Vietnamese-American artist Dao Strom has created an all-encompassing experience with her poetry work Instrument, which is accompanied by its companion piece, an album by the name of Traveler’s Ode. Within, there is an exploration of history, legacy, nature, of trauma both personal and generational, and the interwoven story of a member of a diaspora traveling back to a so-called homeland. Though what this actually means and how it plays out is investigated and dissected throughout.
It should also be said that the album comes in the form of a cassette tape, which is now a wonderfully archaic and analog method of listening to music. Like all old media formats, what’s appealing about them now are the very same limitations that encouraged us to innovate beyond them. Even the most well-produced music, when captured on tape, would hiss and create noise that was never there originally. The tapes themselves would wear out over time, if they even made it that long without their accompanying player unceremoniously, though accidentally, chewing them up and spitting them out.
Though the cassette comes with a code to download the album on Bandcamp, it feels right to listen to the album in its original format – the emergent noises and inherently ephemeral nature of cassettes echo the often fragmented and distorted nature of the writing found within Instrument. And that’s not even mentioning the music itself, which is largely built upon haunting, simple loops of voices, guitars, pianos and other such instrumentation. These hypnotic, fractured loops hang in the recording space, allowing the listener to appreciate their timbre and texture as well as the hypnagogic atmosphere they come together to create. Field recordings make their way into the mix as well, snippets of people speaking or the sounds of nature, growing the atmosphere into something that feels very organic.
The writing found in Instrument is a perfect accompaniment to this style of music, and vice versa. There are many artists who have tried to capture the fragmented, distorted nature of memory and the way it interacts with the present as well as the future, but few do so with the totality of vision that Dao Strom possesses here. Her writing, with its many repeated, echoing phrases and pieces of imagery, is an ouroboros of different ideas, of natural landscapes, heritage, personal memories and memories that echo throughout diasporic communities. As is repeated throughout this work, “Is the moon refugee like me?”
This fractured bricolage grows ever more evocative with the inclusion of photography as well as the occasional complete breakdown of form itself. On several pages, words appear jumbled, overlapping and twisted in every direction, challenging the reader to piece together words and meanings. Out of this, though, rising from this thicket brush of memory, comes something of a narrative – the experience of the author returning to Vietnam, exploring cave systems and pondering the nature of water, but ultimately traveling to the “highway of horror.”
It is here that the terrors of the past become most vibrantly realized through text, as Dao Strom reflects on the broader implications of these long-buried war crimes as well as her personal place in it all. The “highway of horror” was named by photojournalist Ngy Thanh, who worked for the independent newspaper that Dao Strom’s parents founded and published. This is not the first time that the personal intersects with the political, however. In one way, it’s one of the main throughlines of Instrument, how political decisions made by men in far-off government buildings can have such a catastrophic effect on people and how individuals can try and find their place in all of that, even years or decades later.
However, it wouldn’t be fair to characterize Instruments as a piece of art that is concerned mostly with those sociopolitical and historical ideas. The power of this work is that it encompasses everything, from the political to the personal, to images of ghosts, eagles and rabbits, ancient cave systems, and one particularly captivating diatribe about flowers. This is a complete work of art that engages on so many different levels, from the tape hiss of the cassette to the fractured forms of the writing, that informs of journeys both personal and political, of hypnagogic memories to the choice to, of course, “sing to the inevictable terror.”