Music Interviews
6:53 pm
Sun October 27, 2013

From 'Crouching Tiger' To 'Secret Songs': Composer Tan Dun's Next Move

Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 12:24 pm

Chinese composer Tan Dun has written an opera for Placido Domingo and his works have been performed by the some of the world's greatest orchestras. In addition to writing music for the Beijing Olympics, he wrote the Oscar-winning score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Now, Tan Dun has turned his attention to his home province of Hunan for his latest composition. It is a multimedia work, comprising film, an orchestra and a harp soloist, entitled Nu-Shu: The Secret Songs of Women. The music tells the story of an ancient secret language used by women in Hunan province to communicate with friends and family after being sequestered into marriages that took them far from home.

This Thursday, the Philadelphia Orchestra and harp soloist Elizabeth Hainen will present the American premiere of The Secret Songs of Women. NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with both Hainen and Tan Dun about the origins of the piece and its eclectic presentation of sound, including a passage in which water becomes a percussion instrument. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Chinese composer Tan Dun has written an opera for Placido Domingo and his works have been performed by the some of the world's greatest orchestras. In addition to writing music for the Beijing Olympics, he wrote the Oscar-winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Now, Tan Dun has turned his attention to his home province of Hunan for his latest composition. It is a multimedia work of film, orchestra and harp soloist, called "Nu-Shu: The Secret Songs of Women."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

MARTIN: That's a recording of the world premiere of the work this past spring, with harpist Risako Hayakawa and Japan's NHK Symphony Orchestra. The music tells a story of an ancient secret language used by women in Hunan Province, to communicate with friends and family, after being sequestered into marriages that took them far from home.

This Thursday, the Philadelphia Orchestra and soloist Elizabeth Hainen will present the American premiere of "Nu-Shu." We're joined now by composer Tan Dun, he is in our New York Bureau. Welcome to the program.

TAN DUN: Hello, this is Tan Dun.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And harpist Elizabeth Hainen who is with us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Hi, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH HAINEN: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I understand that the women used to embroider characters from this language into pieces of fabric?

DUN: They always write their secret language in mostly beautiful things; silk and fabric and - beautiful, yeah.

MARTIN: That they would then pass on to as messages, as letters to their loved ones?

DUN: Yeah. But the most important pass-on where is always singing actually from a mother to the daughter; teach them how to be a good mother, good daughter and good sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Elizabeth, did you discover something new about your instrument?

HAINEN: Well, I certainly was exploring the sounds that Tan wanted me to create.

DUN: Because the interesting idea is...

MARTIN: He would have me play something and he would jump up and down. Or, you know, touch the harp like this. And so it was very exciting and very engaging. It's given me a wonderful opportunity to make these effects and colors. And I feel like I'm masquerading like another instrument, like a Chinese instrument.

Hmm. We have a recording of you playing an excerpt from "Nu-Shu." Let's take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: We can hear Chinese singing in the background. Is this from one of the films that's being projected during the performance, Tan?

DUN: Yes, this is the first song the mother teaching the daughter to be a good mother.

MARTIN: And these are actual field recordings that you had organized from your trips to Hunan?

DUN: Yes. So, I'm sort of going back to the countryside always trying to find where I came from actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: In one section, the last section of "Nu-Shu," we hear water used as a percussion instrument. Let's play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

DUN: To me, with the women washing and the singing every day in their pond. This pond, it's like a big water drum. So what I did and recorded some of those watching clothes songs. I synchronized all these rhythms with their singing, and made their banging laundry sounds and the washing vegetables sounds, basically as a rock 'n' roll or kind of a rhythmic piece with orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language)

DUN: The secrets women singing to me becomes something everlasting and echoes of ancient beauty. And orchestra becomes today's voice and future voice actually. And who could link with the past and the future together is Elizabeth, her harp. And her harp becomes sort of a spiritual bridge.

MARTIN: Elizabeth, what was your reaction when Tan Dun told you that only was he going to compose a concerto in which you would play a prominent role but that it came complete with this history and story?

HAINEN: Well, just as you're listening to Tan's beautiful description, it's like you want more. You want to hear more about this secret society and what's behind the language. And so, I had a voracious appetite. I wanted to find out more and more so I've researched quite a bit. And when I received the videos from Tan last year, to work with these films, it was like the world was starting to open up to me.

And I must share with you that it was the performance in Shanghai, just this past Sunday night, Tan invited two of these women to this concert and invited them up on stage at the end of the "Nu-Shu." And I was not prepared for how emotional this would make me, just to be with them and to see them in person. And it was just this amazing connection, me from the West and them from the East, and the harp and Tan's music bringing us all together. It was glorious.

MARTIN: Composer Tan Dun joined us from our New York bureau. And harpist Elisabeth Hainen spoke to us from the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia.

Thank you so much to both of you.

DUN: Thank you.

HAINEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN")

MARTIN: Tan Dun's "Nu-Shu: The Secret Songs Of Women " will have its U.S. premiere this Thursday with harpist Elisabeth Hainen and the Philadelphia Orchestra led by an Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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