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Tan Dun finds balance between East and West

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Talking about the Chinese folk music he grew up with and the Western classical music he studied at Columbia University, composer Tan Dun refers to the two not as different styles, but as different “systems.” The linguistic choice seems a precise and significant one, suggesting the widest possible gap between the two: not only different instruments, sounds and methods, but different purposes, a different philosophy of music altogether. A different system.

Tan grew up at an extreme remove from Western culture. Not only was he born into Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, which isolated China from the West, but Tan was also raised in the rural Hunan province, whose culture was dominated by the shamanistic and ritualistic. Tan experienced music, but of a sort that had almost nothing in common with the Western system. Music was typically made using the crudest of instruments and techniques: blowing into bamboo flutes, banging stones, swishing bowls of water, singing with a piece of paper in front of the mouth.

Showing an interest in and aptitude for music, Tan managed to get a violin. With it, he worked his way into the provincial music scene.

“We had local opera and folk music and local Buddhist theater,” said the 46-year-old Tan. “There was no orchestra, no Western opera. Ritualistic weddings and celebrations became part of my life. That’s how I learned to play music, playing that on violin and Chinese percussion and bamboo flute.”

When Tan was in his late teens, Mao died, the Cultural Revolution came to an end, and Chinese society began to open up. At age 20, Tan attended the reopened Beijing Conservatory, where he was exposed for the first time to Western classical music, an ear-opening experience.

“I was very excited, because it’s not just Western music,” said Tan, who makes his first visit to Aspen this week. “To me, it’s another new system of music. Physically, it was shocking. The first time I heard Bach, it was so striking. It was another kind of spirit, another kind of medicine.” Adding to the jolt for Tan was the fact that music was only a part of the shifting landscape. “When we first had contact with Bach and Beethoven, the churches reopened, the orchestras started to reorganize, Western orchestras started to visit.”

After eight years at the Beijing Conservatory, where he studied composition and conducting, and played violin in the orchestra, Tan moved to New York, where he studied at Columbia. As Tan attempted to become a Western-style composer, he experienced frustration as he tried to make a kind of music that wasn’t in his blood.

“Because I was totally trained in Eastern music,” he said. “I felt I learned the Western music too late or not enough.”

That frustration would be fleeting. Tan felt relieved when he earned his doctorate in composition. And he came to see New York as a perfect place to straddle worlds. “New York provided me with a very good base. Everybody has many homes – different physical homes, different ages, different periods of your career,” he said.

But in becoming versed in Western orchestral music, Tan substituted one frustration for another. His musical sense, he believed, was becoming too Westernized; he was being pulled too far from his roots.

“In my early years at Columbia, the first immigrants are always trying to study the best of the best of Western composers,” he said. “I found my Eastern music studies always reminds me of the accent of my expressions. I was having the second frustrations, after I learned the Western music. I was hesitating: Should I become a standard Western composer or should I be myself?”

Tan was determined to find a middle course that was his own – both a reflection of his Chinese upbringing and his Western education. In 1989, he composed “Nine Songs,” a ritual opera. Nine, not coincidentally, can mean “unlimited” in Chinese. “I wrote that as a sort of rethinking, and readdressing, of my musical spirit,” he said.

In 1995, Tan composed “Ghost Opera,” a work for string quartet and pipa, a Chinese lute; the piece also had the musicians making sound with water, stones, paper and metal. “Ghost Opera” drew from such sources as Bach and Shakespeare, monks chanting and Chinese folk songs.

“From these two operas, you can tell I was honestly facing my experiences from Western classical music training and Eastern training, especially local opera and ritualistic music in Hunan,” said Tan. “In ‘Ghost Opera,’ I was trying very much to cross the boundaries between classical and nonclassical, Eastern and Western, and between ancient ritual music and avant-garde. These three boundaries are speaking, always, in my head. After these two operas, I am very much confident in who I am and what kind of composer I could be.”

“Ghost Opera” also showed how popular Tan’s merging of East and West, ancient and modern, could be. The Kronos Quartet toured with the piece across the world, including performances in Beijing, and recorded it, with pipa player Wu Man, for Nonesuch in 1997.

The Aspen Music Festival will present “Ghost Opera” as part of An Evening with Cho-Liang Lin on Thursday, July 10. The timing is fortuitous: July 15 kicks off the two-week “ghost festival” period in Chinese tradition. (Tan’s music will also be featured on Aug. 2, when Sharon Isbin performs his “Seven Desires for Solo Guitar.”)

“Ghost Opera” is as an unusual an experience for musicians as it is for audiences. The piece has the musicians playing their string instruments as well as the water bowls and stones.

“One side is very strict, as Western classical music,” said Tan. “The other side has a system of Eastern music, which gives performers a lot of space to improvise, to direct themselves with more ritualistic performance. To address themselves as musicians, not just to sing, to play. The piece provided a room of flexibility for people to be different. Every group that plays the piece, it becomes a different piece.”

Since finding his identity as a mix of Eastern and Western, Tan has become among the most celebrated contemporary composers. His Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra, premiered by the New York Philharmonic, has been performed by some 60 orchestras. He earned Academy and Grammy awards for his score to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Upcoming works include “Inventions for Paper Instruments and Orchestra,” which will open Los Angeles’ new Walt Disney Concert Hall in October; and the opera “The First Emperor,” a love story set around the building of the Great Wall of China, set to be premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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