Against a backdrop of the gilded organ inside Bloomington’s First Presbyterian Church, two of the world’s most ancient instruments met in a dance of sounds Friday night.
Lotus World Music and Arts Festival attendees sat transfixed as Gao Hong, who plays the Chinese four-string lute called the pipa, and Issam Rafea, master of the Arabic lute known as the oud, skillfully fused their instruments together to create a harmonious combination.
Gao and Rafea met in the spring of 2017 at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota where Hong teaches and directs the Carleton Global Music Ensemble and Rafea was an artist-in-residence at the time. Near the end of the semester, Gao had suggested they go into a studio and record some improvisations just for fun, which proved to be the beginning of their collaboration.
Gao said they bonded immediately once they started to play. The music they produced was so cohesive, it seemed as if they have been working together for years.
“We recorded 28 tracks without any rehearsing in one long session,” Gao said. “Each track was recorded in just one take.”
They picked 12 tracks for their album, titled “Life As Is: The Blending of Ancient Souls from Syria and China.”
“The name ‘Life As Is’ captured the spirit of what we are trying to do,” Gao said. “As we improvise all of our music, the pieces are different every time we play. We don’t want to repeat the same thing all the time, nor are we able to.”
As Gao and Rafea performed on stage, audience members were able to see the rapport they established through eye contact, small gestures and listening to one another.
They started the night with a duet, followed by Rafea playing a hauntingly beautiful tune with the oud. Gao then performed one of her signature pieces, “Flying Dragon” followed by another improvised duet.
The pair then asked audience members to provide them with titles or themes, so they could create site and audience specific pieces based from the suggestions on the spot. Two interpretations the audience offered on Friday night were “sunset” and “spring rain.”
Both Gao and Rafea cited their respective cultures as the fundamental influence in their music, they also drew a great amount of inspiration from music elements around the globe.
“Our roots play a big part because we grew up listening to and loving our native music,” Rafea said. “You then pick whatever bits and pieces of music you like as it is a universal language.”
They also agreed that music needs to come from the deepest parts of the performer’s heart and soul.
“Playing with the heart is especially important in music improvisation,” Rafea said. “It is all about the connection and the energy.”
Gao and Rafea’s performance is one of the many that make up Lotus Festival, a celebration of the beauty of the arts and music which attracts talents from all over the world every fall.
Sarah Ryterband has been attending Lotus Festival since its beginning 25 years ago.
“Combinations like this and the creativity is what I am here for," Ryterband said. “I come to hear things that I would never hear otherwise.”