Nam Mai

For dan tranh, dan bau, Vietnamese electric guitar, and 19 strings.
Composed for The Six Tones and The Seattle Symphony.



CD Booklet Text for Richard Karpen’s Nam Mái and Strandlines

The two pieces that form the content of this CD are cornerstones in the later work of the American composer Richard Karpen. They share a radical approach to musical composition, which has brought Karpen into in-depth collaborations with a number of musicians from very different traditions over the past fifteen years. With a wish to explore forms of musical creation emerging from the very fabric of the sounding material, rather than from the abstraction of the written score, this music is largely conceived through joint exploration, and through the concrete listening characteristic of electronic music composition.

Strandlines, a large-scale piece for 6-string guitar and computer, was formational in this development. The piece was created in 2006 and 2007 through an extensive collaborative process, involving Richard Karpen and the guitarist Stefan Östersjö. There is no musical score for Strandlines. Instead, the composition is defined through its performed materials and a shared understanding for how these are developed in interaction with the live processing, programmed in Supercollider. Two previous works, Anterior View of an Interior with Reclining Trombonist (2002) for trombone and live electronics with Stuart Dempster and Aperture (2006) for viola and live electronics with Melia Watras explored these modes of creation. But in Strandlines the collaborative processes were furthered considerably and with more mindful intention. This is how Karpen describes the working  process:

While this kind of experientially developed music has existed in many cultures, I am equally interested in developing the role of the composer/author. I’m drawn to the kinds of techniques that film director Mike Leigh uses for character and plot development in his films. Leigh works with his actors to create their characters through an organic and rigorous series of directed improvisation and reiteration until the actors fully embody their characters, their utterances, and the relationships between all of the interacting characters and situations within the environment of the work. Through this process the film becomes its own screenplay. In the case of my own explorations in this mode of composing, the music is itself the score.

Strandlines also explores the extension of instrument and performer through live computer enhancement and processing. It is a work not so much for guitar as for guitarist, the merging of person and instrument. In the case of Strandlines, Stefan Östersjö’s integral role in the development of guitar material seems more about who he is as a performing artist than about the guitar.

But what kind of work is Strandlines? The greater form is firmly fixed, but the individual details vary according to the different characteristics that define each section of the piece. This is a type of work that bears similarities to music in many extra-European traditions. Turning to Roland Barthes one may say that it is “a music that is not abstract or inward, but that is endowed, if one may put it like that, with a tangible intelligibility, with the intelligible as tangible”. However, while the identity of Strandlines may be similar to other complex, non-notated forms of music, such as an Indian raga, its stringent form and the overall sound of the work is coherent with the earlier compositions in Karpen’s output, thereby combining a performative identity with the structural complexity of contemporary western traditions.

The working methods developed by Karpen and Östersjö in the making of Strandlines have proved to be particularly fruitful in intercultural collaboration, and the second piece on the CD – Nam Mái, for three soloists, nineteen string instruments and film, composed for the The Six Tones and string players of the Seattle Symphony – is the outcome of extensive work in this domain.

 Nam Mái is the third and most ambitious work with the Six Tones employing these methods of collaboration with a larger group of performers. The first of these, based on the work on Strandlines of Karpen and Östersjö led to the making of a piece of music theatre titled Idioms (2010-11). Here, The Six Tones, a trio consisting of Östersjö and two Vietnamese master performers – Ngô Trà My and Nguyễn Thanh Thủy – were joined by actors from Sweden, Vietnam and the USA.  The collaboration also involved the Swedish playwright and director Jörgen Dahlqvist who developed devising methods inspired by the making of Strandlines. Idioms was eventually followed by the making of Seven Stories, a feature-length dance film inspired by traditional Vietnamese Tuồng theatre subjects, which added choreographer Marie Fahlin to the artistic group.

In the process of creating Seven Stories, a piece of traditional Vietnamese music became the central material in one scene, but at the same time, also gave rise to ideas for a new composition, for three soloists and orchestra. This traditional piece is often called Nam Mái and is commonly found in Tuồng theatre, a Vietnamese form of theatre which shares common traits with Beijing opera. It is in the Ai mode, which affords a grave and serious expression. Since Tuồng is dramatic theatre, normally also bent towards tragedy, this mode is rather common here. Nam Mái made its way into the collaboration between The Six Tones and Richard Karpen, in the morning of the second working day on the film Seven Stories. We had set out on a project which was to follow dogma-like rules: each scene should relate to a story from a specific play from Tuồng Theatre. Its choreography should be developed from gesture in this scene and the music should be created on the same day as the film was shot. The film was also to be a documentary of its own creation. The play for the second day was Đào Tam Xuân, the story of a female general whose husband was executed due to the ill doings of the queen, and subsequently, her son was killed when attempting to prevent the execution. We started the session by presenting music from Tuồng theatre to the artists involved. As the first piece, Nguyễn Thanh Thủy played Nam Mái, and we decided on the spot to use it for this scene. This is how Richard Karpen describes his encounter with the piece:

I was immediately drawn in to Nam Mái. It was not a matter of simply “liking” the melody or being attracted to the musical qualities. In the case of Nam Mái, hearing it created an instant response in my thoughts and in my body. I heard it as if I had heard it before and it opened up a range of abstract memories and feelings. There is certain music that acts like a “carrier signal”, in fact I now think that this is exactly what Music mostly is in general. As our brains “process” musical “signals”, deep memory connections are triggered, as if we were searching for meaning, perhaps scanning memory in order to assemble an “image” in order to decode the carrier. It seems that emotional memory is where the brain finds the most effective set of pathways for decoding music and so our response is emotional. One could make the point that all sensory stimulation acts as a carrier that triggers memory. But we’re talking about music and my experience and analyses over many years is that music is an especially complex carrier signal that the brain processes by searching deep and wide across ”universal” and individual experience, not of music but of everything.

A couple of weeks before the premiere, all artists got together in Seattle to create the solo parts and finalize the role of video and choreography. Some months before, Karpen had finished the score to the piece, which is through composed in the orchestral part, but leaving the staffs for the soloists blank, and also with a number of fermatas indicating the placement of cadenzas for one or more of the three soloists. The orchestral score is entirely drawn from the musical structures in Nam Mái and is organized in a manner which gives a certain set of freedom and constraints for the soloists.

One could think of the orchestration in Nam Mái a bit like a set design, providing a series of distinct scenes for the three solo instruments, or, as Richard Karpen put it in conversation with the conductor Stilian Kirov before the recording session with the Seattle Symphony: “think of the orchestral part as the music in a film and that the solo parts are the film”. Indeed, the score also obtained this function of a set in the working sessions in Seattle. With Karpen’s analogy then, we met to start making the film together, a bit like the filmmaker Mike Leigh would draw his actors together to start creating the script and the film through a collaborative process.

In a recent book chapter on the function of trust in musical performance, Anthony Gritten reminds us of how “interaction without trust has no pragmatic means to get itself beyond microscopic, atomistic, local interactions and begin developing its own self-sustaining ecology”. The ecology created in the world of the work titled Nam Mái involves the agreements between Karpen and each musician on the specific shape of musical materials, of how they develop and relate to larger structures. Further, the musical form is drawn directly from the interaction between the three performers.

This kind of trust is inherent to any of the compositional projects carried out by Karpen and various performers, especially over the past fifteen years. Certainly, a composition like Strandlines would not have happened without the ecology of musical collaboration. But Nam Mái  seems to make this dependence on trust even more underlined, perhaps because it involves more people and a collaboration across cultures. Trust is written into the score, not just through the absence of written instructions in the solo parts but also in the ways in which the orchestral score constitutes a fabric, clearly intended for the voice of three specific performers to join in, to align with, to resist, to develop its musical content. Ngo Trà My describes her experience of the collaboration with Karpen as a negotiation of individual license and a search for a space in which a common ground can be created:

The way that Richard set the piece up, I can float freely in the material from Nam Mái, operating the playing techniques and the sonority of the đàn bầu. I know that I cannot fully understand the intentions that Richard had with the piece but I can still draw out my own story from my subjective experience of the music, so that my sound is brought together with the sonority of the entire piece, as if we were telling the same story.

Richard Karpen’s compositional output since the early 2000s points beyond old paradigms in Experimental western music, discovering new modes of musical creativity drawn from approaches to complexity more ancient than the invention of musical notation. The two compositions on this CD are the result of extensive collaborative exploration, where the voice of each participating artist is essential to the identity of the final work.

Text by Stefan Östersjö

The Six Tones

The Six Tones is a platform for an encounter between traditional and experimental cultures in Asia and the west. The core of this practice is, since 2006, an ongoing project of mutual learning between musicians from Vietnam and Sweden. The Six Tones is a group that plays traditional Vietnamese music in hybrid settings for Western stringed instruments and traditional Vietnamese instruments and improvise in traditional and experimental Western idioms and also commission new works in collaboration with artists in Asia as well as in other parts of the world. The Six Tones are Nguyễn Thanh Thủy (who plays đàn tranh) and Ngô Trà My (who plays đàn bầu), two Vietnamese performers, and the Swedish guitarist Stefan Östersjö.

Nguyễn Thanh Thủy was born into a theatre family and was raised with traditional Vietnamese music from an early age in Hà Nội. She studied at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music where she received her diploma in 1998, followed by a Master of Arts at the Institute of Cultural Studies in 2002. Since 2000 she holds a teaching position at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. She has toured in Asia, Europe, the USA. She has received many distinctions, in 1992 First Prize in the Contest of Traditional Instrument Performance on Television and Radio, Vietnam, as well as in 1998 First Prize and the Best Traditional Music Performer Prize in the National Competition of Zither Talents, 1998, Vietnam. Nguyễn Thanh Thủy has recorded several CD’s as soloist with orchestra and solo CDs.

Ngô Trà My studied at the Hanoi National Conservatory of Music, where she received her diploma in 1994 and a pedagogical exam in 2007. Since 1994 she teaches the đàn bầu at the conservatory in Hanoi. She has performed at festivals in China, Spain, Korea, Scandinavia and Vietnam and has recorded one CD as soloist with orchestra: Lời ru quê hương (Lullaby of the Native Land) – 2001. Since 2008 she is Board Member of the Asian/Korean Orchestra. With The Six Tones, she has toured in Europe, Asia and the USA.

Stefan Östersjö is a leading classical guitarist specialized in the performance of contemporary music. He has released more than 20 CDs and toured Europe, the US and Asia. He has been part of numerous collaborations with composers, but also in the creation of works involving choreography, film, video, performance art and music theatre. Since 2006 he has been developing inter-cultural artistic practices with the Vietnamese/Swedish group The Six Tones as a platform. As a soloist he has cooperated with conductors such as Lothar Zagrosek, Peter Eötvös, Pierre André Valade, Mario Venzago and Andrew Manze. He received his doctorate in 2008, became a research fellow at the Orpheus Institute  in 2009 and is today associate professor and head of doctoral studies in artistic research at the Malmö Academy of music.


Nguyễn Thanh Thủy : đàn tranh (Vietnamese 19-string zither)

Ngô Trà My: đàn bầu (Vietnamese monochord)

Stefan Östersjö: 6-string classical guitar (Strandlines), đàn tỳ bà and Vietnamese electric guitar (Nam Mái)

Nam Mái

Commissioned by the Seattle Symphony

Conductor: Stilian Kirov

Seattle Symphony recorded in October 2014 by Dmitriy Lipay at Benaroya Hall, Seattle.

The Six Tones recorded in August 2015 by Silas Bieri at Malmö Theatre Academy

Edited and mixed by Stefan Östersjö, Doug Niemela and Richard Karpen.