In November 2012, The Six Tones and Marie Fahlin were in Hanoi and had just performed the premiere of Inside/Outside. After the premiere, we carried out research for the film project Seven Stories. As part of this fieldwork, we organized two days of workshops with actors at the Vietnam Tuồng theatre, in which we collected choreographies taken from the seven plays on which we eventually decided to build the structure for the film. When reading the stories of the plays and even more in the meetings with the actors, a new aspect of the project emerged: with the strong female characters in the scenes we recorded, these personae became a kind of counterpart to the gendered behavior of female performers in Vietnamese TV shows. The question of gender in traditional Vietnamese culture was of course in our minds and it was probably not by chance that the sessions revolved around the strong female characters that are afforded in many of these plays. Also, many of the male characters we collected were dominant, aggressive and represented power structures that were questioned by female heroines. The strong female characters—in Đào Tam Xuân not only the heroïne but also her antagonist, the queen, is a woman—and the way they act out their feelings, desires and especially in the way they also put their desire into action (action always means war in Tuồng) can in my understanding be understood as a counter-image to the values of Confucian thinking. In the present today, these plays can be seen as counter images to current gender norms in Vietnamese society.


In the Đào Tam Xuân scene—the tale of a female general whose husband was executed due to the ill doings of the queen, and whose son was killed when attempting to prevent the execution—the grief and anguish that she experiences is expressed in the same manner as would a male general do in the same situation. Hence, she is not reduced to just being beautiful but can show a wide array of different emotions. But the greatest contrast to gendered stereotypes of today is her final decision to go to war and "create justice". This turn to anger is often understood as an exclusively male behavior. In the clip V3.1 with the actress Hương Thơm, we see how the emotional state of the female general is expressed very much through foot and leg movements, like the short movements of the xiến. These movements are sometimes further amplified by simultaneous hand movements.

Even though we had initially intended to do this work in joint sessions and develop the choreography in dialogue with Marie Fahlin and the three performers, like in the making of Inside/Outside, we eventually decided otherwise. From the material we collected in the fieldwork in Hanoi, all the choreographies would eventually be created by Marie. In working sessions at Fylkingen and in her studio we rehearsed some of the basic movement sets in Tuồng without yet thinking of how they might be used in specific choreographies in the Seven Stories. On the last day, we made more specific work on a scene from  Đào Tam Xuân. In February 2013 Marie had a very intense working period alone in her studio in Stockholm. Every four-five days she would send videos to the three performers in the group (Stefan and I were in Sweden and Trà My in Vietnam at the time) for us to start rehearsing before we met for the rehearsals the week after. It must be said that the week before the rehearsals started constituted a tremendous creative outburst on Marie’s side. New choreographies just kept coming in our e-mail, day after day. Five of the choreographies were created that week.

In video V3.2 wee see a rehearsal take on the choreography for the scene Đào Tam Xuân. The aim was mainly to secure that the basic movements in the choreography were memorized, rather than to develop a more fine-tuned interpretation of the scene. Since we still did not have the costume, I constantly had to imagine each movement also as conducting the movement of the dress.

The final choreography was recorded in the Studio Theatre at University of Washington, with the music created in parallel with the filming. This scene from the film can be seen in video V3.3. Ideas for creating a triple concerto with orchestra around the music and choreography in this scene emerged on the day when we shot the scene. In the next section we move to an account of this process.

Đ à o T a m X u â n—a F e m a l e G e n e r a l

Nam Mái (2014) is a concerto for the three musicians of The Six Tones1, with music by American composer Richard Karpen and The Six Tones, choreography by Marie Fahlin and video by Jörgen Dahlqvist. The title refers to a tune in Tuồng, and this form of Vietnamese theatre also informs the solo choreography which I perform in a central section in the piece. Nam Mái was premiered in March 2014 with the Seattle Symphony and was released on CD in January 2019. A film-version of the piece, using the same audio recording, was created by Jon Rudberg and Jörgen Dahlqvist, and premiered at the Transistor Festival in April 2017. This film will be released on DVD in 2020.



The triple concerto Nam Mái was the offspring of another project—a dance film entitled Seven Stories2 —and uses video and choreography from one particular scene in that film as its core material. Nam Mái is centered around a character in a scene in Seven Stories, the female general Đào Tam Xuân. The conceptual point of departure in Seven Stories was the notion that Tuồng could be seen as a kind of proto-feminist expression in Vietnamese culture, and hence could function as a contrasting reference in my analysis of gendered gesture in the performance of traditional music. The music in the piece uses Nam Mái, which is instrumental music in Tuồng, as compositional material





I was immediately drawn into 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 to 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 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. Our responses to the searching through emotional memory are perhaps the most complex we have as humans. I love that the word “sublime” is used in physical science to describe the passing of materials from solid states directly into vapor without first becoming liquid. It's a perfect metaphor to help us think about how music acts directly on memory without the intermediary state of literal meaning, and that we would describe the most powerful of musical experience as being sublime. (Karpen, cited in Östersjö, 2018, p. 40)

When we got together in the morning to work on the scene Đào Tam Xuân, Richard suggested that we start by listening to some music from Tuồng theatre. I decided to first play a tune called Nam Mái. I have known it since I was a child, and I always found it touching and evocative. Nam Mái 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. In Tuồng, it functions as instrumental music to be played during recitation. However, the piece has several names and some prefer to call it Mái Ai, which would indicate that it is not typical of the Ai mode, but somewhere in-between the seriousness of this mode and a lighter expression. In an interview made by Stefan Östersjö, for a paper on listening in intercultural collaboration,  Richard Karpen expressed the experience of hearing this music for the first time in a way which I find surprisingly similar to how I could have described my own relation to the piece:

Nam Mái certainly did constitute such a carrier signal for all participating artists, both in the making of the scene in Seven Stories and in the new project, for which ideas emerged immediately on this day. I am convinced that we do not know how such immediate understanding or sympathy between individuals from different social and cultural background occurs.


In Nam Mái, I play the role of Đào Tam Xuân, and the choreography from this scene is worked into the triple concerto as a central narrative. Hence, while there is an articulated gender perspective in the creation of the choreography, the relation between choreography and musical composition in this project is more distant. This scene and the content of the whole story holds some of the strongest examples of a woman character in Tuồng theatre who acts with the decisiveness, authority, power of initiative and emotional complexity as is often afforded only to male characters. Hence, it is a good example of the tendency in Seven Stories to highlight female roles that functioned as a counter-reaction to the traditional choreography of gender and as a logical continuation to the work on Inside/Outside.3

In the scene Đào Tam Xuân that we created for Seven Stories (see V3.3), the music was structured in relation to the narrative and the choreography. Most of the music was played by Stefan and Trà My, while I performed the choreography. The music for đàn bầu and Vietnamese electric guitar, was distorted, rough and often violently expressive, were all drawing on the basic framework of Nam Mái. The aim was to create a parallel musical trajectory to the story told through the choreography. Still, the two musicians made extensive use of the traditional ornamentation, transforming its traditional shapes into dense clusters of aggressive and noisy gesture. In the final part when Đào Tam Xuân has collapsed on the floor and laboriously rises again, I move over to my instrument and start playing the original tune on the dan tranh, soon joined by the two other instruments. In the triple concerto Nam Mái, the presentation of the original tune is delayed, and instead, I get up, return to my instrument and play a solo with orchestra accompaniment.

At the time when the music for Nam Mái was created, the collaboration between Richard Karpen and The Six Tones had been ongoing for a number of years and through a series of complex and challenging projects. In my own experience, the making of Nam Mái constituted a culmination of a development of trust and an expression of creative possibilities that can only be obtained through collaboration.

Between spring 2013 and March 2014, when all artists got together in Seattle to create and rehearse the piece for the premiere with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, all negotiations of ideas for Nam Mái had to happen remotely, since the artists involved were in three different continents. On the 25th of January, Richard sent the final score to the piece but it had very little to say about the solo parts. The empty staff lines for the soloists and the detail of the writing in the orchestral parts represent a new dynamic in the collaboration between Richard and The Six Tones. Here, the traditional agency of the composer is stronger, represented by the through-composed score, and at the same time, the intention was to create the solo parts through the same kind of collaborative process as had driven the making of Idioms and Seven Stories—two previous productions created in the collaboration with Richard.


The orchestral score is entirely drawn from the musical structures in Nam Mái and is organized in a manner which gives a certain combination 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 Korov 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.

This solo I always felt was a musical rendering of the same “story” as in the preceding choreography, a bit like an aria in a classical opera, stylized, expressive and emotional. My experience of playing the solo has always been strongly characterized by the role in the play. I am still in costume, and just got up from the floor, and I am struggling to control my emotions. The grief that characterizes this moment, I would always bring with me into the playing. Even though the framework is defined by the orchestral score, I perceive it more like a scenario, created by the orchestra. Here, I am allowed to approach my instrument with the full life experience of a woman in grief, and in it, I found myself playing sighing gestures that to me were reminiscent of crying. I had never played such figures before, and they still are strongly connected to this particular scene, in my mind. The strummed interruptions, I always thought of as moments when she is waking up from her sadness and is trying to convince herself to take action and seek revenge.

While there is a fundamental sense of freedom in this solo, Richard's intentions and instructions could also be very precise and aimed at very particular notes and gestures. An example of this can be seen in video V3.4, in which Richard discusses the arrival note in the strums that introduce the next part after my solo, a trio cadenza.




Östersjö, S. (2018). Musical and Musicianly Listening in Intercultural Practice.

Circuits: Musiques Contemporaines, 28(1), 35–44.


I find it intriguing that when Trà My was interviewed by Stefan for an article about the piece she describes her experience of this process as an exploration of how her individual voice could find a space to co-exist with the sound world of the orchestra:


The part in which I perform the choreography became an extensive duo with electric guitar and đàn bầu. The đàn bầu part became a bit of a challenge for Trà My. Richard envisioned a rather particular texture here, where the đàn bầu should draw out melodic lines from the orchestral part, and create long stretches of melodic figurations that would merge with the sound of the orchestra, and still be a dialogical partner to the electric guitar. The playing that Richard imagined was very different to traditional performance on the đàn bầu. It should be non-vibrato and with a rhythmical shape which gave reasons for Richard to return to this material in each rehearsal. An example from the rehearsals is found in video V3.5.

In the live performance version of Nam Mái, the film projections have an important function. In the section where I perform the choreography, the film is synchronized with my movement. In two later parts, the film is instead related to the musical content and drawn from two other scenes in Seven Stories. However, when we made the film version with Jon Rudberg, Jörgen Dahlqvist, who again was the director, decided not to use any of the original film materials, but rather to re-record the choreography and to base the entire film on the performance of the three soloists. The Seattle Symphony was recorded separately and the audio recording was edited before we set up the film and recording session in Sweden, in which the trio parts and the choreography were filmed.

Perhaps the most important quality in Nam Mái is how it gives voice to each performer. As discussed above, it is essential to any method for intercultural collaboration, that hierarchical and oppressive patterns are deconstructed or avoided. The way the orchestral part sets scenarios within which the three soloists can contribute material and also get involved in detailed negotiations of how, on the other hand, this material can be operated within the particular scene, in dialogue with the composer. Giving voice to the subaltern does not necessarily imply making space for an expression of “tradition”, of an essential and exotic “otherness”, but rather, to make space for each artist to develop in ways which are sometimes unexpected, and that becomes an expression also of the fluid identity and hybridity of contemporary culture.

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. (Ngô, personal communication, 2017)