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Composer Nguyễn Minh Nhật in Paris with his mentor, Tốn Thất Tiết.

While Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and PBS turn American attention to the Vietnam War with an important new documentary on September 17th, Jan Karlin and I will be in Việt Nam turning our attention to the third season of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. For the first time, Vietnamese composers are writing new works for their own Vietnamese ensemble for a supportive Vietnamese public, guided by their first ever American arts advisors, with trusted friends sending best wishes from Paris on October 21st.

Burns, Novick and PBS are justifiably concerned with the Vietnam War. But Jan and I want us all to truly to move forward, and to do that you must be prepared to see Việt Nam as a country. We firmly believe new music is writing the inspiring next chapter of our story together.

Why not join us in Hà Nội on October 21st and hear for yourself?


Collaboration between the Đồng Kinh Cổ Nhạc and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble continues at this season’s opening concert October 21.

As a result of the collaboration of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble with the Đồng Kinh Cổ Nhạc (the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin), the Vietnamese will listen to their past to hear their future. I firmly believe that this Vietnamese wave will crescendo in the next few years, arriving from Southeast Asia to a concert hall near you. That’s a coded sentence telling you considerable long range planning is on our Hà Nội agenda this autumn!

New music ensembles rise and fall on the quality of the music they play. Fortunately for my appointment in Việt Nam, I have three generations of composers that inspire me and will proudly support for the remainder of my career. For the generation that emigrated to Paris in the 1950s, Buddhism and Existenialism blended East and West as two young Vietnamese composers came in contact with the world of Messiaen, Dutilleux and Boulez, and were forever changed. In my opinion, Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and Tốn Thất Tiết created the strongest music from any country in Asia I’ve encountered (and yes, that includes Japan). Their music is an inspiring starting point for a global Vietnamese discussion I am proud to animate.


Jan and I are thrilled to return to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble this week. We’re all seen here at a concert sponsored by the Institut français last October.

Representing these simultaneous Vietnamese and French grandparents I’m happy to conduct the Vietnamese premiere of Tiết’s Miroir, mémoire, which was written in 2011 and dedicated to me and my ensemble in Los Angeles, Southwest Chamber Music. In honor of the late Nguyễn Thiên Đạo, we’ll offer an homage to his magnificent compositions with Tuyến Lửa for string quartet and percussion.

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An important dinner in Paris with Benoit Walther, Patricia Alia, Madame Hélène Đạo, me and Jan, discussing next steps about the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

Jan and I were pleased to be welcomed to Paris this May with a dinner hosted by Madame Hélène Đạo, bringing us together with her late husband’s publishers Benoit Walther of Lemoine/Jobert (he also represents Tốn Thất Tiết) and Patricia Alia, the director of Salabert/Durand at Universal Music Company. There were many topics throughout the night, and we spent until the early hours of a new Paris morning talking back and forth. Madame Đạo is working with the Nadia Boulanger Foundation to create an appropriate way to encourage serious new music in young students. Timing is everything, so Jan and I were happy to put our Vietnamese colleagues in the right place at the right time.

That’s an important Paris backdrop to appreciate for the new works coming on October 21st in Hà Nội from Tràn Kim Ngọc, Vũ Nhật Tân, Nguyễn Minh Nhật and hopefully Lương Huệ Trinh. Our Paris friends are watching all the developments of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble with great anticipation.

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Kim (Metal) by Vũ Nhật Tân will receive its world premiere October 21.

And I am thrilled that an essential cultural ingredient, of important new compositions by Vietnamese composers for their own ensemble, is now vigorously underway. What happens this October is an Eroica moment where all the participating groups – creators, musicians and audience – come together constructing the triangle of communication concerts animate. Once Beethoven hammered out those opening 19th century E flat major chords he never went back, what I describe as his Eroica moment, his Declaration of Independence. That’s where Vietnamese new music and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble find themselves now.

I am happy to describe the concert to you!

Vũ Nhật Tân is now immersed in a major composition that promises to become a full concert, Kim Mộc Thủy Hỏa Thồ. The first movement, Kim, will premiere on October 21st. The composer describes his composition like this: “Metal Wood Water Fire Earth are the Five Natural Elements that constitute all things in ancient Asian philosophy. These Five Elements move back and forth in a Positive or Negative direction so that by its operation they produce Life on Earth. Metal Wood Water Fire Earth is also the name of a poem about human life and the environment of the 20th century, written by Nguyễn Duy, an important author and poet of modern Vietnamese literature. Kim is a piece of music that was created with the philosophical thinking and thought of his own poem Kim and is the first of five projected movements. This is also the first piece to be written for both the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble and the Đồng Kinh Cổ Nhạc, the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin, which I co-direct with Đàm Quang Minh. I hope to open the door to the Movement of Sound and of Creative Thinking.”

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Poet Nguyễn Duy is in the center, surrounded by members of the Đồng Kinh Cổ Nhạc.

Another exciting piece on our October 21st Hà Nội New Music Ensemble concert is the premiere of a new version of Hồ Nguyệt Cô Hoá Cáo by Tràn Kim Ngọc, a collaborative work between Ngọc, video artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi, American cinematographer Jamie Maxtone Graham and actresses Mẫn Thị Thu and Nguyễn Thi Lộc Huyền.

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Composer Tràn Kim Ngọc in Hà Nội.

“I have an ongoing concern with concepts of femininity. Hồ Nguyệt Cô Hoá Cáo is an ancient tale of Tuồng, a style of Vietnamese opera, and is the story of a woman, named Hồ Nguyệt Cô. In the tale, a female fox obtains, after 1,000 years of cultivation, a magical “human” gem, and was able to become human, and became a woman. Then, being infatuated with human sexuality and love, Hồ Nguyệt Cô was tricked into losing the magic gem and was transformed back into a fox and ultimately slaughtered. I would like to retell the story in correlation with the different layers of time and languages ​​of art; between the sounds of the ancient Vietnamese Tuồng opera and the nature of western classical instruments, between film and music, between live performance and recorded performance, and finally between the ancient legend and the fate of women in the present time.”

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A Vietnamese cultural force as composer Tràn Kim Ngọc rehearses with members of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

And following the middle generation of Tràn Kim Ngọc and Vũ Nhật Tân, there will be a world premiere from the young generation by Nguyễn Minh Nhật, who has spent formative time this summer in Paris with his mentor Tốn Thất Tiết. Jan and I have entered into serious discussions this year with French cultural leaders, both in Việt Nam and Paris, discussing how we can create cultural continuity for the Vietnamese. The photo of Nhật and Tiết in Paris together this summer beginning this post speaks volumes of generational encouragement.

I’m conducting Nhật’s Fall, Rise dedicated to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. He describes the piece with these words: “Fall, Rise depicts a journey from a downfall to the process of rebuilding to rising up once again. Along the way are obstacles: weakness, stagnation and rage, which are all things that push the journey forward.”

Sounds like a description of Việt Nam searching for its national identity. A stunning piece from an emerging composer influenced by a national treasure, establishing cultural continuity between France and Việt Nam is well underway.

We are also exploring getting started with another promising creative member of the young generation, Lương Huệ Trinh, who is studying now in Hamburg Germany, so perhaps my recent visits to this Hanseatic port city make more sense to you. Trinh has already worked with Kent Nagano’s Hamburg Staatsoper, providing vivid soundscapes for a production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Æneas. She has created Illusions, the most powerful environmental statement combining music and video I’ve ever seen, and a promising work very well received in Sweden, Behind the Mirror. If we can’t manage her technology demands by October, consider it a done deal that the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble will have room to encourage Trinh in the very near future. We’ve already discussed a couple of paths to follow together in the coming year.

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Composer Lương Huệ Trinh, now studying in Hamburg, will play an important role in the long range plans of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

The Vietnamese are a people defined by poetry. Their language is an intentional labyrinth, embedded on purpose with more difficulties than Chinese, but now isolated from the rest of Asia because their ancient Nôm calligraphy was slowly replaced by a complicated Romanized alphabet imposed by layers of European colonialization. I’ll  give a brief introduction of how this came about, which reaches back to the 17th century.

A French Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes, was born in Avignon in 1591. He was under the employ of the Portuguese when he arrived in Hà Nội in 1619. De Rhodes in Indochina would compile a catechism and translate the Bible for the religious conversion of the Vietnamese. Eventually he published a Vietnamese, Portuguese and Latin dictionary in Rome in 1651. His Dictionarum Annamticum Lusitania et Latinum would eventually become the ultimate source of linguistic change. By the early 20th century his 17th century quốc ngữ script would be formally imposed nationwide by the French, with the unforeseen consequence of genuine acceptance by an entire generation of young Vietnamese, including Hồ Chí Minh. The rest, as they say, is history. Or to put it another way, translating Victor Hugo into quốc ngữ Vietnamese backfired on the French in a breathtaking fashion.


Thu Phong (Autumn Wind) was the title of last year’s opening concert. The Đồng Kinh Cổ Nhạc Ensemble members are seated above the setup for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

Viewing the world through a dense and complicated language is a straightforward and daily occurrence in Hà Nội. Therefore, every concert in Việt Nam needs a poetic title! A Mirror of Memory became our agreed upon motto for the concert October 21st, and the opening of the third season of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble will take place in the Grand Hall of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music at 20h00.

I find it helpful to recall that there is no conjugation of verb into past, present and future, throughout Asia. That influences their concept of memory in ways I’m still trying to grasp. Their American War, our Vietnam War, was relatively brief compared to a 1,000 years under the Chinese and a century under the French, who brought the contradictions of baguettes and guillotines with them to the Vietnamese areas of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin.

Last year, my many friends took it upon themselves to slowly reveal to Jan and me the true Việt Nam, a Việt Nam that is not Chinese, not French, not American, not culturally Southeast Asian, not geographically East Asian, but a place that stands on its own. Their Việt Nam was the point of discussions and experiences, helping us disperse the confusing external impositions of who they are. Finding another country for comparison remains elusive, much like the physical beauty of Hạ Long Bay remains unique to Việt Nam and found no where else.

The same is true for Việt Nam’s new music! Sound as evanescence is what I hear as a binding national characteristic, similar perhaps to the patience needed to make lotus tea to welcome friends returning from a far.


Đàm Quang Minh, co-director of the Đồng Kinh Cồ Nhạc Ensemble, making lotus tea to welcome us back to our collaborations with Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

Jan and I have been fortunate to give many concerts over a long and productive career, in many places over the globe. But it is only in Việt Nam where a colleague slowly prepares a batch of lotus tea to welcome us on our return to Hà Nội, as the above photo of Đàm Quang Minh demonstrates. Our story may not be part of a Ken Burns PBS documentary, but that’s OK with us. We’re moving forward together!

I’ll leave you with a thought that I hope sinks in, particularly with my large readership in the United States and France. This idea motivates Jan and me to dedicate our time and effort to the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.

See Việt Nam as a country, not a war. And their young generation? The first Vietnamese generation in over a century to have no memory of conflict. And that’s called hope for a better future, for us all.

Best, best, best,