Composer explains how he learned their secret language in the fields thanks to singing and cooking.

Chinese composer Tan Dun could never be accused of elitism or lack of imagination. The 57-year-old, who is probably China’s most famous classical music export, has a history of accessible yet sophisticated works behind him. His virtuoso Pipa Concerto combines a traditional Chinese instrument with a Western symphony orchestra, his opera The First Emperor was composed for the legendary Plácido Domingo (who Tan now counts as a personal friend), while his film scores for the Martial Arts Trilogy (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero and The Banquet) have brought him recognition well beyond the regular classical music crowd.

His latest work, however, is perhaps his most original yet. Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women is written for harp, orchestra and microfilm no less, but even more remarkably, it incorporates a secret language so ancient that its origins are lost in the mists of time. “It was five years ago I first heard this very interesting tradition from my home province of Hunan,” Tan Dun says, speaking to me on the phone from his busy office in China. “It’s a language that has survived only through mothers singing to daughters down through the generations. I was fascinated”.

Nu Shu was whispered in secret exclusively by Hunan women, who were otherwise forbidden a formal education, but nowadays the language is on the verge of extinction. Fortunately it can also be written down – it was frequently concealed inside fans. “It has a calligraphy like nothing else in the Chinese language,” says Tan Dun. “No one can understand it – especially the men.” Crucially for a composer it is also sung.

But where did it come from? “There are two linguistic schools of thought,” explains Tan Dun. “One says that it comes from thousands of years ago when society was still dominated by women. It has links with ancient Chinese languages that nobody can read today. The other school says, ‘no, this is only a few hundred years old’. They believe it comes from a feudal society when men dominated education and business, so women gathered together and invented their own language.” Tan Dun is in no doubt that it’s music that holds the answer to Nu Shu’s origins. “Some of the melodies are so old,” he says. “It cannot be by a bunch of women who are not educated. It must be someone who is very, very sophisticated.”

Tan Dun’s approach naturally came from a musical direction, but first he had to capture the sounds and the words. “I decided to film them first,” he explains, “but it’s very difficult to get into women’s worlds, especially for a man from a modern tradition.” So how did he do it, I ask? “I brought my digital camera and became an anthropologist,” he laughs (though it’s not so surprising perhaps for a man who once worked as a rice planter on a Huangjin commune). “I went around the fields to find the few old women who are left, and I used my music to communicate with them. I sang with them; I sat down with them; I cooked with them. Then we become a family!”

The 200 hours of documentation became both the root of the musical composition and the unique visual element of the piece – the concert platform is framed by three screens showing both the women and their beautifully constructed writings. The composer sees it 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 to the calligraphy.”

Tan Dun chose the harp as solo instrument because of its feminine associations and its distinctive physical shape – similar to one of the ancient Nu Shu characters. “We use the harp as a bridge between ancient women and the modern orchestra,” he tells me. “The harp isn’t always seen as a dramatic instrument or a storyteller but for me it is very, very dramatic.”

Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women is part anthropology, part musicology, part history and part philosophy. In tricky political times, notably during China’s Cultural Revolution, there were efforts to suppress the language. Thanks to Tan Dun and his team the music now has a new life and, like its composer, it is exploring new boundaries of time, place and culture. And does he now understand the language? “Yes and no,” he says. “There are things I can recognise now, but I can always tell from the melody what they are singing about.”

Since doing his field research Tan Dun has found that the phenomenon goes much further than Hunan province. “These secret women’s languages exist in South America as well – also in Australian Aboriginal culture and in Japan. Yet somehow we’ve forgotten how mothers nurtured the future and still nurture it.”

Tan Dun’s Adelaide concert will also include his Symphonic Poem of Three Notes – another intriguing composition based around the three solfège pitches LA, SI and DO.  “One day I received a phone call from the Teatro Real Opera in Madrid,” he says. “They were planning a surprise 70th birthday celebration for Plácido Domingo and called me to ask whether I could write a work for the occasion. Instantly I said yes!”

“I thought it very celebratory to use Plácido’s name as part of the music – when you rap his name “Plácido” it sounds like LA SI DO. The beginning of the piece echoes the start of new life, like a dream it unfolds with the sounds of birds, incense, wind and rain – the tubular chimes start to sing and LA SI DO appears for the first time. This theme then unfolds in a variety of textures: symphonic rapping, instrumental and vocal hip-hop, blowing sounds and stones. The climax erupts with the rapping and shouting of PLA CI DO and falls with chanting and foot stamping as these three notes return back to nature, back to the origin and back to the future.”

And if that isn’t original, I don’t know what is!

Tan Dun conducts his music as part of the 2014 OzAsia Festival at the Adelaide Festival Centre on September 27.