Cuong Vu: Horn of Plenty

Avant-garde composer Cuong Vu’s trumpet playing sits on the cutting edge of music.
Avant-garde composer Cuong Vu’s trumpet playing sits on the cutting edge of music.

When Cuong Vu plays trumpet, it can sound like he’s underwater, or facing gale force winds or maybe contacting us from another dimension. The unique sounds he gets out of the horn range from spooky to sputtering—long, haunting notes that waver like seagrass, and staccato runs that leap off the standard scale, becoming syncopated gusts of breath and spit. His entrancing compositions pull listeners along partly because they want to find out what on earth is going to happen next.

Innovation is what drives Vu, 42, a Beacon Hill dweller, avant-garde composer, worldwide performer and associate professor in the jazz program at the University of Washington School of Music, where he presents his students with as many disparate musical styles as possible (free jazz, Beethoven, North African, Swedish heavy metal) in the hopes of helping them achieve new sounds of their own. “There’s no specific way to create new music,” he says. Often it results from a lucky mistake. But, he emphasizes, “You have to have the breadth of knowledge to recognize what’s new and interesting.”

Born in Saigon, Vu recalls a happy childhood spent immersed in the sounds of his parents’ Vietnamese pop band. The family immigrated to Bellevue when Vu was 5 years old. As a kid, he took the trumpet lessons that would eventually lead to a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, where, he says, “I was always attracted to boundary pushers.” Since graduating in 1994, his efforts to explode the confines of the trumpet—and more importantly, contemporary composition—have earned countless accolades and the privilege of working with other noted musical boundary pushers, including Pat Metheny, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Cibo Matto.

After a stint in New York and years of touring, Vu returned to Seattle in 2007 for the job at the UW. His presence here has been crucial to expanding the local experimental music scene, though Vu admits to initially having ruffled some local jazz feathers by voicing his complaints about the status quo, which he felt was too conservative. “People here would just play a gig and go home,” he says. “There was no hanging out and improvising in real life.” He told his students they needed to create a thriving scene, and they did. With Vu’s help, students started the Racer Sessions—weekly, public, improvised music sessions held at Café Racer—in 2010. (After a brief haitus following the May shootings, the sessions have resumed at Café Racer, which participants call “home.”) Now, Vu says proudly, “The scene is becoming a force to be reckoned with.”

So is Vu. Despite a hectic schedule—which includes parenting a 10-month-old daughter—this summer Vu was able to devote himself to discovering new music, thanks to a $35,000 Royalty Research Fund award. Led by Vu and his colleague Richard Karpen, computer-music pioneer and founder of the UW Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXArts), the Vu-Karpen Project recorded an album in June. Vu, who often uses a looping machine to blow out and extend the trumpet’s standard range, says that thanks to Karpen’s innovations, the electronic composition process is getting pushed to the max. “We are getting into sonic territories that I’ve never experienced as a player or listener before,” he marvels.

In addition to teaching three classes and leading three ensembles at the UW this fall, he’s participating in multiple collaborative projects, including The Burn List, his new quartet, which is recording soon. As for what he’s listening to in his free time? “Right now, it’s all about the kid,” he says. For the record, she leans toward Kylie Minogue.

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