Academic journal article Notes

Tan Dun through the Lens of Western Media (Part II)

Academic journal article Notes

Tan Dun through the Lens of Western Media (Part II)

Article excerpt

Tan Dun Through the Lens of Western Media (Part II) This semiannual column presents reviews of significant video releases of interest to the field of music and to music libraries, as well as occasionally briefly noting other interesting titles. All genres of music in all video formats will be covered, with a preference given to those in DVD. All Web sites accessed 30 September 2011.

In Water: The Tears of Nature, a documentary discussed in the first part of this review essay (Vol. 67, No. 3; March 2011), Tan Dun states, "My theory, which has been my major practice recently . . . [is] to figure how 1+1=1, but not=2" (2:46). In this concluding installment, I examine four of Tan's film scores and three of his fulllength operas on film to trace his evolution from a composer who likes "swinging and swimming freely among different cultures" to one who adds elements of Western classic music and Chinese musical traditions together to form a distinctive personal language.1

This gradual transformation began in the early 1990s, and many fans of his early compositions have not embraced this change. In his first American decade, Tan employed Cage-influenced experimental music and performance art techniques when writing both music for the downtown avant-garde scene and music for major classical music institutions. While he certainly used more sensationalist titles for some of his downtown pieces-most notably Memorial 19 Fucks: A Memorial to Injustice, to All People Who Have Been Fucked Over, performed at the 1993 Bang on a Can Festival-he did not shy away from audience participation in his orchestral work Orchestral Theatre II: Re (premiered by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in 1993), or from asking classically-trained musicians to take on major acting roles in Ghost Opera (premiered by the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man in 1995).

In the mid-1990s, Tan began to recognize that the vast gulf between experimental music and Western classical music audiences, and realized that his continued success meant writing different music for the two audiences. In a 1997 interview with the New York Times, he stated, "If you asked any of the Downtown people what I was doing in Europe or what I am doing at City Opera, they would have no idea . . . [a]nd if you asked James Levine about me, he probably wouldn't know about my experimental work Downtown. But I think these very different kinds of experience nourished each other."2 As more and more major Western classical music institutions commissioned Tan or hired him to conduct in the late 1990s and into the new millennium, he gradually shed the "anything goes" Downtown aesthetic, and developed a personal voice that helped to establish himself as a major composer of concertos, symphonies and operas, and an important conductor of Western symphonic music.

Marco Polo

Commissioned by the Edinburgh Inter - national Festival, Tan's first full-scale opera, Marco Polo, premiered at the Munich Biennale in 1996 and won the 1998 Grawemeyer Prize. The work, which has a highly symbolic and enigmatic libretto by Paul Griffiths, has been performed throughout Europe, and in New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Captured on the Opus Arte DVD is an excellent performance staged by Pierre Audi for the Netherlands Opera in November 2008. According to Tan, his interest in the subject is motivated largely by his own biography. He stated in an interview:

My personal experience as a traveller from East to West is similar to Polo's from West to East. I thought the best thing was to draw on my own experience, on my feelings about culture and about the idea of journey. Marco Polo is a symbol of journey, of travel from past to the future, from external space to internal space, from one medium to another. All crossover journeys excite me, and Polo is a great excuse to explore them.3

Marco Polo reflects much of Tan's early music in its ritualistic atmosphere (complete with enigmatic symbolism and plots), its abrupt juxtaposition of styles, and its evocation of many different musical traditions. …

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