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Published for The Neotrope Enterprise.  Publisher: Bengt Rooke. June. 2009. No. 61.



The Six Tones is a Swedish/Vietnamese project that, since 2006, works on a long-term basis on the amalgamation of art music from Vietnam and Europe.
On the one hand we play transcriptions of traditional Vietnamese music for Western stringed instruments and traditional Vietnamese instruments, also in combination with live-electronics.
On the other hand we also commission new works by Western as well as from Vietnamese composers.

The Six Tones are, Nguyen Thanh Thuy (who plays dan tranh) and Ngo Tra My (who play dan bau), two Vietnamese performers, and the Swedish guitarist Stefan Östersjö (also playing many other stringed instruments).
Since the project started, we have been collaborating with the composer and improviser Henrik Frisk who has both composed works for the ensemble as well as toured with the group as a laptop improviser.

Ngo Tra My and her dan bau in Hanoi 2006.

The name of the group, emanating from a piece by Henrik Frisk, relates to the fact that the Vietnamese language is a tonal language using six tones or intonations.

Our main point of departure has been to create a foundation for a meeting between two distinct musical cultures on equal terms. This practice implies the questioning of what is ”centre” and what is ”periphery”: is the Western art music the norm (centre) and the traditional Vietnamese music an exotic ”other”?

Still, long after the world had been found to rotate around the sun, in the mind of a Westerner, the world continued to be centred round Europe. In music, we find a parallel in the conception of differences of a hierarchic nature between notated and orally transmitted music.

What can our distinct musical cultures learn from each other? How can the Western art music adopt a listening role? How can an essentially orally transmitted culture turn the encounter with experimental music into a tool for renewal?

A means to create these meetings is to allow new works to emerge from joint improvisations, that bit-by-bit approach a more defined form. The notation is neither the end result nor a single normative force in the artistic process, but the work instead takes shape as a continual negotiation between several parties.


About the music.
Henrik Frisk’s quartet (it is not a trio since the electronics are generated in real time by the composer as a co-performer) The Six Tones is the first composition that we generated in this manner.

Henrik Frisk and Stefan Östersjö in a studio at EMS in Stockholm in 2009.


The work on his piece was the starting point for the entire project and took place in open forms in April 2006.
A series of collective improvisations on a material that Henrik had originally worked out for the guitar piece Repetition Repeats all other Repetitions makes up the foundation for the piece.
After many revisions and further improvisations the piece found its final form in time for the premiere in Hanoi in October 2006.

Video: The Six Tones Part 1:

Part 2:

A performance of Henrik Frisk’s The Six Tones at Atalante,
the video was recorded by Niklas Rydén.

Nam Ai (Southern sorrow) is a traditional Vietnamese piece in the Tai Tu style of Southern Vietnam. We approach this music with the intention of incorporating the 10-string guitar with the traditional playing techniques and sound worlds of the Vietnamese instruments.

Video: Nam Ai:

A performance of Nam Ai at Atalante in Gothenburg,
the video was recorded by Niklas Rydén.

Nguyen Thien Dao has had a key function in the merging between Western art music and Vietnamese music. He was born in Hanoi but came to France at the age of thirteen. Ten years later he commenced his studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris where he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen.

After having become established as an important figure in French music he began to make contact with the emerging music life in Vietnam in the 1990’ with the premiere of several orchestral works.

Nguyen Thanh Thuy and her dan tranh in a concert
in Sweden in 2007.


In 2004 he worked with Nguyen Thanh Thuy on a new piece for dan tranh as part of the process of writing a series of works for traditional Vietnamese instruments. The result of this work was the solo for dan tranh called Khoi Song (2005).

Video: Khoi Song:

A performance by Nguyen Thanh Thuy of Nguyen
Thien Dao’s Khoi Song at Atalante in Gothenburg 2009.

Henrik Denerins mnemoneuei deals with memory. Memory as recollection, as trace; memory that reviews – memory that repeats.
Two extreme forms of memory, each regarded in their pure state, but also as a transitory form, as a compound phenomenon that emanates from their amalgamation.
A transition from the virtual to the actual. But also about imagination and the border line between them. A concealed object that is brought forth by the act of remembering and by imagination.

Video: Denerin:

A performance of Henrik Denerin’s mnemoneuei
at Atalante in Gothenburg 2009.


He Moi is a traditional Vietnamese piece in the tradition of the Cheo drama. This music depicts one of the important stereotypical characters in the drama, the clown, and is performed here in a version for dan tranh and 10-string guitar.

Video: He Moi:

 A performance of He Moi by Nguyen Thanh Thuy
and Stefan Östersjö at Atalante in Gothenburg 2009.

Love Mangs Viken is originally a piece for guitar, banjo and electronics. The composer started out his work, not by writing music but by writing a haiku-poem which served as a metaphorical lantern for the piece.
There is no formal connection between the guitar piece and the two poems that share the title Viken.

Initially, the composer wanted to derive the musical structure from the poems, but eventually the music took its own course.
However, the poems served as a kind of ‘regulative’ text, not at all in the sense of being a kind of notation or set of instructions for the music, but as a point of reference in the unfolding of the musical material, in order to retain the original impulse to the piece.

Viken is not program music but draws impulses and general characteristics from these texts. The transcription for trio was made by The Six Tones without the composer’s participation.

      Viken (The Bay)

      Bright foggy days
      I break the mirror in half
with heavy strokes of the oar

      Echo of the ripples
      Unveil in the green mist
      The shoal’s silver rain


Video: Viken Part 1:

Part 2:

A performance of Love Mang’s Viken at Atalante in Gothenburg.

Malin Bångs composition Fireworks and Silver Birds is a piece for trio and electronics. This is how the composer describes the joint work in improvisations and workshops that starting in autumn 2007 led to her piece:

”The group improvised on different types of movement as themes, which generated both gesture with a lot of friction and contrasting light, volatile parts.

The musical content of the work emerged out of these meetings, and from influences from the traditional Vietnamese musical form ca tru.
The text to the ca tru that I chose as point of departure is a symbolic ode to peace, with a hope for a constructive development of the country and a new strong community..”

Video: "Fireworks and Silver Birds" Part 1:

Part 2:

A performance of Malin Bång’s Fireworks and Silver Birds
at Atalante 2009.

Tu Dai Oán is a piece in the Tai Tu tradition of Southern Vietnam.
In this performance — with Nguyen Thanh Thuy (playing the dan tranh), Stefan Östersjö (playing 10-string guitar) and Henrik Frisk (laptop) — this traditional tune is overlapped with free improvisation with electronics.
An attempt to merge improvisational traditions from two distinct cultures within the frame of a traditional tune.

Video: Tu Dai Oán:

A performance of Tu Dai Oán with The Six Tones at Atalante,
Gothenburg. The video was recorded by Niklas Rydén.

Edward Said reminds us of the political nature of all cultural activity. In the spirit of Said we wish to underline that The Six Tones is in essence a political statement and a project that is in no way neutral to Kiplings classical imperialistic assertion that ”east is east and west is west”. Of course they meet. The question is only under which conditions and with what intentions.


More recordings from our latest tour in March and April in Sweden and Denmark can be heard at


The tour was organized in collaboration between Concerts Sweden, RANK, Malmö Academy of Music and SIDA.



© 2009 Stefan Östersjö and Rooke Time
All rights reserved. This text may be quoted
with proper acknowledgment

Stefan Östersjö