Tan Dun: Tradition and Invention

Frank J. Oteri: Your music incorporates influences from so many different musics. You reference the Beatles, you reference Chinese music, you reference Bach, you reference the contemporary American avant-garde. But at the core of all of your pieces, there is a Chinese identity that probably is stronger. At the root level, each of your pieces is Chinese in some way. Not only Chinese, but based on something that’s very important in Chinese history. It’s probably most obvious in the operas. Nine Songs is based on an ancient sequence of poems that’s one of the great classics of Chinese literature. Peony Pavilion is based on a very famous classical play. Tea is about the most famous Chinese export. Marco Polo is the meeting of East and West in China. And, of course The First Emperor is the very forging of the Chinese empire. They’re all Chinese stories, even though there are other elements to them.

Tan Dun: It’s a very Taoist idea that somebody’s work could be a whole world, and that you discover yourself is that world. When I have worked on a Chinese idea, I’ve never really thought: this was Chinese. I thought this is a world of humans, and this world is so valuable. If you really understand it, this world will be recognized as the world of human beings. And that’s a very, very valuable thing in today’s culture, actually. You always can self-recognize your world as having an existence value. It is very important for all of us to see ourselves. And that’s the history of art because, in the end, the history of art only collects those people who treat their own worlds as the whole world.

That’s why I always try to tell young composers from all different regions to never make a distinction between their own world and the outside world. Be confident about your own experience, no matter if you are Mexican, African, Chinese, or Japanese. The value is because it’s your world. Achievement is discovering your world as the whole world. Sometimes people talk to me, negatively or positively—I don’t know how they think—and say, “You’re always thinking about Chinese, Chinese, Chinese.” And I say, “Actually, I always think about the Chinese, but not really as the world of Chinese, but as the world.” I’m getting more and more Chinese, and it gets more and more recognized internationally. I think it’s wonderful. Sometimes when you get more honest, you might get a little criticized by those nerdy contemporary music academics—but you are so satisfied with your life, and you are so satisfied with the way you could touch regular people. Those regular people can make your music much deeper, much more conceptual, and much more interesting.

FJO: You’ve done a number of film scores and there’s at least one film score which doesn’t have a Chinese connection, so you certainly don’t have to have a Chinese theme for inspiration. But, could you conceive of a larger-scale work—say, an opera—that has no reference to Chinese culture?

TD: Yes, actually. When I was trying to conceive my Met Opera project, I told them I was interested in three subjects: one was the first emperor in ancient China; the second was about Dr. Freud, dreams, sex, psychology; and the third one was about the Jews in China, all those surviving Jews in the 1930s and ’40s. They made a frontier of the East meets West in Shanghai. And that’s also a very interesting subject. But the Met encouraged me to the do the first emperor because they thought I am Chinese.

FJO: In a way, the Chinese themes have helped you; they have led you down a specific path. But you’ve made your own unexpected path with it, especially with the orchestral theater pieces. While those pieces have Chinese elements, they’re also very avant-garde, almost Dada. They’re very conceptual pieces.

TD: I like the way you’re addressing orchestral theater, because I want to create an instrumental writing to expand the orchestral tradition, but meanwhile I didn’t have the ambition to let everybody follow me or to challenge Schoenberg, or Philip Glass, or John Adams, or whatever. What I want to challenge is myself. How I challenge myself, you see it as Dada, or you see it as organic, or you see it as mechanical. It’s fine, but the way I challenged myself is to create something from my method.

For example, if you gave me rice, I’m not going to cook you risotto because I don’t know how to cook it. But I’ll use the rice to cook a rice ball, or to cook rice porridge, rice soup; then I still make a masterpiece. But it still uses rice. Same thing when I use the violin. I don’t want to look up how Schoenberg used violin, or how Respighi used violin, or how Mahler used violin. I use the violin as an arm. I know there’s pipa there. I know there’s koto there. I know there’s a shamanistic way. Why don’t we use this way to play violin? Then after all those things, the orchestral theater series makes the orchestra sound like something quite different. Originally I was trying to challenge myself. It’s like a sportsman. How do you jump from your legs’ point of view, from your body’s point of view? Higher and higher. It’s a special challenge. That’s the way I make music.

FJO: Now at the same time you’re writing these orchestral theater pieces, you’ve also written several pieces that you’ve given the very Western title of symphony.

TD: I don’t know. Sometimes there’s a kind of a Dada attitude towards the traditional terms. John Cage wrote his sonatas; Philip Glass writes his symphonies. So to me, if I write something with Tuvan or Mongolian singers chanting sacred music about sacred knowledge and we name that as a cantata, or an oratorio, or as an operatic choral symphony, I think it’s marvelous. It’s a wonderful way to share western tradition with eastern people. You could call it a kunqu, which is the most sophisticated, elegant form from the Ming dynasty, like Peony Pavilion. You can call it a German kunqu or an American kunqu, why not? It gives you the opportunity—at least an attitude—to accept ancient Eastern culture, and meanwhile creates an interesting path for the majority to understand it. Like when tofu came to America; now we just say tofu. It doesn’t matter. People understand tofu now. And now another name, cheese, has come to China. Everybody eats cheese now. And they call it cheese. They can’t meaningfully translate those terms, and they didn’t. Like the bus. Chinese call it bus now. The whole world calls it bus. But actually there was a big fight in Chinese newspapers saying we shouldn’t call it a bus. We should include that it’s publicly used, mainly majority shared, big, and an automobile. We should put everything into the translation for the concept of bus. But the people said, “No, bus means all of this.” Same thing when you call something a sonata or a symphony, it’s wonderful to share that term with a different culture or to share it in a different way to conceive new arts.

FJO: But using words like sonata or symphony, and using the instruments of an orchestra, like violins, adds to the notion that the West is somehow the mainstream and that everything else is culturally specific. In the early years of the 21st century, we realize that the western classical orchestra is just as specific and ethnocentric a thing as, say, a Peking Opera orchestra, a gamelan, or even the Chopi Timbila ensembles of Mozambique. Why is the orchestra somehow more universal and less ethnic than these other things?

TD: I think that the orchestra has been—and is supposed to always be—the same since Baroque times. Orchestra culture developed to commission professional composers to use a standard notation to let everybody in every orchestra repeat one piece, not improvising. That only happens in orchestra culture, not in rock and roll, not in gamelan, not in Peking Opera. And I think it’s wonderful. Because we have so many other things that are improvised, from gamelan to Peking Opera, from early Medieval music to jazz and rock and roll. But it’s also very interesting to have an institution like a symphony, like a ballet, like a string quartet. It can really standardize flow around the whole world. If you make a change, the whole world follows. You can do something only you can do like rock culture, like ensemble culture, or like jazz culture, but also you can do something that can shake the whole world. For example, if I’m doing The Map with a conventional orchestra, with its multi-media and scientific technology usage, then you find everybody could play and everybody could share and everybody eventually gets influenced by it. The Map has now been performed in more than 80 countries and still continuing, with all kinds of orchestras following a specific design of notation.

My next issue is thinking about ballet. Ballet training is very much like martial arts training. So now my big stream is to create a new ballet school of music and dance which uses martial arts training skills and philosophy, but to adapt it to a new school of ballet which will promote traditional ballet music and dance but also make ballet as a new art of today and tomorrow. This is sort of a game of mine. Sometimes I want to do outrageous things. You know, ceramic music, paper music, only I can do that, but also sometimes I want to do the common stuff.

FJO: I assume that what you refer to as the common stuff includes the piano concerto you just wrote for Lang Lang and the New York Philharmonic. That’s a super traditional form, and as far as I know there are no stones, paper, or multimedia in it; it’s a straight-ahead piano concerto.

TD: The piano concerto I’m going to write for the New York Philharmonic and Lang Lang—I’ve finished most of it now—is extremely percussive. But it counterpoints something extremely romantic. If you have something extremely percussive and something extremely romantic, it’s very interesting. If you want to have some balsamic vinegar, you automatically think about olive oil. Same thing for piano: if you’re thinking of something grand, percussive, and powerful, then you also think of something romantic for this instrument. It’s like when you look at martial arts, real martial art never makes you think this is bloody. No, they make you think, this is so romantic. That’s the way I’m treating this piano concerto conventional, common format: with a very, very individual angle.

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