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