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Tan Dun Talks on Water - Interview

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    By Brett Campbell, Andante The composer of the Water Passion After St. Matthew discusses the importance of ritual and theater in musical performance — and
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 18, 2002
      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:
      id=17791&highlight=1&highlightterms=&lstKeywords= ]

      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
      the next
      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
      bowls of
      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
      the sounds?

      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
      each other.

      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.
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