements that it keeps it interesting. It leads into a slightly more rhythmic section that I think blends Scottish and Vietnamese music very well together. I have a small solo in which I trade some kind of bluesy phrases with this awesome Vietnamese master, Chu Ninh, who plays the ca nghi (not sure how to spell it correctly) (it’s a bowed single stringed instrument and the body is made out of a turtle!). He’s incredible and it’s so delightful playing with him because I feel like we have a great chemistry. We both kind of just feel the music and don’t need to talk about it.
We finished up early yesterday and it was decided that there would be an all night party to help build camaraderie. Well, in classic Bryan Charles Wilson fashion, I went home and took a nap to prepare myself for the party knowing full well I don’t drink alcohol and was probably going to leave early anyway. I woke up as it was getting dark and moseyed my way over to the other hotel where there was a full on barbecue of like 10 chickens roasting on an open fire. Everyone was already a couple beers deep and yelled at me for being late, which I took in stride as I picked up a bowl of vegetables and started eating them with a skewer (eventually I just used hands because I was too lazy).
By far the best food was by the master instrument maker and musician, Ro Cham Ti. This guy does everything. He can build you a bamboo house, 40 original musical instruments, sew you some new clothes, cook a gourmet meal, you name it, all the while having the most fun and enthusiasm for life I’ve ever seen anyone have in my entire existence. I can barely bend down to tie my shoes without groaning like some old geezer, meanwhile this guy who’s close to 50 years old, is slow roasting a chicken while jumping up and down and dancing like he’s some sort of youthful cherub.
Okay that’s not entirely true, I’m not a complete alter cocker. I did lead people in a dance the other day when I was called upon to do the morning warm ups for the group. I immediately used my brilliant wife’s Dance/Movement Therapy techniques of having everyone say their name and do a movement and everyone else in the group has to repeat that same name and movement. People were quite surprised I could actually do something other than play the cello and complain how hot it was outside.
But back to that CHICKEN! Man, was that chicken good! In Vietnam, it’s the WHOLE chicken. Head, feet. EVERYTHING. The food in Vietnam is all about spices and balance to make sure the yin and yang is in perfect harmony. The music maintains a similar philosophy as well. But let’s be honest, I like to eat. I kept burning my fingers going to grab some more chicken it was so amazing.
By about 10:30 PM people were sufficiently drunk and as a non drinker who honestly isn’t that fond of parties to begin with, when they start busting out the guitar and singing drunkenly (no matter what language it’s in), that’s usually my cue to head back home. I did have a good time though. Lots of good people and plenty of laughs. My excuse for leaving was that I had to teach at 6 am the next morning, which was true, but I probably would have left anyway because I’m not what you would call, “a fun guy!”
One thing is for sure, I might be the only one without a hangover today though.
Messing around on this amazing one of kind ‘bro’ created by the famous Tih Ro Cham.
This residency has been going well, but I’ll be honest I was dead tired today. It’s about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 C) outside and as I was telling my Scottish friend, David, the Jews have thrived in many climates throughout their history on this planet, but there have never been any “Jungle Jews.” We’re not cut out for this heat.
The AC wasn’t working in my hotel room the first night and though my Vietnamese is pretty bad, I was able to say to the owners, “Rất nóng. Em có nhiều lông.” Which means, “it’s very hot, I have a lot of body hair.”
They got the point and helped me out.
Last night we saw another absolutely unbelievable show by Lune Production called, “Teh Dar.” It’s based off the culture of the Tây Nguyên people of the Central Highlands in Vietnam. This show was action packed with mindbending acrobatics, amazing music, and stunts that take your breathe away. Palao I found to be more of an emotional show, it had less acrobatics, but more deep emotions behind I felt, but Teh Dar is seriously incredible and all I could say afterwards was, “Hay F$*#&#@ Qua!” Meaning, “So F$*#&#@ Beautiful!”
I also need to ask some of the Tây Nguyên people in the Seaphony where to buy their cool clothes. You might see me dressed up in some sharp attire pretty soon.
As for the Seaphony, we’ve been working in smaller groups to try to come up with ideas. Again it’s been very tough because there aren’t a lot of places to break up and go to. Yesterday, was really cool though because we combined a Scottish and Tây Nguyên tune together that sounded very similar. It came out quite lovely and I’m looking forward to trying to expand upon that song.
Most of the time I’m doing more bass line kind of figures because there are very few instruments in the Seaphony with a low register. I don’t really mind that though, the low tones on the cello are my favorite and usually blend really nicely with all of the other instruments sitting on top sonically.
I did have to bust out my earplugs today though. I’m sorry, I just can’t stand to be next to drums that are blasting my ear drums to smithereens. That being said, I think the drums are necessary aspect because a lot of the stuff we have been working on has been more free floating and rhythmless. That is cool, but there needs to be rhythmic sections in order to have contrast and interest in the piece.
A collaboration of Scottish bagpipes and drums with Êđê gongs.
I have been so lucky to have been selected for this FAMLAB music residency in Hoi An, sponsored by the British Council in Vietnam and in collaboration with Lune Production. The program started a couple days ago and it includes over 40 musicians from around Vietnam including those from tribes from the North West and Central Highlands, Cham community, Scotland, Laos, Philippines, and two New York Jews (I’m one of them).
Trust me you’ve never seen an orchestra like this before: bagpipes, t’rung, k’ni, cello, gongs, electronics, cham drums. The list goes on. It’s really cool, but I do feel like an uncultured idiot because I don’t know half of what the instruments names are or where they are from. But hey, what are we here for other than to learn and experiment?
We have just started scratching the surface of what we are going to be doing. Today we sat together as a full Seaphony (that’s what we’re called) and tried to go over the first piece. The thing is, there really is no set music besides a very few numbers. The majority will be just exploration, improvisation, and collaboration, which is fantastic, albeit quite hard to do when there are over 40 musicians working together. We will be broken down into smaller groups to collaborate, but unfortunately there aren’t multiple practice spaces, so it’s nearly impossible to work on music in a group when a completely different music is blaring at you in the same room from a different group.
One challenge is there seems to be a lot of time where a large portion of the Seaphony isn’t working on something because only one group is needed to rehearse. Since it’s only a 20 day residency, it’s a quick race to the finish line to create over an hour’s worth of music that sounds good.
But it’s such a fun challenge and I know that it will turn out really cool. The most challenging part for me is usually learning the gong parts. We all will play one gong and they all fit together in a very tight rhythmic pattern that is full of polyrhythms and odd time signatures. Rhythm has always been my weakest element of my playing, but it will be good to try to stretch myself and see if I can do it. And if I mess up, honestly, who is going to really know the difference? That’s an important lesson I impart to my students. Seriously, no one knows if you screw up, just keep going.
Yesterday we got to see the show, Palao, by Lune Production that takes influence from the Cham community in Vietnam. Many of the people in the show are also in the Seaphony. Lune Production shows are always fantastic and this one was no exception. The choreography, lighting, music, emotion, and cultural elements were just stunning. I really can’t do it justice in words. If you’re in Hoi An, go and see it, you will not be disappointed.
Tomorrow we’re going to see another Lune Production show, Teh Dar, so I fully expect to have my mind blown again. It’s just funny because I’m a guy who loves to sit down, stay in one place and either write music or play cello. I see these amazing people who are all acrobats, musicians, dancers, and actors pulling mind-bending moves with their body, voices, and souls,. I try to envision myself doing what they’re doing and just laugh at the prospect of me trying to stuff my incredibly inflexible (and hairy) body into a clay pot like they do in Palao, all the while maintaining complex choreography and convincing acting.
I think I’ll just stick to sitting down and playing the cello.