written by Tim Hansen

The Vietnam War. An international clash of ideologies fought in the theatre of a small southeast Asian country. And it sucked. For everyone. Scarcely a person alive in the US today could be ignorant of the misery thousands of young conscripts and their families endured at the behest of their own government, nor do the Vietnamese lightly gloss over the war brought to their doorstep by a foreign superpower. In both East and West, we remember in the hope that we may give meaning to the lives lost meaninglessly.

And yet time marches on. Something that was once personal and painful slowly changes into something objectively historic. The direct, human impact of the war becomes removed by one generation, then two, and before long Apocalypse Now becomes Tropic Thunder.

Yue Lor

Composer and JFund awardee Yue Lor is positioned to be more acutely aware of this transition than most young people. Lor is American, a first generation born to refugees of the Vietnam War. Lor’s family is not Vietnamese though. They are Hmong, a secluded people that live across the borders of Laos, China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Like many thousands of others, Lor’s family fled Vietnam during the war, and, like many other refugee families, the story of their escape is harrowing.

“Every Hmong person who fled Vietnam escaped in the same way. They all had to forge the Mekong river from Laos into Thailand,” explains Lor. “My grandparents were no exception. The Mekong has strong currents, and the only way to get to Thailand was to swim upstream for hours. Many were washed away. And the communists knew that the Hmong had to cross the river to reach safety. As a result, you would often hear bullets firing across one border to the next. People were told to keep their head down, otherwise they would lose it.”

Today, Lor and his family live in Minnesota, home to one of the biggest Hmong communities in the US. With over forty years having passed since the end of the war though, Lor says he fears that a crisis is brewing, as many of his peers unaware of the dangerous journey their parents and grandparents undertook. Lor hopes to address this crisis with his commission supported by the JFund.

“The younger generation of Hmong Americans do not know what horrors their relatives and ancestors went through,” says Lor. “This piece is meant to act as a musical biography of such a treacherous event. I want to help add on to the folklore of the Hmong as many of these wonderful stories are being lost and forgotten. In this instance, I am more than a composer, I am a musical biographer for my culture.”

Like many of his works, Lor’s JFund piece will incorporate elements of Hmong folk music. Hmong folk music shares many characteristics with the Hmong language, which, like most Asian languages, is tonal, with one word capable of having many different meanings depending on the speaker’s inflection. Most Hmong music is solo songs that tell a story, and as Lor explains, “if a word has a relatively higher pitch than the word before it, you would sing a pitch that is higher than the note before it.” Instrumental music mimics these patterns, Lor adds: “master Hmong musicians are said to be able to hear the stories from the instrumental genre alone without any lyrics provided.”

Lor’s own personal story of how he ended up a composer is remarkable in its own right. His primary exposure to music when he was a child at church, and by Lor’s own admission the congregation couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. “It was the early music experience that Charles Ives would have wanted,” jokes Lor. “You would get about 7 different microtonal versions of the same melody. People think four part harmony is amazing but 17 part melody is even more intriguing.”

Despite a childhood bereft of music lessons (“my first lesson was in college where I was told that piano proficiency was a thing”) Lor was determined to become a composer after hearing the Minnesota Orchestra perform Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet when he was a junior in high school. “The piece was like a wakeup call,” recalls Lor. “I had never heard such boisterous and dramatic music before. I decided to become a composer because of a calling from which I felt that I couldn’t stray.”

After graduating high school, Lor went on to study music at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. It was while he was an undergrad student that Lor began serious study of Hmong music, receiving a grant to purchase some Hmong instruments and study with a master Hmong musician, laying the groundwork for a distinctly unique take on contemporary art music. Despite having virtually no exposure to the standard staples of Western music until in his late teens, Lor now holds a Bachelor of Music in Composition.

Lor is young, and only at the beginning of his composition career, but he takes his music, family history and heritage as seriously as any elder. “My goal is to have anyone, regardless if they are Hmong or not, be able to tell the story of the Hmong’s Mekong river crossing. It is critical that we remember the hardships of the Hmong.”