Frank J. Oteri: All these dichotomies—tradition and invention, China and New York, traditional instrumental techniques and new instruments, standard forms and experimentation—are somehow reconciled in your conception. It was interesting to read the profile of you in The New York Times Magazine which described you as an avant-garde composer. Because at the same time you’re avant-garde, you also aspire to be a populist composer. At least in the general perception of the terms, those seem to be opposing agendas. In your work, they’re not.
Tan Dun: They’re opposing terms, but it’s also a reality, actually. And I find today that the most avant-garde artists are the most popular people. From the theater point of view, is anybody more popular than Bob Wilson, Peter Sellars, or Robert LaPage?
FJO: In the general mainstream culture?
FJO: But mainstream culture is American Idol.
TD: We cannot make comparisons with all the other media. But in the theater world, they are very avant-garde and they’re also very, very popular. When John Cage was alive, everybody knew John Cage. And he was extremely avant-garde. But meanwhile, he was the topic of news and politics, the topic of East and West, the topic of identity. It actually crosses every field. Almost everybody was both a popular and avant-garde artist, like Van Gogh. Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart were quite popular and also quite outrageous always.
Sometimes we address the avant-garde as very academic, fringe, or poor. But actually, according to my understanding, I find that people like Giorgio Armani and Versace are very avant-garde, too. I didn’t really want to be avant-garde or popular. I just try to do my work. I didn’t want to smash the eastern tradition. I don’t want to make something a big noise in the Western music field, but what happened is happening. And I don’t care, actually. It has not really influenced my way as sound design artist and has also never changed the way I look at the world or myself.
FJO: You mentioned conveying notes on a page in western symphonic culture which allows a composer to write something and have somebody else interpret it. I find looking at your scores fascinating because they’re extremely graphic. They’re very visual, and they’re not conventional by any means. It’s not just a note on a five-line staff. Your scores are filled with all kinds of unusual calligraphy. How universally interpretable are all of those additional notations that you’ve created?
TD: When I was trained as a composer, we were always told by the teacher to imagine not being there. If you died, how could people still play your music? But we forget one thing. After you are not there or after you die, your music still can be played not just because you wrote beautiful music, but also you must be a very, very important figure in history. And so I thought, first of all, if you want to make yourself become very, very important in music history, how could you make your creation become very, very valuable? How avant-garde, how outrageous could you go? But this outrageousness becomes a sharable value. And after all those exist, to understand notation comes automatically. For example, scholars can help you. There’ll be many multi-media technological ways to help people understand you. So to me, the most important thing is to be free, honestly discovering whatever you want to discover. Whatever you want to imagine, sound could be expressed this way. And someday it will come to be able to be performed even without you.
For the last production of my Tea opera in Santa Fe, I never participated in casting. I never spoke to the conductor. I never told the director how to do it, and I never coached the singers. And none of them I even know. I just stepped in for the premiere and I was very satisfied. You know why? I was satisfied that after I die, my music will be playable. The notation—which includes improvising and self-participation for gestures that are not necessarily understandable or clear in conventional notation—still had been done perfectly. To me notation is something like a bridge of imagination. It’s impossible to notate everything a hundred percent. Even the words cannot notate every detail of meaning by a human being. Notation is never going to represent everything. But notation is a phenomenon, a culture to allow people to participate, to reinvent. That’s why we have wonderful musicians. So I love to take advantage of notation, sometimes using graphics, sometimes using colors, sometimes using words or even paintings to just let people touch this piece in the future. And those notations—no matter in what kind of format they’re in—will lead your imagination to share with me.
FJO: When you’re writing for stones or for water, or for paper, you certainly can’t do it with conventional western notation.
TD: Not at all. If you have a piece of stone, you can change the scale and the pitch under your palm. And the only things you can do are literally explain it, graphically have a diagram of the sounds from low to high, give them a sound sample, or show them on a videotape. So I don’t worry about that.
I always encourage composers to play. The composer needs to conduct or play or bang or do whatever, because the playing will help your notation. The most important thing for notation is the person must have the ability to address and express your imagination very practically and understandably. It doesn’t have to necessarily be 100 percent, more importantly [it has to be] understandable. And also your notation will help your interpretation, how effectively you understand this. I’m always working on orchestra notation in a format that’s very easily played, but sounds complex. This kind of notation skill I learned as a music player, but not as a music thinker. Meanwhile those kinds of notations become a very interesting kind of a game. Sometimes I don’t want to be 100 percent because I want to have a potential game left over for the people to do. I was writing for the Berlin Philharmonic’s 12 Cellists. If you use a conventional notational style for them, the conventional knowledge will block their imaginations immediately. But if use a totally new notation, with graphics and telling them the sound stops but the meaning continues with your sliding, it could be much more interesting.
FJO: Well this sort of brings us back full circle. You want people to make these sounds that are not necessarily heard. It isn’t just about sound for you.
TD: It’s also in Chinese music, specifically court music in ancient times. There would be a theory to train yourself to be able to continue after music stopped, to train yourself be able to use the dead silence as a melodic resource, or to train yourself to be able to hear the gesture in silence. The whole life of the artist in ancient China is trying to achieve this. I was a player of the chin, which is a little zither. When I plucked one note and finished—it’s a long way—sometimes the teacher came and said, “It’s wonderful, but when you finished it was not inventive. You took advantage of theory, which Chinese history taught you that when the shape stopped, the music continues, but you didn’t show us how you continued it.” That’s interesting. I said I can’t do anything. He said, “Yes, in the realm of senses, you can do anything. You could always be able to remember where the sound came from, and continue its life.” So I stopped and [gestures]. Then the teacher liked it very much and said, “Oh, I felt you inventively join the silence with a very colorful mind.” So when I was a student in Beijing Conservatory, I always got the highest score for my Chinese ancient music study. Most of my colleagues were very crazy for Schoenberg. At that time I told myself, someday I will have much more knowledge for Schoenberg if I know Chinese ancient music better. And today I think time proved my thinking. I think because of my Chinese ancient music study I [gave] myself a much deeper understanding for expressionist music, actually.