Secret Fan. Dressing for the Wedding. Longing for her Sister. Grandmother’s Echo.
These are some of the intriguing titles of the films in Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Principal Harp Elizabeth Hainen give the U.S. premiere of the multi-media composition this week. “They’re very powerful. Very emotional,” says Hainen of the films, which each depict a rite of passage. “And just beautiful. Beautiful events. Tan Dun has managed to capture the essence of this time and this place through this music and through this footage.” She adds, “He’s a wonderful, wonderful composer. There’s never been anything like it, I can tell you that.”
At the heart of Nu Shu is an ancient language—thousands of years old—secretly created by women who were forbidden to learn the men’s language and perpetuated through the generations by reading, writing, and singing. “This language was passed on … always from a mother to daughter and always by singing,” says Tan Dun. “This is the only women’s language in the world and only a few people—very, very old women—know the secret language. And I immediately got fascinated by it.”
Gao Yinxian (pictured right) was the most important person of the Nu Shu Village as she helped pass down the language from generation to generation. Before passing away at the age of 88, she taught Nu Shu to her granddaughter Hu Yuehua (pictured left).
Tan Dun traveled to a remote village in his native Hunan province and made over 200 hours of video and audio recordings of the last remaining women who still speak the language. Those recordings are incorporated into his piece and woven together with the orchestra and the harp, which the composer says he chose because it is “the most feminine instrument.” “I want harp to serve a very, very dramatic sound source to link this ancient tradition of the women’s language—singing, and reading, and writing—to the future sounds of The Philadelphia Orchestra and modern orchestra,” he says.
Tan Dun compares Chinese and Nu Shu characters
“He always has this very creative, amazing, genius way of taking history and weaving it into his music,” says Hainen, who compares the harp’s role in the piece to Scheherazade, the famed narrator of The Arabian Nights whose skilled storytelling keeps her alive.
Although she has premiered works before, Hainen says this is the first time she’s ever done something on this scale. “You certainly feel a great responsibility to absolutely make it shine,” she says. “Your essence is part of the piece. … It’s really important that the person who the piece is written for brand the piece. It’s an incredible honor,” she says. “And the fact that I get to do it with my colleagues with The Philadelphia Orchestra—it’s phenomenal. A once-in-a lifetime opportunity.”
An opportunity that, she hopes, will resonate beyond the concert hall. “This piece could possibly play a pivotal role in women’s rights issues globally,” Hainen says. “There’s a bigger message than just the history of this language. Women for so many, many, many years—and women all around the world and even in the U.S.—are still not given opportunities. And we just might not see it. I think this piece could certainly serve as a sounding board for that.”
Elizabeth Hainen and The Philadelphia Orchestra give the U.S. premiere of Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra on Thursday, October 31, at 8 PM in Verizon Hall with a repeat performance Friday, November 1, at 2 PM. The Philadelphia Commissions Micro-Festival—which also includes the world premieres of Behzad Ranjbaran’s Flute Concerto featuring Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner and David Ludwig’s Pictures from the Floating World for bassoon and orchestra, featuring Principal Bassoon Daniel Matsukawa—runs from October 31-November 2 with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting. For tickets and program information, click HERE.