Tan Dun - Nu Shu: the Secret Songs of Women

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Sep 4-Sep 5

Tan Dun talks tradition, adaptation and invention ahead of the performance of his new symphony, Nu Shu: the Secret Songs of Women

We’ve all heard the expression jack-of-all-trades, but it’s a true rarity to find a master-of-all. Tan Dun is one such rare individual. The prolific Grammy Award-winning composer is credited with writing the score for the popular film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and for composing music for the medal ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Tan has excelled in each genre in which he has forayed. Now, he looks to return to his roots in Nu Shu: the Secret Songs of Women, which opens September 4, marking the opening of the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s 42nd season.

“After living between worlds for so many years, I’ve found that my tradition has become very diverse,” says Tan. He is referring to his time spent growing up in Hunan province and the contrast to the period he lived in New York as a student at Columbia University, where he was exposed to the works of contemporary composers Philip Glass, John Cage and Meredith Monk. He states, “I’m always trying to find a new direction and a new way to look at tradition – I find going back to tradition will always be an avenue for invention. I want to overcome the knowledge I already have and find a new mode for the music I’m making.” With Nu Shu: the Secret Songs of Women, he has done just that. Proceeding in the footsteps of famed innovators, Tan reveals, “For this piece, I imagine myself as Béla Bartók. Like him, I am not an archaeologist. I am an artist. I, too, want to find the soundscape of the future.”

The symphony pays homage to a unique dialect used in Hunan province. “Nu Shu culture can be seen as a drop or a ripple in the Mother River, beautiful and dreamlike... Each drop contains and carries our treasured culture from one generation to the next.” Tan continues, “I wanted to capture the vibrancy of this disappearing, centuries-old secret language and its vocal tradition that was created and used exclusively by Hunan women who were otherwise forbidden a formal education.” In tribute to these women, Tan has composed a ‘soundscape monument’ – one which takes the form of a thirteen-movement micro-symphony. 

Drawing upon the works of historians, musicologists and anthropologists, Tan’s composition is the product of an extensive multidisciplinary research process. There have been several attempts to suppress the language (which Tan tells us date back as far as the 13th century), and consequently it is now ‘on the brink of extinction’. Tan and his team have collected more than 200 hours of audio and visual research in a bid to revive and preserve this piece of Hunanese culture.

The resultant experience for audiences is an immersive, multimedia performance. Tan explains, “I have brought New York’s Columbus Circle together with a rural Chinese village – one organic, the other urban and industrial – to produce something very, very wild.” But those expecting a typical run-of-the-mill East meets West hybrid composition would be wrong. Tan has sought to systematically incorporate and internalise the knowledge he has gained from the various cultures he has encountered throughout his life. He tells us, “In my approach, I try to be very faithful to my memory and my experience. I cannot physically separate my early experiences from later ones. All of those memories come to mind as one.” Ultimately, for Tan, ‘the most important aspect of art is finding your roots, because your perspective is what makes art so interesting’. Amanda Sheppard

Tan Dun’s Nu Shu Sep 4-5, Concert Hall, HKCC. Tickets: $280-$580; urbtix.hk.


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10 Salisbury Rd

Area Tsim Sha Tsui

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