The traditional Chinese symbol for peace is composed of two “radicals,” or basic characters: a woman, and a roof above her head. A woman at home: What better way to represent tranquillity?
For years that symbol has preoccupied the Boston-based composer Shaw Pong Liu. Why should a sheltered woman signify peace? Perhaps that sign, which is more than 3,000 years old, carries distinctly un-peaceful insinuations — relating to women and to domestic life — for the 21st century. What if we could create a new symbol for peace?
Those questions led to Liu’s new choral work, “Peace Is a Woman in a House.” The piece was commissioned by Lorelei Ensemble, the adventurous ensemble of eight female voices that will give the premiere performances in concerts on May 22 in Boston and May 23 in Cambridge.
Liu’s work is at the center of “Shelter,” the final program of Lorelei’s sixth season; around it are another premiere, by the American composer Carson Cooman, and selections from two medieval codexes (manuscript collections). All of them deal in some way with ideas of protection, refuge, and sanctuary, using strikingly different frameworks, texts, and musical languages.
“Shaw Pong’s piece is the crux of the program,” said Beth Willer, Lorelei’s founder and artistic director. “Once the concept of that piece was underway, I began to build the program around this idea of shelter: what it means to take shelter, what it means to shelter yourself from the world. That led me to these two codexes, and also played a role in Carson’s text choices.”
Liu’s piece began in 2014 as a public-art project called “Water Graffiti for Peace,” in which she would stop passersby on the streets of Chinatown and at the Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, and ask them reflect on the Chinese peace symbol. With the help of calligrapher Mike Mei, she also asked them how they would create their own sign for peace, using giant brushes dipped in water to paint on the sidewalks. She did the same exercise with the Lorelei singers.
Liu culled those interviews for the texts of the first movement of “Peace Is a Woman.” She also asks the singers to improvise movement during the performance, responding to the sound and words. Mei will also improvise a calligraphic response to the music during the performance, and he’ll create water-graffiti installations outside both concert halls.
The second and third movements are more traditionally conceived, though no less weighty in their relations to the piece’s central notions. For the second, “Too Small,” Liu wrote her own text about what in her program note she calls “the dark side of so many families, including my own, in which the domestic sphere is not always a safe or peaceful space.” The final movement, “Interbeing,” centers around the idea that “you are not separate from me,” a Buddhist concept that Liu sets in eight different languages.
“Peace Is a Woman” tests the Lorelei musicians’ openness to unfamiliar modes of expression, a risk even for an intrepid group. “We come to it, first let’s make sure we can sing the notes on the page, make this happen technically,” Willer said. “And then we’re ready, not to remove ourselves from the technical aspects but to transition into an experience of Shaw Pong’s piece that is driven by our ears as much as it is by our minds and by our eyes. That’s unfamiliar territory for us and for our audience. But it’s also really exciting, [even] when it’s a risky place.”
Cooman’s piece is “The Dawning Light,” an eight-movement setting of traditional songs and poems of the Inuit-Yupik “Eskimos.” The outer movements, wordless evocations of the sun and moon, frame six poem settings that create a loose narrative of moving through a vast land, colored by Cooman’s open harmonies and modal accents. The poems “approach this idea of home and shelter but from the perspective of an indigenous people,” Willer explained, “and therefore their roof [is] a sky rather than a construct. It’s this acknowledgement of peace out in the open rather than inside a place.”
The two codexes that are the sources of the medieval selections both come from northern Spain. The older one, “Codex Calixtinus,” is from the 12th century and contains some of the earliest extant examples of three-part polyphony. Most of the codex comprises texts that constitute a practical guide to the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Apostle St. James.
One of the sites along the Camino was a monastery called Las Huelgas, where the second Codex originated, in the 13th century. That collection contains some of the only medieval polyphony written specifically for women.
Aspects of both places resonate with the theme of “Shelter,” Willer explained. “Las Huelgas” means “place of shelter,” and the monastery had a hospital where pilgrims could literally take refuge during their journey. And the pilgrimage itself offered echoes similar to that of the Cooman piece. “The pilgrims — they’re in transit and they’re in search of something with the guidance of this saint that’s taking them there,” she said.
Asked what it’s like to prepare a program like “Shelter,” which seeks to make ideational connections across centuries and styles, Willer noted that both early and new works are fraught with uncertainty, even doubt. Figuring out how to improvise movement in a contemporary work isn’t, in the end, all that different from decoding an eight-century-old manuscript.
“There’s a lot of unknowns in both,” Willer said. “So it requires everyone to be invested in that process. There’s no just showing up and doing it right. There’s, like, 20 right ways to do it. We probably all have our own levels of comfort with that, and what we have to keep reminding ourselves with all these unknowns is that this concert is about peace. It’s not about being right. It’s about coexisting.”
Beth Willer, conductor
At: Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Friday at 8 p.m.
Lowell Lecture Hall, Harvard University, Saturday at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$30. www.loreleiensemble.com