A secret language inspires music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra

 Elizabeth Hainen, principal harp player for the Philadelphia Orchestra, plays a matinee Live Connections show at World Cafe Live.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Elizabeth Hainen, principal harp player for the Philadelphia Orchestra, plays a matinee Live Connections show at World Cafe Live. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

This weekend the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform a micro-festival of newly composed classical music, written specifically for three of its musicians. Each piece will be performed twice, paired with one of the two others, over the three-day festival.

Each piece is the result of years of relationships, asking, and waiting. Philadelphia Orchestra harpist Elizabeth Hainen had been asking the world-renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun to write a piece for her instrument.

“At first he said, ‘I would like to but I have too many projects and too many commissions.’ So I would give him a prod now and then,” said Hainen. “It was really after a concert the Philadelphia Orchestra played in Shanghai that I spotted him and reminded him, ‘I’m still waiting for that piece.'”

Tan Dun had finally found the right subject matter: a secret language among women native to a rural part of China’s Hunan province. Nu Shu, a language handed down from mother to daughter for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years was only discovered by scholars in the 1980s. The women of Jiangyong County created it to be able to speak to each other in code.

“They had no rights, they had no possessions. They had to express themselves at some point, so they did it through a secret language,” said Hainen. “It was mainly sung, or written, or woven into clothes and fabrics – and shoes, actually.”

The characters of Nu Shu are not shaped like regular Chinese calligraphy. The rounded edges of the script are more delicate than the blockier characters of Mandarin or Cantonese. “Very willowy,” said Hainen. “Like insect wings.”

The music by Tan Dun takes some of the melodies of Nu Shu songs, and brings them into the world of new classical music, sometimes with dissonant notes and unusual rhythms. At moments Hainen is required to slap her strings with an open palm.

The piece is also multi-media. Tan Dun wrote “Nu Shu” for orchestra, harp, and film. The music will accompany a series of short films about the Nu Shu language projected in Verizon Hall.

“This is really the first time people have heard this. It’s hardly been documented at all,” said Hainen. “It especially hasn’t been given a current voice. In a way its evolving the language to another point through symphonic music.”

“Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women” will be performed Thursday and Friday in Verizon Hall as part of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s micro-festival of new commissions.

On Thursday, it will be paired with a new flute concerto by Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran, composed for Philadelphia Orchestra flutist Jeffrey Khaner– and on Friday, with “Pictures from the Floating World” by David Ludwig, composed for Philadelphia Orchestra bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa.

On Saturday, the pieces by Ranjibaran and Ludwig will be paired.

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