From Our World to Yours: Gao Hong and Issam Rafea Improvise Vibrant Soundworlds

As a duo, Gao Hong and Issam Rafea plan only two things about their performances: when and where. Their personal history is similarly spur-of-the-moment; they met in the spring of 2017, when Gao’s department at Carleton College invited Rafea for an artist residency. By its conclusion, they’d recorded a spontaneous, unedited collection aptly titled Life as Is. Their latest release follows the same tried-and-true method. From Our World to Yours (ARC Music) was live-recorded sans deliberation, with only whimsy to dictate the contour of their performance.

Fifteen short tracks comprise From Our World to Yours, covering a sweeping range of soundworlds, even considering the divergent traditions from which Gao and Rafea emerge. Gao is an expert of the Chinese pipa, and Rafea is a virtuoso player of the oud, an instrument widely used throughout the middle east and parts of Northern Africa and Central Asia. Both instruments are lute-like—large bodied, stringed, and thousands of years old—but their idioms and aesthetics are unique. The pipa is fretted: most of the frets correspond to pitches equivalent to Western semitones and whole tones, but expressive bends toward and away from these pitches are part and parcel of the instrument’s technique. Pipa players also use tremolo luen finger rolls and muted, harmonic-like dzai. The oud, on the other hand, is fretless, and players use the Arabic maqam, a complex and microtonal system that defines not only pitches, but structures for improvisation. Oud strings come in pairs, save for one solo drone string, creating an environment where sympathetic resonances create a rich, irridescent sound.

Issam Rafea and Gao Hong

Issam Rafea and Gao Hong

The tracks like “Mother’s Plea,” “Thinking of You,” and “Autumn Thoughts” are plaintive, filling up a spacious mix with heavy drones. In these moments, the oud’s microtonal tuning becomes more present with every articulation, felt kinetically as much as heard. In “Autumn Thoughts,” Gao organizes the improvisation by intensity, deftly manipulating the speed and strength of her luen plucking. Rafea’s drones grow denser in support, elongating from static gestures to continuous, rolling arpeggiations. Gao’s final pipa harmonics and bends evokes the oud’s searching opening, leaving the listener with its memory ringing faintly in the ears as the track fades out.

Other improvisations exploit the duo’s proclivity for breathless speed and driving rhythms. “Joyful Dance,” for example, begins with the pipa’s abrupt transformation into a percussion instrument. “Moving Forward” and “Reunion” maintain constant variation by transitioning into and away from these displays of virtuosity. Amidst their acrobatics, timbres stand out. As Rafea allows his strings to ring more freely, the oud’s uniquely tense tone captures the attention with satisfying buzzes and sizzles. Gao’s careful control of string pressure allows a dense web of high harmonics to color her muscular luen strumming.

The duo’s playful approach also pervades their improvisations in the style of contemporary Western music. Tracks entitled “Robot” and “Outer Space” mimic percussive and electronic effects, the real-life acoustic manifestations of the droplet-like pings synthesized by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Subotnick. In “Curiosity,” Gao’s pipa seems to be prepared, and to striking effect: the prepared strings’ articulation brings a ghostly, metallic sheen to her accompaniment. These spontaneous compositions replace driving, forward motion with searching passages of ethereal, out-of-time call and response. Although the in-the-moment construction of the album isn’t organized around large-scale melodic or formal connections, these call and response moments happen in every improvisation, showing an impressive level of generosity and attention to one another’s playing.

For Western listeners in particular, there remain tacit (though rampant) stereotypes about a version of “world music” that’s been flattened and universalized; to take From Our World to Yours on these terms threatens to derail our appreciation. There’s an impulse to historicize, to think these millenia-old instruments can only conjure the dusty remains of their music’s ancient past. With improvisation comes an assumption of informality, negating both Gao’s and Rafea’s prodigious expertise (not to mention generations of highly literate and learned forebears). From Our World to Yours is a powerful corrective to such a narrative—it shows us a vibrant living tradition, open to new ideas and interpretations. But don’t worry that Gao Hong and Issam Rafea would ever take up that mantle without a dose of good humor: “As musicians we spend our entire lives practicing to do what is the most difficult to achieve. But we should be careful not to transform ourselves into machines who are not loving what we do!”


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