Tan Dun: Tradition and Invention

Frank J. Oteri: The more I think about it, the more I realize that just about everything you’ve ever done—whether it’s a solo piano piece or a piece involving an orchestra and video projections—is an opera to some extent.

Tan Dun: My life is opera. Everybody’s life is opera. But actually, maybe I was born that way. When I was [a child growing up] in a village, there was ritual music. When I was a teenager, I worked in the Peking Opera pit; I became a fiddle player and also an arranger and conductor for the Peking Opera. So that pretty much promoted my career as an operatic artist.

I always feel a little unsatisfied if I work on a concert piece. I feel any note is like a life. From a shamanistic point of view or a theatrical point of view, I’m always trying to search where this note came from, then where you want to play with it, and after you play with it, where you want to send it away. This becomes very, very operatic. To me, the operatic is a concept and an attitude towards music; it’s very organic.

FJO: For you, especially in your recent work, it’s never just about sound. There’s always something to look at, and frequently also something to think about in terms of a narration or some other kind of theatrical or dance element. So if someone were to chance upon your work through an audio recording of it, are they really experiencing it or are they only getting a little piece of it?

TD: I think they can get it invisibly. I’ve always believed that music can be seen and that color can be heard. That’s actually the experience of life. Everybody is like this. We’re told to try to escape too much influence of the visual, but actually it’s a little stupid; why do we have to escape? This is honestly part of your experience. Also, it’s hard to imagine composing without appreciating the visual, imagining colors. How could you become a sound artist, or a sound design artist, or a sound coloring artist? As a sensitive artist, you have to train yourself to visual things. New York is the biggest classroom for your training as a sound artist. You can go to a gallery or to experimental theater. There are also many multi-media projects around, and street art, and multi-cultural projects here.

FJO: The training you got from being in New York City, however, comes on top of a whole immersion into traditional Chinese music and Chinese culture. You mentioned playing in the Peking Opera and that being a formative influence. But you also grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a period of major upheaval when people from cities were sent out into the fields. You were sent there, too. So in a way, there are almost two distinct impulses that inform your work. There is the contemporary, experimental work you were exposed to in New York, a city that is constantly rebuilding itself. And then there is tradition, which in China goes back to very ancient times. But, of course, tradition is by no means monolithic; it’s always evolving. The Cultural Revolution, specifically, was about changing society and reshaping traditions to make them contemporary.

TD: From an analyzing or an historic point of view, our problem is we are always trying to separate tradition and invention. But actually, you’ll find that tradition and invention have always been together. Whenever you’re writing a new piece, any notes you start already involve tradition. But the rest of the thing is how to address and develop this, that becomes invention. Anything we do as composers always relates to tradition and invention. So to me, there are no boundaries. The way to preserve tradition is to become very inventive, and the way to invent is to become very traditional. I also find the more knowledge and interest you have towards tradition, your invention part is going to be much more active. Tradition is also being expanded by the invention. This is one piece of a cake. It’s not two pieces of dessert, you know. I always treat these two as one, so one plus one equals one.

FJO: Some of your earliest works sound like they’re quoting traditional Chinese folk songs, but you’ve frequently said that you actually composed those. They were not based on other folksongs; they were folksong-sounding things that you actually composed. This actually relates to your philosophy about the relationship between tradition and innovation. We say that folksongs are traditional, but someone had to have composed them at some point. They didn’t always exist.

TD: I’ve always thought that way. The composer is a sound design artist. Sound includes style, melody, rhythm, even street noise, natural environmental resources. Sometimes you need to create resources, rather than just to collect the resources. For example, if you write something purposely trying to have a different kind of time component: a 1960s Greenwich Village sound counterpointing with Shanghai. You can have Richard Nixon counterpoint with Mao Zedung, or Vietnam soldiers counterpointing with people in Afghanistan training. When you’re doing this, you could use the collecting resource for your counterpointing games, but also sometimes you need to design certain things which fit that kind of style.

I treat counterpoint as a philosophical idea. You can have style counterpoint. You have a time-period counterpoint. You have different kinds of cultural components. I always design the resource for sampling and also I redesign the style. Maybe I’ll write something to make you think it’s the Beatles, but actually it’s nothing you can find from the Beatles. In Ghost Opera, there’s something that could be heard as Chinese folk, but it also could be heard as country. Actually, it’s all written by myself. I purposefully try to make up a style which is not quotation, and this style serves a specific purpose for the counterpoint. Here, it’s a perfect counterpoint resource to Bach.

FJO: This notion of inventing something new that sounds traditional reminds me of the essential plot of the work you created for the Metropolitan Opera, The First Emperor. The emperor has attempted to destroy all of the traditional stuff in order to create a new China and asks a composer to create an anthem for the new China that everyone could sing. The music he ultimately comes up with is a traditional work song. In a way, what that composer did is a metaphor for what you’re doing.

TD: It’s a metaphor for all composers, because commissions are the way composers make their living. It’s always romantically expanded, but it’s been that way since Medieval times: Hildegard von Bingen. Handel was commissioned. Mozart was commissioned. Wagner was commissioned.

You never really imagine how eastern composers have been living. How about the life of the music maker two thousand years ago? How did they survive? It’s very interesting to make up a story about the relationship of a Chinese composer and a Chinese emperor. It was like Wagner’s time. In the end, you find the relationship between politicians and composers, and the relationship between the people, the market, and the commercial, is the same across the ages.

FJO: When I attended the opera, I kept thinking about how the reign of the first emperor paralleled the Cultural Revolution, this whole idea of destroying the old and building something new which would somehow come out of a tradition of the people.

TD: The First Emperor is a two thousand year-old subject in China, but actually when I was composing, I was more thinking about today in New York, in the States. The idea of telling people you can have the whole world: politically or physically or musically. Why do we have to have the whole world? From a human point of view, from a religious point of view, or from a musical point of view, if you have yourself, that’s the whole world. And, in fact, everybody thinks that way. This world is so beautiful, but meanwhile if everybody wants to have the whole world musically or politically, it’s always not right. And by the end, you will lose everything. That’s what the opera wants to tell, not just from the political point of view but also from a musical point of view. You can gain the whole world, but the day when you gain the whole world, you will lose everything. It’s a very philosophical idea that crosses east and west and time.

Like the Second Viennese School. They wanted to use this atonal music system, which is sort of neutral and sort of sophisticated, to convey the whole world. Every conservatory from Juilliard to Cambodia, from Seoul to Shanghai, every conservatory should be using the same kind of system to think about music. They almost convened the whole world. But by the second part of the 20th century, when you find every conservatory teaching this serious, atonal system, that’s also when they lost themselves. Today if you are still conceiving music just from the Second Viennese School, from the atonal school point of view, you will be destroyed immediately by the audience, or by history. Anyway that’s what I think.

So in conceiving The First Emperor‘s music from a structural point of view, from a style point of view, it’s very much whatever I thought it should be. There’s no distinction about style, or atonal or tonal, it only goes with a specific design purpose. It’s a way of one plus one plus one plus one. How could you sort out a new one, this new one reflecting everything, but also keep a very powerful structure and spine to hold the whole idea.

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