1. Yumi Kurosawa, koto 0:00–7:26
Music by Kengyo Yatsuhashi and Yumi Kurosawa
2. Naseer Shamma’s Al-Oyoun Ensemble 7:26–21:08
Lil Ruh Hadith (Discourse of the Soul) for an ensemble of Arab and Western instruments
3. Xiayin Wang, piano 21:08–24:30
Music by Lu Wen-cheng
4. Chamber Music from Japan 24:30–31:30
Masayo Ishigure, koto; Theresa Salomon, violin
Music by Michio Miyagi
5. Chinese Music for the Phoenix 31:30–48:00
Bing Xia and Rujia Teng, guzheng
Traditional and classical Chinese music and a work by Huan Liu in arrangements by Bing Xia
6. Musical Encounters along the Silk Road 48:00–1:04:31
Duet improvisations by Gao Hong, pipa, and Issam Rafea, ‘ud


Yumi Kurosawa, koto

Recorded in concert at the Freer Gallery on October 13, 2011
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Midare (Disorder), for thirteen-string koto

Kengyo Yatsuhashi (1614–1685)

In the seventeenth century this composition played a decisive role in establishing the koto as a solo instrument. It demands a free and unrestricted interpretation, which suggests the composer possessed a strong sense of freedom even though he lived in a strict feudal society. This piece is called Midare (Disorder) because it does not have a standardized number of notes in every part.

GreenPt, for twenty-string koto

Yumi Kurosawa (b. 1975)

The composer notes, “When I wrote GreenPt, four years had passed since I had moved to New York, and I was thinking about my nature. Born into the Japanese traditional music environment, I grew up listening to rock and pop and other genres as well as hearing my sister play classical piano in the next room. I wrote this song, combining my personal tastes at random.”

Naseer Shamma’s Al-Oyoun Ensemble

Lil Ruh Hadith (Discourse of the Soul)
Recorded in concert at the Freer Gallery on March 7, 2013
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Naseer Shamma, one of the Middle East’s leading ‘ud (lute) virtuosos, is joined by Saber Abdel Sattar, qanun; Hany El Badry, nay; Hussein El Ghandour, violin; Said Kamal, violin; Mahmoud Bedir, cello; and Amro Mostafa, riqq.

Xiayin Wang, piano

Recorded in concert at the Freer Gallery on March 18 and November 10, 2010
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Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake (1975)

Composer: Lu Wen-cheng (arr. Chen Pei-xun)
Performer: Xiayin Wang, piano

Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake, a piece from the Guangdong province of China, was originally written by Lu Wen-cheng. Chen Pei-xun transcribed it for piano in 1975, and it became one of his most popular works. The wholly pentatonic harmonies paint a charming picture of a moonlit lake scene. The melody alternates between the left and right hands, which are independent but harmonious. With frequent arpeggios, broken chords, and crystal-clear musical ornaments, the composer successfully conveys the image of the moon’s shining reflection on the calm lake.

Composer-arranger Chen Pei-xun was born in Hong Kong in 1921. He entered the Shanghai National Music School in 1939, and ten years later he became a professor in the composition department of the Central Conservatory. He taught at the Hong Kong Baptist College (now the Hong Kong Baptist University) in the 1980s. Chen Pei-xun died in Shenzhen in 2007.

Chamber Music from Japan

Masayo Ishiruge, koto; Theresa Salomon, violin
Recorded in concert at the Freer Gallery on October 2, 2008
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Haru no umi (The Sea in Spring)

Composed in 1929, Haru no umi is considered one of the most representative works of Michio Miyagi (1894–1956). Since the beginning of the twentieth century, many pieces of koto music had been composed in connection with the New Year's Imperial Poetry Competition, which each year was devoted to a different subject. The announced subject for the competition of 1930 was “Seaside Rock.” Miyagi composed Haru no umi in December 1929 originally as a duet for koto and shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. The violin's lyrical qualities allow it to substitute easily for the shakuhachi, and Miyagi wrote this transcription for koto and violin just a year later.

Miyagi said that he attempted to express in music the impressions of a boat trip he made several years earlier through the Inland Sea in springtime. Part I begins with the impression of gentle waves, followed by ripples against the side of the boat and the calls of seagulls overhead. Part II has a faster tempo to suggest the comings and goings of vigorously rowed fishing boats. Part III returns to the opening with variations on its soft mood of spring.

Chinese Music for the Phoenix

Bing Xia and Rujia Teng, guzheng
Recorded in performance at the Sackler Gallery on July 27, 2013
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The Fire Phoenix

Traditional song from Inner Mongolia
Arranged by Bing Xia

In ancient Chinese legend, the fire phoenix was the most beautiful bird in the world. It is said to have burst into flames when it became too old to fly, only to be reborn from its own ashes. Perhaps because of this, the phoenix remains a symbol of rebirth and hope. This piece is based on a traditional song from Inner Mongolia, with these lyrics: “There is a legend of a great bird, the phoenix. For the sake of love, it could no longer fly, breaking its beautiful wings. From fire to heaven, I want to be a beautiful phoenix. Wandering with my love, staying with my love, never being separated from my love, looking for the paradise of dreams together.”

The Phoenix Soars

Traditional guzheng piece

This piece originated with a popular folksong in Shandong province. The lively rhythm of the song describes the agility and gracefulness of a phoenix in flight.

A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes

Traditional guzheng piece

The artist Xu Bing recounts legends about the origin of the phoenix and its role in his work. According to one legend, a heavenly bird lost all its feathers while extinguishing a massive mountain fire. In gratitude, the hundred birds of the animal kingdom pulled out their own feathers and offered them to the heavenly bird, which then became known as the king of birds. In another legend, celebrated in this piece, the original phoenix was an ordinary bird, but it was also the most conscientious and hardworking bird. Every day it collected fruits and nuts and stored them in a cave while the other birds played. When a severe drought struck the region and the other birds were starving, the phoenix shared all the food it had collected. In gratitude, the other birds plucked their own feathers and wove them into an elegant coat that they gave to the phoenix, making her the queen of birds. Since then, all birds make an annual pilgrimage to the phoenix.

Phoenixes Flying Together

Modern piece, composed by Huan Liu and arranged by Bing Xia

This piece is inspired by Shijing (Classic of poetry), the earliest surviving collection of Chinese poems dating from the eleventh to seventh century BCE. One of its poems describes how Feng and Huang, the male and female aspects of the phoenix, fly in the air together toward peace and happiness. This image is often used as a metaphor to bless the love of a newlywed couple. The piece also reflects the relationship between the monarch and his concubine.

The Phoenix Searches for Its Mate

Traditional piece for qin

This song originated with the poet and musician Sima Xiangru, who wrote it as a tribute to his wife, Zhuo Wenjun, in the second century BCE. The beautiful daughter of the richest man in the country, Zhuo Wenjun was well known for her literary and musical talents. After her husband died, she rejected proposals from a host of high-ranking men and chose instead the impoverished writer Sima Xiangru, whose music and poems she loved. Their elopement created great controversy, but they found happiness together running a small tavern. Sima Xiangru worked his way up the social ladder and eventually achieved fame and prosperity through his art.

The poem for this song inspired other writers, artists, and composers over the centuries and throughout the Ming dynasty. Ethnomusicologist Fred Lieberman writes that even today, a performance of this piece “calls into play a wealth of allusion which can only enliven the music in the perception of the educated Chinese, for whom all of these references are familiar through poetry, prose, and drama. . . . For the modem scholar . . . this music resonates not only in the heart, but also across the ages.”

Nirvana of the Phoenixes

Modern piece, composed by Deyuan Zheng

Rather than the queen of birds in Chinese myth, the fire phoenix in this song originated in ancient Egypt as the bird of fire in Egyptian folklore. The fire phoenix was said to be a beautiful bird that lived alone in the Arabian Desert. This phoenix absorbed all the evil and unhappiness in the universe. Every five hundred years it set itself on fire, only to be reborn. Through its own fiery death it destroyed all the sin it had collected. The fire phoenix sacrifices its own life so peace and humanity can return to society.

Phoenix Tower

Traditional song from Jiangsu province, arranged by Weiliang Zhang

The legend of the Phoenix Tower is closely related to Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty. When Empress Wu was born, a phoenix circled around the Wu estate for a week before it flew toward East Mountain. Her father, a local governor, renamed it Phoenix Mountain. When Wu Zetian was fourteen years old, she was chosen by Emperor Taizong to become his concubine. After his death, Empress Wu ruled the country for forty-two years. Phoenix Tower was built in her honor. Boasting fourteen stories, the tower rose forty-two meters (nearly 150 feet) into the air. The phoenix image carved on its walls could be seen looking toward the south, the direction of Wu’s birthplace. This is why, in ancient China, the royal residence was called Phoenix Tower.

Musical Encounters along the Silk Road

Gao Hong, pipa, and Issam Rafea, ‘ud
Recorded in performance at the Freer Gallery on September 14, 2019
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Pipa virtuoso Gao Hong and ‘ud master Issam Rafea began performing improvised duets after meeting at Carlton College in a jointly taught class on world music. This collaboration led them to record duets that earned them two nominations for the 2019 Independent Music Awards. The British world-music magazine Songlines called their collaboration “a recording that is consistently engaging, deeply contemplative, and culturally resonant.”


Yumi Kurosawa, koto, was born and raised in Japan and began studying the thirteen-string koto at the age of three under her parents’ instruction. She earned first prize at the national competition for students in 1989 and 1992, and she received a scholarship from the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan in 1998. She appeared with the Prague Cello Ensemble at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, in 1996 and on the NHK television program Genji-Wakana in 2000. Kurosawa has also toured Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Russia, and the United States. Since moving to New York, she has appeared at the Apollo Sound Stage and Joe’s Pub, on WNYC radio, and at Weill Recital Hall. A member of the Hougakuten Concert, Tokyo, she has achieved master qualification in the Seiha school (style) of koto.

Naseer Shamma,‘ud, is a leading exponent of the Iraqi school (tradition) of ‘ud (Arab lute). He graduated from the Baghdad Academy of Music and is founder and director of the Cairo-based Bayt Al-‘Ud. The Al-Oyoun ensemble, founded in 1999, performs a genre of music that Shamma defines as Arab chamber music, an expansion of the Arab takht, the classical musical ensemble of the Middle East. Shamma and Al-Oyoun perform regularly across Europe, Asia, and the Arab world; their US tour in 2013 was the first in more than a decade as Shamma refused to perform in the United States during the occupation of Iraq. Shamma’s commercial recordings include Ishraq (1996), Le Luth de Baghdad (1998), The Moon Fades (1999), Meditation (2005), Hilal Nasser Shamma & Oyoun (2005), Ard Al Sawad (2006), and Maqamat Ziryab (2006).

Xiayin Wang, piano, began her piano studies in China at the age of five and later graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory. After moving to the United States, she received a certificate of achievement from the Associated Music Teacher League of New York and performed at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. She holds bachelor, master, and professional studies degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. In 2009 she performed at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center with the world premiere of Enchanted Garden, Preludes Book II, by Richard Danielpour. Naxos released her recording of it in 2011. She made her orchestral debut at Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium in 2007. Other performances include appearances with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, St. Petersburg State Academic Orchestra, Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional, and Las Cruces Symphony Orchestra.

Quynh Nguyen, piano, was admitted to the Hanoi Conservatory of Music at the age of six. She performed her first recital at age eight and had her orchestral premiere three years later. At age thirteen she received a scholarship to study piano performance at the Gnessin Institute in Moscow. Nguyen graduated from the Juilliard School and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance from the Mannes College of Music. She earned her doctorate of musical arts degree at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and she is on the music faculty of Hunter College. Quynh Nguyen has performed as a soloist with the Humboldt University, San Francisco Concerto, Bellflower, Brentwood-Westwood Symphony, and Hanoi Symphony orchestras. She also won the Artist International Presentation Competition and the International Piano Concerto Competition in San Francisco.

Masayo Ishigure, koto, began playing the koto and jiuta shamisen at the age of five in Gifu, Japan. She studied at the Sawai Koto Academy of Music and earned a degree in Japanese traditional music at Takasaki Junior Arts College. Ishigure’s performance is heard on the recording The World of Tadao Sawai (2005) and on the CD East Wind Ensemble (2003) with music by anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Since moving to New York City in 1992, Ishigure has performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall-Weill Recital Hall, BAM, Merkin Hall, Trinity Church, and Symphony Space. She recorded koto music for CBS Masterworks for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and she performed for the 2005 soundtrack of Memoirs of a Geisha by John Williams along with Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. Ishigure has taught at Wesleyan University and Columbia University since 2010.

Theresa Salomon, violin, is a native of Germany and moved to New York in 1993. She has performed at the Festival Presence, Paris; Gulbenkian Festival, Lisbon; Prague Spring Festival; Ostfriesland Festival, Germany; Connecticut Early Music Festival; and Ostrava Days for New Music (Czech Republic), where she was a soloist with the Janácek Philharmonic. In New York she performs with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Rebel Baroque Orchestra, New York Collegium, and SEM Ensemble. She also directs a new music series at Music under Construction and plays frequently for Dance under Construction. Salomon has recorded for the Vandenburg and Tzadik labels.

Bing Xia, guzheng, is the artistic director of the Washington Guzheng Society. She majored in guzheng performance at Nanjing Normal University and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She became a guzheng soloist in the Xuzhou City Song and Dance Ensemble. After moving to the United States, Bing Xia was a featured performer in the Sackler exhibition Music in the Age of Confucius (2000) and at the Kennedy Center’s Asian Song Festival (2003). She performed again at the Freer as part of the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s 2009 celebration. She was a featured performer at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China for Vice Premier Qian Qichen and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Her performances have been heard on NPR and Voice of America.

Rujia Teng, guzheng, was born in Shenyang, China. At age nine, she passed the China National Musical Instrument Artistic Cultivation Performance Examination Grade Seven with honors. In 2004 she received the Outstanding Performance Award in the Shenyang Children’s Talent and Art Contest and won first place in the Liaoning Province Youth Art Competition. After Teng moved to the United States in 2005, she joined the Washington Guzheng Society and continues to study guzheng under Bing Xia. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival (Baltimore), the American Folk Festival (Bangor, Maine), Carnegie Hall, and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore).

Gao Hong, pipa, graduated from Beijing’s elite Central Conservatory of Music. Since coming to the United States, she has performed at the Lincoln Center Festival, Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and at international festivals in Paris, Caen, Milan, and Perth. She has presented concertos for pipa with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Heidelberg Philharmonic, the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, the China National Traditional Orchestra, Louisville Orchestra, Hawaii Symphony, and the Women’s Philharmonic (San Francisco), among others. In 2017 she became the first Chinese musician to play the National Anthem at a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball game in Minneapolis.

Issam Rafea, ‘ud, is one of Syria’s elite musicians. A refugee from the civil war, he served as chair of the Arab music department at the High Institute of Music in Damascus and the principal conductor of the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. In Syria, he was an active composer and arranger for television and theater. Rafea now directs the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Northern Illinois University. He has performed with guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque in cross-cultural collaborations and, with his Syrian orchestra, led a groundbreaking collaboration with Damon Albarn of the British rock bands Blur and Gorillaz.


Podcast developed by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio engineering by SuMo Productions and Andy Finch. Photography by Neil Greentree and Hutomo Wickasono. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Web design by Ryan King and WordPress installation by Gio Camozzi and Torie Castiello Ketcham. Several of these performances were presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Full funding credits are listed within each complete podcast. Special thanks are offered to all of the artists for granting permission to share their performances on Freer and Sackler podcasts.

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