National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Contest attracts roughly 3,000 entries each year, so Gao Hong, director of Carleton’s Chinese Music Ensemble and a senior lecturer in Chinese musical instruments, was delighted when a video of her collaborating with Syrian composer Issam Rafea was named a competition finalist and streamed on the program in July. “This one filled me with immediate joy,” gushed indie rock artist and episode cohost Phoebe Bridgers before introducing their song, “The Return of Happy Days.” “The music is gorgeous!”
Hong plays the ancient Chinese pipa, a four-stringed instrument, while Rafea is a master of the oud, which resembles a lute and hails from the Middle East. The pair began making music together in 2017, while Rafea was a guest artist in residency on campus. Since then, they have released two albums: Life as Is, completed in 2018, and From Our World to Yours, released in October. Both albums have garnered awards and critical acclaim and, pre-COVID, the pair went on tour and gave live concerts around the world.
Hong refers to the duo’s unplanned and certainly unconventional music-making as “live composition.”
“We are literally playing a conversation, as if two people just met,” she says. “He says hello; I say something back. But it’s not improvisation, because we are both reacting to what the other person just said. We have to listen: What is the other person saying with the music?”
The oud-pipa conversations, Hong believes, also illustrate the power to forge bonds and create connections among strangers: “Even if you don’t speak the other person’s language, you can use music to express what’s in your heart.”