Elizabeth Hainen & Philadelphia Orchestra to Present U.S. Premiere of NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN, 10/31-11/1
Elizabeth Hainen, Principal Harpist of The Philadelphia Orchestra, gives the US premiere of Tan Dun's Nu-Shu: The Secret Songs of Women on Thursday, October 31, with the orchestra under Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Verizon Hall, repeated on November 1. The 30-minute multimedia work incorporates short films directed by Tan (thirteen, at this writing), projected behind the orchestra with sound as the piece unfolds.
Nu-Shu ("women's writing") is an ancient, secret code shared only by women in a remote area of Tan's home province of Hunan - the only known gender-based written language. There is no historical record of its origins. For centuries, messages written in Nu-Shu along the folds of a secret fan or embroidered in cloth were often the only means for a woman to communicate with her sisters. "Nu Shu is a language of intimacy and suffering," says Tan. "It is disappearing... Very few women can still write, sing, and communicate in it." Over a two-year period, Tan traveled to the village of Shang Gan Tang with a small video crew to film six women, most of them elderly, who have been entrusted with preserving the language. Their songs, words, and images, captured in "micro-films" lasting about 1 to 5 minutes long, became the foundation for Nu-Shu, which premiered on May 22 in Tokyo with Tan conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
Writing for harp and orchestra presents special technical and artistic challenges; concertos for the instrument by top-ranked composers are rare. Hainen, who has frequently collaborated with Tan, worked closely with him to develop the solo part for Nu-Shu. Says Hainen, "After two years of research, Tan contacted me to say how excited he was to find the perfect premise for the concerto.He feels that the graceful strokes of Nu-Shu calligraphy mirror the harp's feminine form, making it the perfect protagonist to tell the story of a women's ancient culture. I asked Tan to give the harp a powerful but expressive voice, but otherwise I didn't suggest any parameters."
Tan's "impressionistic and organic working style" has made for an exceptionally fluid and collaborative working process, notes Hainen. "Right up to the finish, he had me experiment with a variety of sounds and effects before deciding which to include. I hope audiences are impressed by the harp's versatility as a solo instrument, and its capacity to touch the human soul with a unique and holistic sound.