Chinese composer Tan Dun has picked up a clutch of international awards in recent months for his score to the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe Award, a Hong Kong Film Award, and prizes at both the Golden Horse Awards and Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan. The success of the film, which has been released four times and grossed over NT$100 million in Taiwan, has introduced Tan's music to a vast new audience and extended his range of appeal well beyond the boundaries of classical music.
Picked by the New York Times as one of the "Classical Musicians of the Year" in 1997, and honored as the first Chinese recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for composers, Tan Dun has developed a style of music that blends influences from East and West, and from the past and the present, spanning an artistic realm situated between the traditional and the avant-garde. Where does Tan hail from, and what factors have shaped his prodigious musical talent? How does he produce his work? Has fame changed him? And what does he think of the often-heard criticism that his music is too "popular" and simply panders to Western tastes?
On a moonlit night, two swordswomen are engaged in an acrobatic duel, scampering up walls and bounding from roof to roof amid the courtyards of old Beijing. The mood of the intense, close-fought encounter is perfectly captured in Tan Dun's percussive accompaniment to the scene: pounding oriental drums plus the boom of cello strings being slapped by hand.
Instruments in love
Later in the film, when characters Jen Yu and Lo are in hot pursuit across the deserts of Xinjiang, the urgent strumming of a pipa-the four-stringed vertical lute, so evocative of China's Western regions-is used to convey the attraction between the two young fighters-cum-lovers, while the spooky aura of the character Jade Fox is brought out by the doleful tones of the bawu flute, an instrument from Southwest China. Meanwhile, the attachment between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lian, mature friends who have been through a lot together but keep their love for each other in check, is depicted through the interplay between a cello and a Chinese erhu (a two-stringed fiddle).
Having last visited Taiwan at the end of 2000, Tan Dun was back on the island in early May to premiere his new production: "Tan Dun and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-A Multimedia Concert."
At the press conference for the event, a cheerful Tan described the concert as an extension to the film itself, a way of deepening and extending the "oriental effect" of the film, and voiced his hope that the symphonic version of the Crouching Tiger music will still be played hundreds of years from now.
The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack opened up new possibilities for the martial arts movie genre, and marked an important confluence between the musical currents of East and West. Particularly notable was cellist Yo-Yo Ma's application of guqin (ancient Chinese zither) technique to the cello, stroking and pressing on the strings to draw a new dimension of sound from the instrument, conveying something of the inner dignity and reserve of Oriental people in days of yore.
Tan describes the guqin as his favorite instrument: "The plucked 'solid notes' and massaged 'empty notes' of the guqin go together like yin and yang, and it is this combination that gives Chinese instruments their depth." Though he grew up in Hunan Province and is skilled on traditional Chinese instruments, Tan also holds a doctorate in music from Columbia University in New York City, where he lived for many years. This mixed background accounts in part for Tan's gift for bringing together Eastern and Western elements in the creative process.
Tan Dun was born in Hunan in 1957. His father was in the army and his mother was a doctor. As a child, he lived with his grandmother in a village on the outskirts of Changsha, and had a habit of following local Taoists around, reveling in the sound of chanting voices and tinkling bells. For a while, he wanted to become a Taoist priest when he grew up. The music that Tan heard back then, used in exorcisms and funeral rites, was his earliest contact with the art. By his own reckoning he can still sing over 300 Hunanese folk songs.
When he was nine years old he received a broken fiddle from his primary school music teacher. The fiddle couldn't be repaired, so the young Tan plucked it like a three-stringed sanxian. At the age of 17, with China still in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, Tan was sent to a remote and backward rural area for reeducation through labor. By evening he used to organize impromptu musical performances with the local farmers, using rice-pots, bowls and basins for instruments. To Tan's ears, the sounds of village life, from wood-chopping, cotton-teasing and shoe-repairing, to the noise made by a stone falling on the ground, or someone catching a pig, all had rhythm and musicality.
When a boat carrying the provincial Peking opera troupe capsized, drowning a number of musicians, the door was opened for Tan to return to Changsha to serve as fiddle-player with the model opera academy. Once the Cultural Revolution came to an end, musicians all over the country burst back into life. There was a nationwide rush for admission to Beijing's Central Conservatory, and Tan was one of 400 candidates competing for just a handful of places in the conservatory's composition department.
For the final stage of the admission process, the examiners asked Tan to perform a piece by Mozart. His response was: "Who's Mozart?" At that point in his life, Tan Dun hadn't even seen a piano before. Trusting entirely to innate skill, he took up the violin and, still plucking it like a sanxian, gave an extemporaneous performance. At the end of the piece, and thanks to the determined advocacy of the chief examiner that day, Tan won admission to the prestigious institution.
Tan joined the Central Conservatory in 1978, and soon found that his lack of grounding in Western music was a serious handicap. To compensate, he went flat-out to absorb Western music and theory. But one day during a field trip to a minorities area in the mountains of Guangxi Province, after he had been at the Conservatory for three years, Tan realized that Western music theory had nothing valid to say about the lovely folk songs of the region. From then on, he began reverting to the rural influences of his earlier days, knowing that Western theory would only be a cage for his creativity.
In 1986, with a brilliant track record to his name, Tan Dun went to the United States to enroll at Columbia University. There he came under the guidance of Chou Wen-chung, a professor of Chinese music, and committed himself to developing a musical style fusing traditional oriental influences with those of the modern-day West.
New York, with its free-ranging, metropolitan arts culture, suited Tan down to a tee. The different skin colors of passengers on the subway, and the panoply of different accents, made him feel very comfortable in the city. As he said once in an interview: "New York is my home; SoHo culture is my culture."
After graduating from Columbia Tan spent time performing in the subway and at restaurants, and began writing music for the stage. His work at that time was highly avant-garde. For example, for the music-drama The Pink, Tan used sheets of paper as musical instruments, and appeared on stage himself, naked, in the role of conductor.
It was in that period that he met his wife, Huang Zhen. His talent began to really blossom and his music became increasingly mainstream. He was invited to lecture at prestigious institutes such as the Julliard School in New York, the Sibelius Academy in Finland and the Royal College of Music in London, and also served as a juror for the Munich International Music Theater Awards and the International Composition Competition in the Netherlands. He was already known as the most prominent Chinese musician of his day.
Tan's career reached a new peak in 1996, when he was commissioned to create the opera Marco Polo for the Edinburgh Festival, with elements drawn from both Western religious music and Peking opera. The production subsequently toured the world, including stops in the Netherlands, Hong Kong, New York and Vienna.
1997 saw the premiere of Tan's Symphony 1997: Heaven Earth Mankind, composed specially for the ceremonies marking the handover of Hong Kong and featuring music from an ancient Chinese set of tuned bells accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. The event was broadcast around the world, further elevating Tan's profile.
Another breakthrough came at the end of 1994 with the New York production of the modern Chinese opera Peony Pavilion, scored by Tan. Collaborators on the project included avant-garde director Peter Sellars, Chinese soprano Huang Ying, and the famous Kunju opera leading lady Hua Wenyi. Tan's music featured a combination of Eastern and Western elements, played partly on synthesizers, to accompany video projections and the dancing of the performers. Tan describes his own contribution to Peony Pavilion as being like "medieval chant meeting rock 'n' roll meeting Chinese Kunju opera."
Anyone who was in the audience for the production of Tan's multimedia opera The Gate, at the National Concert Hall in Taipei at the end of last year, will be no stranger to the composer's anything-goes style of performance. The work brings together Yu-ji, a character from the Peking opera Farewell My Concubine, Juliet from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and a classic Japanese puppet character Koharusen, in a tale of love and death. To create the right atmosphere for the opera's underworld trial scene, Tan placed part of the strings section in a box in the gallery, and had the violinists strike the body of their instruments with the palms of their hands. The musicians were also required to stamp their feet (clad in hard-soled shoes) and call out in rhythm with the pronouncements of the underworld judge.
"Tan Dun uses every instrument to the full, and has opened up a new direction for music in the 21st century, even to the point of creating a new musical form," says Chen Chiu-sen, artistic director of Taipei Symphony Orchestra. The famous Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu has said of Tan's work: "Every part of Tan Dun's music is violent as a spurt of blood, yet full of grace, a voice of the soul."
Despite the fame and acclaim, however, Tan has come in for a fair bit of criticism. Teachers and classmates from his days at Columbia have accused him of being "mass-appeal" and "too busy promoting himself." Chou Wen-chung, the composer he first went to America to study under, says: "Tan Dun is one of the most talented Chinese composers, but he has been seduced by Western commercialization. It's a pity, but his work merely presents a superficial version of the orient for Westerners to appreciate." Critics have also charged Tan with not being serious enough, and have said his approach to music is like mixing vintage wine with beer.
Tan does not duck the criticism, but he doesn't accept it either. "I've had far more criticism than praise!" he comments.
On the question of musical mass-appeal, Tan says: "I like popular music. Its influence can be felt everywhere, and it gives people a chance to dance and sing along with the tune." As to whether or not he panders to Western tastes, Tan stresses, "If foreigners give their approval, then that's a good thing. When films by a Chinese director like Ang Lee receive international acclaim, it's something that we should all support!"
"It's not the form that matters," says Tan, "so much as that it is something that comes from the heart. When I yawn, that too is Tan Dun!"
Tan repeatedly stresses that as a composer working for all mankind, his philosophy is to take forms that have been severed from established culture to become new musical categories, and blend them into a creative fusion. Thus he joins popular music with the music of the academy, links the city to nature, computers to the land, and so on.
"I give myself huge creative freedom," says Tan, "the boundless freedom of the inner being." In fact, he feels he is freer than any other artist working in the free world. In a self-confident tone he declares that in today's art world, if an artist has "communication skills, unique personal qualities, the characteristics of a particular locality and individual creativity, then the world is his oyster."
Since the Oscars Tan Dun has had approaches from plenty of movie and stage directors wanting him to work with them. But Tan says: "Film work is like a side dish for me. Classical music is still my main course." At present, he is already booked right through the year 2006.
In the second half of his recent Taipei concert, Tan presented a new work entitled, Eternal Water Concerto. Standing before a large, transparent basin of water on the dimly lit stage, Tan used his hands to produce splashing and sloshing noises from the substance that is closer to mankind than any other. Percussionist David Cossin was meanwhile using a combination of bottles, drums, pipes, and sieves to further envelop the audience in a weird but wonderful "waterworld."
Tan says that the idea for the piece came from a children's event he once produced in New York, giving children from different cultures the chance to share and experience the different sounds of water. One of the children described an old Jewish man who he used to see looking out to sea every day. The old man had said that water belongs to the whole world, and that the same sea washed the shores of his homeland, and that he came to look at it every time he missed his old home.
"Water is rain, is tears, is the sea, and is something that we cannot do without for a day. Water is the single most inalienable thing in the world," says Tan. Furthermore, water is without form or purpose, something that by its nature is boundless-which is Tan Dun's highest aspiration for himself.
As well as being an outstanding composer Tan Dun is also a famous conductor, noted for contemporary works drawing on diverse cultural sources.
An orchestra performs against a backdrop of scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Produced in collaboration with director Ang Lee, Tan Dun's concert of music and imagery from the film offered a beguiling conception of Oriental culture.
Whether it was the sound of shoes being repaired or cotton being teased, or even just the noise of a stone falling on the ground, it all provided inspiration for Tan Dun's music. For his latest concert in Taiwan, Tan introduced listeners to the music of water.