The scintillating sounds of his native China, intermingled with those of his adopted West, are flashing across the musical horizon everywhere you look and listen. Now that gleam is reflected in a shelf's worth of acclaim that includes, so far, an Oscar, a Grammy, and the prestigious Grawemeyer award.
Suddenly Tan Dun is everywhere you look, everywhere you listen. In just the past few months, audiences in Lisbon and Singapore have flocked to his large-scale orchestral works. His Water Passion After St. Matthew reached its first American audiences last July, at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene; it's listed for a Brooklyn Academy of Music performance in December, by which time the Sony recording (of the work's world premiere at Stuttgart in the summer of 2000) will be in the stores. By then, too, his latest opera-bearing the terse title Tea-will have arrived at Tokyo's Suntory Hall in a co-production with Suntory and the Netherlands Opera, and Hong Kong's Fusion Festival will have presented a full evening of Tan's orchestral works-including his Concerto for Pipa, which mingles, in typical Tan Dun fashion, the sounds of his native China with those of his adopted West. A new cello concerto, The Map, is on the agenda for Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony, with performances in Boston and New York in early 2003.
And while the usual trajectory to acclaim as Musical America's Composer of the Year can take anywhere from 30 years (in the case of Steve Reich) to half a century (Lou Harrison), the name of Tan Dun has flashed across the musical horizon in less than a decade. Now that gleam is reflected in a shelf's worth of acclaim that includes, so far, an Oscar, a Grammy, and the prestigious and lucrative Grawemeyer Award.
It has only been during that time, in fact, that the possibility has materialized for a Chinese presence in the worldwide musical spectrum. Tan's early history is shared by at least two other compatriot composers, Bright Sheng and Chen Yi. All three are in their forties; they look back on childhood years of enforced labor under China's hardline leadership in which such decadences as serious musical activity were harshly proscribed. With the end of Madame Mao's grossly misnamed "Cultural Revolution," political pressures were relaxed; all these composers found newly cleared pathways toward the outside world. All three emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, and are now well established here. (Bright Sheng's new opera is scheduled for next summer at Santa Fe. Its subject: Madame Mao.)
For young Tan, the transition was the most drastic. "I grew up in the small village of Si Mao in Hunan province," he recalls. "We had a kind of music for our ancient rituals, but most of it was just making noise on whatever we could lay our hands on-kitchen utensils, paper that we could tear, water in bowls that we could stroke with our hands, stones that we could hit together. I was more fortunate than some in the village, however; I had learned to play the violin, and when the Beijing Opera needed players for their orchestra I was taken off farm duty and sent to join the opera company.
"Then came the end of the Cultural Revolution, and suddenly the doors were opened. Arriving, at 20, at the Beijing Central Conservatory, and discovering for the first time the music of the real world, was for me a thrilling experience. But I have never lost my interest in making sounds with those primitive noisemakers from my childhood. When I came to New York I discovered that John Cage had also been making music with water, kitchenware, and paper; these devices may have seemed strange to some people, but to me they were entirely natural. That's probably why we became good friends."
Tan's first major American success was the 1995 Ghost Opera, composed for the Kronos Quartet plus a solo pipa; the quartet members were also asked to riffle their hands through nearby water basins to create distant, mysterious sounds. The Water Passion came about through the Stuttgart-based International Bach Society. Four composers-Tan, Sofia Gubaidulina, Wolfgang Rihm, and Osvaldo Golijov-were commissioned to create contemporary Passion settings to honor the 250th anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. Tan had only discovered Bach's music and its relationship to the Christian ethic at Beijing. "I had come from a non-Christian background, but the story in the Passion wasn't all that different from the ancient stories in my village. So many cultures use water as a metaphor: birth, creation, and re-creation. The water cycle itself is the story of resurrection; the water comes to earth, and then returns to the atmosphere, and returns to the earth once more. Christian or Taoist, it all becomes the same."
Unlike the commissioned Passions by his three colleagues, which rival Bach's own settings in their scoring demands, Tan's work calls for relatively few performers: a small chorus whose members also play Tibetan finger bells, two vocal soloists, solo strings, and keyboard, and, as you might guess, a gathering of percussion instruments including stones of various sizes and pitches, water drums (upside-down salad bowls floating in a water basin), a small soda bottle (for bubbling sounds), and water gongs partially immersed. Much of the drama-in Tan's own paraphrase of Biblical sources-proceeds in a dark, unearthly calm in which the faint rippling of the waterworks becomes a hypnotic counterpart to the words. "A sound is heard in water," sings the chorus at the Last Supper, "The tears are crying for truth."
For the world beyond Tan Dun's Hunan village, the process of discovery has worked in two ways. As Tan himself finds his place in the musical realm of Bach, Beethoven, and John Cage, worldwide audiences are discovering a richness in authentic Chinese musical sources that goes far beyond the sing-song choruses of Turandot and Ravel's cracked teacup. Tan has been particularly skillful in blending authentic presences East and West without blurring their original nationalities. He has done this, furthermore, over a wide variety of musical forms: in serious operas like the 1996 Grawemeyer-winning Marco Polo (with a text by British-born critic Paul Griffiths), the massive, hour-long "symphonies" to celebrate the unification of Hong Kong with China and to proclaim the universal meaning of the Millennium. In 1998, when Chinese authorities forbade the exportation of the traditional romantic epic Peony Pavilion, Tan and director Peter Sellars created their own two-hour version, remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original work but an enchanting artwork on its own.
In 1999, Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, with its principal percussionist Christopher Lamb out front, offered up its own Tan Dun commission: the Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra in which, this time, Tan pits a similar set of waterworks, as in the Passion, against a full symphony orchestra. That work, composed in memory of Tan's great friend and sometime mentor Toru Takemitsu, gleams brightly in the Philharmonic's multi-disc issue of notable Masur performances. The year 2000, which saw the premiere of the Passion before a cheering audience in Stuttgart, was also illuminated by the Oscar-blessed film score for compatriot Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (with Yo-Yo Ma's cello a haunting voice in the wilderness of Lee's magic forest); that score, in turn, spawned the much-praised Crouching Tiger Concerto.
Questions of assimilation-of a further "Americanization" of musical style and outlook-are apparently of no concern to Tan Dun. His latest opera, Tea-"a tragic love story set in the 15th century," he explains-has as its dramatic framework three characters representing water, wind, and stone, who re-create the traditional tea ceremony. "These are the elements of the shamanistic spirit in the rituals that I remember from my village," he explains, "and they maintain their power even today. The stones can talk to the wind. The wind can talk to the water. The water can talk to the human being."
Alan Rich is music critic of LA Weekly. Former music critic of New York magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including American Pioneers (Phaidon Press).