Tan Dun Talks on Water - Interview
- By Brett Campbell, Andante
The composer of the Water Passion After St. Matthew discusses the
importance of ritual and theater in musical performance and
how H2O became central to his work.
[For more articles on Tan Dun see:
When the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun was a boy, ancient Chinese
myths still lived in his isolated village. When the Cultural
Revolution forced him to work on a collective farm, Tan collected
folk music from his neighbors and learned how to play traditional
Chinese string instruments, eventually leading musical performances
at ritual occasions. Later he performed in the Beijing Opera; after
China's shroud of repression began to lift in the 1970s, he was
admitted to the newly reopened national music conservatory, where he
discovered Western classical music. Tan was deeply influenced by the
works of John Cage and Toru Takemitsu, both of whom employed silence
and toyed with time and showed Tan Dun how Western and Eastern
concepts could be reconciled in music.
Tan has lived in New York since winning a fellowship to Columbia
University in 1986. He unleashed a flood of compositions during the
1990s; performances, recordings, honors and commissions followed. He
won acclaim for his opera Marco Polo, his symphony Heaven Earth
Mankind (commissioned for the reunification of Hong Kong with China
in 1997), and his Grammy- and Academy Award-winning soundtrack to Ang
Lee's celebrated film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He collaborated
with such artists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and stage director Peter
Sellars; in 1998 he became the youngest-ever winner of the Grawemeyer
Award, the world's richest and most prestigious prize for composers.
In his work over the years, Tan has experimented with atonality and
other European approaches, but he never lost the sound and spirit of
Chinese folk and theater music that had bewitched him as a boy. His
music incorporates elements of Chinese ritual and theater, conjuring
strange timbres and combinations of Western and Chinese musical forms
and instruments, producing a compelling musical vision.
In 2000, Tan was one of four composers (along with Osvaldo Golijov,
Sofia Gubaidulina and Wolfgang Rihm) commissioned by Oregon Bach
Festival music director Helmuth Rilling to commemorate the millennium
and the 250th anniversary of J. S. Bach's death by writing Passions
in the tradition of Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions. andante
contributor Brett Campbell talked to Tan Dun just before the U.S.
premiere of his Water Passion After St. Matthew at the Oregon Bach
Festival on 5 July 2002.
Brett Campbell: What attracted to you to the Passion story?
Tan Dun: I was nervous about presenting a story that has lived in
people's hearts in another culture for thousands of years. But I was
excited because it such a powerful, dramatic, operatic story. And I
thought, we are in a global village now, so this very powerful story
must be shared. So I said I would do it.
BC: How did your spiritual background connect with this central story
in western Christianity?
TD: When I was growing up, my grandparents were Buddhist. I was
raised in a village when I was a child and in the village there were
rituals, temples so that music was my first influence.
BC: What aspects of that Chinese music and culture inform the Water
TD: The water festival in China, Yunnan province. In April, to
celebrate spring coming, they have a water-pouring festival,
everybody gathering huge chunks of water on the street and throwing
it around. The whole town was wet everyone was wet. Also, in my
hometown, in ancient times and even in my childhood in the village,
the people were always washing rice in the river before they cooked
it, and washing their clothes in the river, washing their bodies in
the river. I had the experience of living with the water, playing
with the water, listening to the water. It was very important to me.
BC: Several of your other works just before this used water and water
TD: Yes, it was building up I spent a long year experimenting
water. But this was the first time I used it, literally and
spiritually, in such a large structure.
Three or four years ago, when my wife was pregnant, [we went to the
doctor] for an ultrasound, and there I could see this beautiful baby
and hear the heart, and suddenly I heard this beautiful water sound.
And I realized: this is the sound all human beings heard first. At
that time I was just getting the commission for the piece [Water
Passion]. I said, "I've got to start with water" it's the
beginning, and the beginning is the ending, and the end is the
beginning. That's the meaning of resurrection. Resurrection isn't
just a new life, but a new idea.
BC: You said you wanted your Passion to explore the meaning of
suffering from the Western and Eastern points of view. What did you
TD: Jesus actually knew what was the goal of his suffering, his
passion. When he starts to suffer, he knows the meaning and knows why
he wants to do this. In Buddhist philosophy, people think that
suffering is saving moral value. If you suffer in terms of benefiting
other people sacrificing, saving other people then, in
life, you will be much better treated. You will be resurrected, in a
I had never paid attention to how to compare different cultures; only
when I got the commission did I think about it. I am so glad there
are so many things we can share today with so many people not
musically or economically, but also politically and spiritually.
BC: Are you optimistic because the globalization of culture allows so
much mixing of different music and art?
TD: Yes. It's interesting what's happening now, when you see monks in
McDonald's, Christian people in sushi restaurants, Buddhists wearing
suits and Westerners wearing Oriental clothes. This was not
imaginable 20 or even 10 years ago. Time has changed really
changed; things can come to people everywhere in every medium. We
should treasure this period.
BC: You've created a number of operas and theater works, and this
Water Passion has some crucial visual elements the lighted
water, the movement of the soloists in the last movement, the
lighting design. When you were composing the score, did you have
those visual images in your head at the same time you were hearing
TD: Yes, all at once. All the movements, lighting effects, I was
trying to include [them] in my score. Also, part of my experience was
working in Peking Opera for a long time. For us as Peking Opera
musicians, playing, singing, performing and directing were all part
of our work. That's why I came out with [my two] Orchestral Theater
[works], dealing with the orchestra performing theatrical acts.
BC: You've talked about the importance of ritual in your work, and
breaking down the modern barriers between audience and performers,
barriers that didn't exist when music was part of ancient rituals.
How do you see the role of ritual in the music of the future?
TD: You know, the concert hall is only a couple of hundred years old
very short compared to how long music has existed. People listen to
jazz and rock in a very different way [than classical concerts], and
I'm sure the way they listen to and perform new classical music will
My village has this sort of shamanistic ritual from ancient times. It
has become an important branch of Chinese culture, related to
Siberian tribes' shamanistic culture, which always treats things as
spirit: cloud is spirit, river is spirit, tree is spirit, flower is
spirit human is spirit. They all talk to each other and
Our music rituals should be able to catch up with this idea. Because
musical language isn't literal. It was created by God to link all
those spirits to let the clouds talk to the sea, let the birds
to human beings. I hear this in Messiaen, Debussy. Takemitsu, too.
There are two freedoms important to an artist: speech the
to say what you want and the second is the freedom you give
yourself to be yourself, the courage to go to the peak of artistic
discovery. We should be thinking about that second freedom, to let
yourself be what you can. That's something we can learn from ritual.