A music experiment goes to town

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Students at Dom Dom, the first school for contemporary artist founded by musician Tran Kim Ngoc, will perform at her Hanoi New Music Festival. Photo courtesy of Hanoi New Music Festival

Four years after they talked about it, Vietnamese and European songwriters are gathering this Saturday in Hanoi to inaugurate Vietnam's first experimental music festival.

The Hanoi New Music Festival will be celebrated until December 8, presenting 12 events by around 50 musicians, either emerging or established, from eight different countries - Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, UK, and Vietnam.

The festival is called "Diem khuat" (Blind Spot), signifying the aim to change the invisibility of contemporary music by reflecting recent artistic, social and technical developments in music on the local scene.

Cheo Theater in Hanoi will open the festival with a revisit of the 2007 composition of the festival's initiator Tran Kim Ngoc, "What Makes the Spider Spin Her Web," an electro-theater piece with ghostly music and shaking echoes of "a oi."

It is based on an old Vietnamese folk song. Ngoc makes powerful calls to women bound to the same journey of traditional roles from the past to present.

Ngoc, who studied piano at Hanoi Music Conservatory, is one of few Vietnamese musicians recognized on the world stage.

The 39-year-old said she would have gone down the path of a normal pop musician and none of the contemporary vibes would have happened if she had not joined the Cologne Music University, a famous contemporary music academy.

She won a Paris contemporary music composition contest in 1994, and in 2010, was Vietnam's representative at the 21st Asian Young Leaders Conference in Indonesia thanks to her role in kicking off experimental music in Vietnam.

Her festival presents highly interactive music in terms of collaboration between the artists and audience, the artists and their venues, as well as the artists themselves.

Spot night will introduce five new local productions that manifest the idea of transitioning music and the existence of unsung notes.

One of them, "Circle of Life," is a dialogue between two generations expressed by the languages of different art mediums hip hop dance versus wooden clapper (phach) that is common in Vietnamese folk music performances and Chinese stringed instrument pipa.

Another ten-minute performance mixes the sound of piano and the noises of concrete drilling and cutting.

Composer Vu Nhat Tan said the piece came from his real experience of dealing with the "terribly drastic, violent and persistent (concrete) noise" from his neighbor for several weeks. "As I reached my limit [of toleration], I opened the windows and sat at the piano to beat and demolish (the keyboard) with the desire to harmonize it with the horrible noise out there."

"Waiting for Wind to Fly a Kite" combines dance, jaw harp, vocal and percussion to describe how tiny sounds have to wait for a falling moment in the overwhelming loud noise to make themselves heard.

"Shhhh" uses drums and electric guitar to assemble various mechanical and electronic sounds to bring up normal noises from daily life that would be taken for granted and slip through the ears.

"Fall into Sleep" combines dance, violin, dan tranh (Vietnamese 16-stringed zither), percussion and laptop to tell the story of a man dreaming of going back a century in a totally strange form.

Italian duo Camusi will bring improvisational acts by using Vietnamese objects they collect during days before the concert to play beside their usual instruments, while German artist Burkhard Beins and Norwegian contemporary group SISU and Thorolf Thuestad will share one night of percussion called "New Meets Old."

The Six Tones, a group of Vietnamese and Swedish artists, will perform "Go to Hell" as an installation work, combining dan tranh, electronic music, dance, monochord, guitar, and video presentations to highlight how gestures and sounds can mingle, so too the worlds of the dead and the living.

The Hanoi Ensemble, comprising Vietnamese and foreign artists, and currently the only classical chamber that plays contemporary music, will perform pieces by Asian and international composers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

A group of students from Dom Dom (Fireflies), a contemporary music school founded by Ngoc, will also perform at the festival.

"The Rest is Noise" is an electronic night saved for five artists from Vietnam, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, who will present various electronic music styles with the support of digital applications.

The festival will screen short music films in the Little Planets collection by French director Vincent Moon, about traditional arts and music facing the threat of modernity, and folk musicians falling into oblivion.

"Kanzeon" which literally translates into "she who hears the cries of the world," a documentary by UK directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, will also be a festival highlight as it discusses the ritual and philosophical role of music in Japan.

The alternative path

Coming home from Cologne with contemporary aspirations, Ngoc held the Hanoi New Music Meeting in 2009, inviting 14 artists from six countries for two nights of performances each in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

This was during the 2004-2010 period, which saw the birth of a new generation of alternative art spaces and foundations in Vietnam such as San Art, Zero Station, New Art Space Foundation and Nha San Studio.

Some 2,500 people attended the concerts, many leaving half-way but some staying until last minutes, which according to the artists was a success as experimental music was not meant to please the majority.

The performances and workshops led to the establishment of Dom Dom, the first center for experimental music and arts in Vietnam, where students are introduced to electronic music, contemporary chamber and improvisation music.


 Tran Kim Ngoc, founder of experimental music school Dom Dom and initiator of Hanoi New Music Festival

Ngoc said the new art space, which receives support from Vietnam National Academy of Music, Sweden's Malmö Academy of Music and Swedish contemporary music ensemble Ars Nova, aims to promote freedom of expression in music, encourages musical and artistic collaboration, and initiate audiences to experimental music.

"Since I was at school, I knew that experimental art in Vietnam is an alienated notion. Lessons about it were vague, information was little and there was almost no space for it at both music schools and theaters.

"So, I wanted to create a small system myself, from what I had, something I could call home, as the home of experimental arts, to support any artistic pursuits that break the boundaries," she told The Thao & Van Hoa.

Dom Dom is named thus as it represents light, "the small yet persistent one, like the fireflies emitting light until they die."

The first year of the festival has received support from the Embassy of Sweden, the Goethe Institute, the French cultural center L'Espace, contemporary arts website Hanoi Grapevine, and several local alternative arts organizations and venues.

Ngoc said she hopes to win bigger and stable sponsorship to set up artists in residence programs to keep them from being disturbed by commercial calls.

She said the project has not won much enthusiasm as people do not want to venture into experiments.

But this has only pushed her to make more efforts on her own. 

"I think it's time we see the impacts of [experimental music] on the society. I'm not sure it will trigger big changes, but small ones for sure."

Ngoc downplayed the "movement" tag that some media reports were using to describe her work. 

"That sounds like a big deal. I'm just opening an environment and the artists will come to see if it suits them.

"Experimental artists in Vietnam are walking lonesome paths, and I might be able to create links between them, so they can become a movement later."


  • November 30 (8 p.m.): Vietnamese music theater production "What Makes the Spider Spin Her Web"   at Hanoi Cheo Theater, 15 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 1 (8 p.m.): Local compositions "Blind Spot" at Hanoi Cheo Theater, 15 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 2 (6 p.m.): Music installation "Homelands" by quartet of Vietnamese, Swedish and English artists -- at Manzi café, 14 Phan Huy Ich St., Ba Dinh Dist.
  • December 2 (8 p.m.): Italian duo drum kit and vocal improvisation "At East Of Myself, Remind Me I'm One" at Dom Dom, Block A, 3rd floor, 9 Tran Thanh Tong St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 4 (5 p.m.): Screening of music documentary "Kanzeon" at Nha San Collective, Block A, 3rd floor, 9 Tran Thanh Tong St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 4 (8 p.m.): Concert of Dom Dom students "Seeds" at Dom Dom, Block A, 3rd floor, 9 Tran Thanh Tong St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 5 (7:30 p.m.): Evening of percussion "New Meets Old" at Youth Theater, 11 Ngo Thi Nham St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 6 (5 p.m.): Screening of short music films "Little Planets" at Nha San Collective, Block A, 3rd floor, 9 Tran Thanh Tong St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 6 (7 p.m.): Music theater performance "Go to Hell" at Tadioto bar and Nha San Collective, Block A, 2nd & 3rd floors, 9 Tran Thanh Tong St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 7 (7:30 p.m.): Contemporary chamber music concert by Hanoi Ensemble at L'Espace, 24 Trang Tien St., Hoan Kiem Dist.
  • December 7 (9:30 p.m.): Electronic music performances "The Rest Is Noise" at Tadioto, Block A, 2nd floor, 9 Tran Thanh Tong St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.
  • December 8 (7:30 p.m.): Closing event "Being together" at Youth Theater, 11 Ngo Thi Nham St., Hai Ba Trung Dist.

    Entrance costs VND200,000 (US$9.5) for a Yellow Pass that grants access to all events of the festival, and VND30,000 ($1.42) for a Green Pass that is valid for one show.

    The pass is available at: Dom Dom, Manzi café, L'Espace, Tadioto, and Goethe Institute at 56 -58 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Ba Dinh District. The festival also receives support at its website www.hanoinewmusicfestival.vn/en/support-us.html.

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