SE­CRET women’s mu­sic

Com­poser and con­duc­tor Tan Dun teams up with the ASO to tell an an­cient story of women’s lives

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - OZASIA ORCHESTRA - Words louise nunn

Nu Shu is in­ti­mate and per­sonal, a fiveyear labour of love that took Tan to his home prov­ince in south­ern China in search of an an­cient, dis­ap­pear­ing lan­guage.

“When I heard about this van­ish­ing Nu Shu tra­di­tion, which is a se­cret lan­guage sung by moth­ers to their daugh­ters, and has won­der­ful cal­lig­ra­phy spe­cific to the women of Jiangy­ong County, in my home prov­ince of Hu­nan, it im­me­di­ately struck me as fas­ci­nat­ing,” Tan says by phone from Shang­hai.

“Then I dis­cov­ered there were two schools of thought around this lan­guage. One sug­gested it was an an­cient lan­guage de­vel­oped by women when they were dom­i­nated by so­ci­ety and the fam­ily, and the other said it emerged be­cause in feu­dal so­ci­eties women were dom­i­nated by men and de­nied an ed­u­ca­tion, so they gath­ered to­gether to in­vent their own lan­guage.”

No one re­ally knows the truth be­hind the the­o­ries, he says, be­cause Nu Shu’s ori­gins are so old.

Nu Shu, or “women’s writ­ing”, is thought to have emerged in the 13th cen­tury as a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween moth­ers, daugh­ters and sis­ters. The songs, par­tic­u­larly, talk of hard­ships en­dured but also con­tain words of en­cour­age­ment.

Nu Shu’s syl­labic script has only re­cently been ex­posed to the world.

Re­ports vary on the num­ber of char­ac­ters it con­tains but Tan es­ti­mates there are around 700, some de­rived from Chi­nese, oth­ers based on em­broi­dery stitches.

Like Chi­nese, Nu Shu reads ver­ti­cally from top to bot­tom, in col­umns left to right. But, un­like most lan­guages, it is sung. And in­stead of mim­ick­ing the square shape of Chi­nese char­ac­ters, Nu Shu’s wispy, arced lines re­sem­ble ants and mos­qui­tos, earn­ing it name “mos­quito” or “ant writ­ing”.

The script was used to re­lay mes­sages on fab­ric, leather and cloth­ing, along the folds of a fan or em­broi­dered in cloth.

When he dis­cov­ered there were only a few women in Hu­nan to­day who know Nu Shu, Tan de­cided to do some­thing to help pre­serve its story.

“China is build­ing so fast, which is fas­ci­nat­ing but it wor­ries me as an artist,” he says. “Be­cause as you are build­ing faster you are los­ing faster, too, all those liv­ing tra­di­tions.”

Tan vis­ited the women in re­mote ar­eas of Hu­nan, record­ing 200 hours of Nu Shu singing, which he edited and in­cor­po­rated into his “visual sym­phony for 13 mi­cro­films and orches­tra”.

The work is di­vided into three, four­move­ment sec­tions and a 13th “chap­ter”.

In the first move­ment a mother sings life lessons to her daugh­ter, the sec­ond tells of tears be­tween sis­ters and the third re­lates a daugh­ter’s story.

The fi­nal move­ment is ded­i­cated to all women “liv­ing in dreams of their own Nu Shu world”.

Tan says he gives equal weight to his orig­i­nal mu­sic scored for solo harp and the footage of the women singing.

Rocks and bowls tapped by the per­cus­sion sec­tion and clap­ping by the orches­tra are some of the de­vices he uses to evoke scenes of vil­lage life.

“It’s a mul­ti­me­dia syn­chro­ni­sa­tion be­tween the mod­ern orches­tra and the an­cient singing of the women,” he says.

“I chose the harp solo as it is the most fem­i­nine in­stru­ment and works as a bridge to link the an­cient with the mod­ern.

“So it’s not the orches­tra ac­com­pa­ny­ing the story, or the story show­ing with the orches­tra.

“They are com­pletely syn­chro­nised and in­ter­ac­tive.”

Philadel­phia Orches­tra staged the world premiere of Nu Shu in China last year be­fore per­form­ing it in the US.

Tan Dun con­ducted the Ja­pan premiere with NHK Sym­phony in Tokyo.

ASO’s OzAsia per­for­mance at Fes­ti­val The­atre on Septem­ber 27 will be the Aus­tralian premiere and fea­tures Philadel­phia Orches­tra’s solo harp El­iz­a­beth Hainen.

Am­s­ter­dam’s Royal Orches­tra will stage premiere in Jan­uary.

Tan says the re­sponse to date has been over­whelm­ing.

“It’s been very touch­ing, al­ways stand­ing ovations with tears and love,” he says.

“I see Nu Shu as a sound mon­u­ment for moth­ers across all time.

“This piece is sev­eral thou­sand years long, con­densed into 45 min­utes.” Con­cert­ge­bouw the Euro­pean The Ade­laide Sym­phony Orches­tra per­forms Nu Shu: The Se­cret Songs of Women, at Fes­ti­val The­atre, on Septem­ber 27.

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