SECRET SONGS Program Notes

The following notes accompany the August 10, 2019 SECRET SONGS concert. 


God Music Bug Music (2011)
Hannah Lash (b. 1981)
West Coast Premiere

God Music, Bug Music uses the same cell of five notes in both movements of the piece, though very differently in each. In God Music, this cell rages in the brass before it infiltrates the rest of the ensemble, and the movement culminates in rhythmic unison for the whole orchestra. In Bug Music, the motif is expressed canonically in a chamber-like setting, slowly swarming its way into all the instruments, finally reaching full saturation: a breakdown of the canonic structure into a fully chromatic cluster.

—Hannah Lash


Psalm Without Words (2019)
Preben Antonsen (b. 1991)
World Premiere | Festival Commission

Psalm Without Words consists of seven sections, mostly long single phrases.

I. Penitential Lament

II. Hope-tinged Lament

III. The Arm of the Lord

IV. Archangelic Lament (w/ sixfold seraphim wingswirls). In the book of Enoch, the archangel Michael is given the epithet “long-suffering,” because his capacity to weep is greatest among them. For this he has the highest rank. Uriel has great gifts of love, but there are things even Uriel cannot bear. In contrast to the human tears of the first two sections, Michael’s tears gain strength from their deeper, surer roots in eternity. Michael’s name means “who is like God?,” which was his rebuke of Lucifer. However, as Enoch explains, Lucifer was not the only angel expelled for misdeeds––there were at least two hundred others––and Michael weeps for them as well, even considering God’s punishments too harsh. His voice is carried by the trombone.

V. The Soul-Forge. This section is based on the rhythm of nail-driving at construction sites, taught to me by a friend who has worked on many of them. Although I’m mixing my metaphors with smithing and carpentry, what’s actually depicted is chiseling.

VI. Forlornness at the First Earth’s Vanishing. The quote from Revelation: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” is well-known for its comforting power, and is often read at funerals. However, taking the verse in context reveals that heaven and earth must pass away first. No matter how troublesome, this world is all we know, and even its grief and toils are dear to us. Thus, even deliverance from suffering creates a pang of loss.

VII. The Sounding Shallow. According to various traditions, there is a shining lake in heaven, on the shore of which stands the City of God. In one text, the visionary traverses the lake on a golden ship. The ending of my piece depicts this scene. The lake is deep, but very still.

—Preben Antonsen


Earworms (2018)
Vivian Fung (b. 1975)
U.S. Premiere 

Earworms is a feisty and whimsical orchestral piece that provides a commentary on the world we live in today––it musically depicts our diverted attention spans, our constant barrage of music and other media, and our multitasking lives. Since having my son almost three years ago, I have found my life to be more complicated and chaotic, but also all the richer and more meaningful. I find myself at the end of the day humming tunes that have gotten into my head and that I cannot seem to escape no matter how hard I try––hence the title Earworms. The work features a few snippets of some of the best (or most insistent and annoying, depending on how you want to look at it) of these tunes and combines them into a playful and quirky arrangement. I worked fragments of these songs into the piece the way I would hear them at night––incomplete, sometimes looping just a little lick, sometimes simultaneously or consecutively, and always heavily developed to evoke the feel of my irrational obsession. The piece culminates in a chaotic mash-up, with the orchestra building its force and repeating musical gestures with different, often conflicting rhythms. It ends loud and strong, as the earworms take hold of my psyche.

I have composed this work specifically for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, the commissioner of the work. I am a proud Canadian who is delighted to have the honor to compose for such an esteemed and outstanding group of musicians. This piece reflects the strengths of the orchestra, including its virtuosity, vitality, and tremendous spirit.

—Vivian Fung


Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women (2013)
Symphony for 13 Micro Films, Harp Solo and Orchestra
Tan Dun (b. 1957)
West Coast Premiere

After conducting years of research in his native Hunan Province, Tan Dun captures the vibrancy of this disappearing centuries-old secret language and vocal tradition, Nu Shu, which was created and used exclusively by the Hunan women who were otherwise forbidden a formal education. In thirteen movements, each centered on a different micro film derived from Tan Dun’s extensive field recordings, the work weaves heartrending stories of Nu Shu village mothers, daughters, and sisters through song script and attention to historical context. Tan Dun selected the harp as the solo instrument because of “its beautiful feminine sounds” and its distinctive physical shape–similar to one of the ancient Nu Shu characters. Tan Dun views the work as a “kind of visual symphony in dialogue with sound, the voices [of women singing in Nu Shu], and with live orchestra acting in counterpoint of the calligraphy.”

Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women richly combines the fields of anthropology, musicology, history, and philosophy. In fraught political times, notably during China’s Cultural Revolution, there were efforts to suppress the language and culture of Nu Shu. During several research trips in 2012, Tan Dun and his research team collected over 200 hours of audiovisual documentation that now serve to preserve this 13th-century language, today on the verge of extinction. By merging audio and visual elements, Tan Dun has created a new musical form out of the very tradition of Nu Shu. Originally whispered in corridors or hidden on fans, the music now navigates entirely new boundaries of time, place, and culture.

Prologue: The extraordinary tradition of Nu Shu songs make up a secret sacred text exclusively passed down from mother to daughter, one generation after another.

  1. Secret Fan The calligraphy of Nu Shu is found written on fans and paper by women. Expressing an intimate love between female family members, the origins of a compassionate and beautiful ancient culture are affirmed. Nu Shu is a monumental tribute to women.
  2. Mother’s Song Over countless generations, these scriptures retained an ancient holy text, “Wisdom on Educating Daughters.” Nu Shu preserves and continues a cultural tradition regarding family, ethics, child-rearing, and the deeper meanings of being a woman.
  3. Dressing for the Wedding The girls in Hunan are typically married as early as 15 years of age. Families celebrate the wedding day as the most beautiful day of these girls’ lives. On the verge of separation, sisters attend to and help dress the bride in a gorgeous wedding costume, symbolizing this monumental passage of life. But underneath a dazzling headdress and exquisite gown, the girl harbors a reluctant heart, which bears the weight of final farewell from her mother and sisters.
  4. Cry-Singing for Marriage The wedding tradition includes three days of consecutive weeping. A special tear-soaked scarf serves as a link between the mother and daughter while also representing past female generations. After the wedding, communication between mother and daughter is forbidden, yet they clandestinely conduct a correspondence based on the rewriting of the “Wisdom of Educating Daughters.”
  5. Nu Shu Village Many cultures recognize a Mother River. Since the 10th century Song Dynasty, the village of Nu Shu women have had such a river beside which they have nurtured this secret language. The Nu Shu tradition has never moved away from the river, which represents an emotional connection between separated mothers, daughters and sisters.
  6. Longing for Her Sister The relationship between sisters is also featured prominently in this work. Songs that reminisce about sisterly love give the departed bride an emotional connection to her innocent happy childhood and serve as an anchor during great times of loneliness.
  7. A Road without End The life of a Nu Shu woman contains endless alleys, as her spirit meanders from one to another searching for her sisters. Household after household, gate after gate, dynasty after dynasty, these separated women continue on an endless journey.
  8. Forever Sisters A reunion between sisters dissipates sorrow through mutual laughter over childhood memories and shared tears at understanding adult life. This nurtured compassion that accompanies them into their marriages often provides a source of strength in moments of hardship.
  9. Daughter’s River Is it a river or a body of tears? The answer is hidden in the water–this river of women whose tears from generations of mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers form a melancholic melody on which floats a boat of memories.
  10. Grandma’s Echo Gao Yinxian was one of the most prominent women of the Nu Shu village who helped pass down the language from generation to generation. Gao passed away at the age of 88. In her former residence, Gao’s granddaughter sits on the stool that Gao once sat, sewing, and hears the echoes of Nu Shu songs from near and far once heard by Gao.
  11. The Book of Tears Mo Cuifeng cries, remembering her wedding from 50 years ago, when she was last a daughter in the presence of her mother. Half a century has gone by, her mother has passed away, but Mo’s tears remain and remember.
  12. Soul Bridge A daughter walks across this bridge, remembering her mother.
  13. Living in the Dream Despite the hardships encountered by the Nu Shu village women, their songs and lives are filled with a sense of romanticism. Each day when mothers, daughters, and sisters gather to sing, write, and sew in Nu Shu, a happy time is shared and woven into a secret dreamlike reality.

What is Nu Shu?

Nu Shu is an ancient syllabic script developed by women, in secrecy, over hundreds of years in feudal China. Created during a time in China when only men received any kind of formal education, women were kept illiterate. Nu Shu was passed on through the generations from grandmother to granddaughter, aunt to adolescent niece, mother to daughter. It is the only known language that is gender specific, used and understood only by women. Nu Shu has only recently been exposed to the modern world.

Nu Shu originally contained only five hundred characters, but now contains up to seven hundred overall, some derived from the Chinese language, others based upon specific stitches in embroidery. A large part of the Nu Shu tradition is steeped in the creation of San Chao Shu or “Third Day Missives,” which were a way for the women to secretly express their thoughts and emotions to one another in a book that was given on the third day of marriage ceremonies. Like Chinese, Nu Shu reads vertically from top to bottom, columns aligned left to right. Nu Shu, unlike most languages, is not spoken, but sung. This ancient script has survived for over eight hundred years, but its existence is now threatened as China rapidly expands and the number of women fluent in Nu Shu declines. Tan Dun states “China is building so fast which is fascinating, but meanwhile worries me as an artist. Because as you are building faster you are losing faster too, those living traditions.” Tan Dun visited the small village in Hunan, recording over two hundred hours of footage he then edited down into “13 mini micro films” and composed all new music to accompany them. As he says he created a “kind of visual symphony in dialogue with the sound, the voices [of women singing in Nu Shu] and with live orchestra acting in counterpoint to the calligraphy.”

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