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About Tan Dun

Explore Tan Dun's story

Tradition and Innovation: The Alchemy of Tan Dun

Tradition and innovation forge a symbiotic relationship for Tan Dun whose multifaceted output simultaneously erases the boundaries between cultures and artistic disciplines.

about-3Tan Dun’s creations can be unabashedly populist, radically experimental, or—most frequently—both. While his work does not neatly fit within previously-existing categories—perhaps the closest fit is opera in the broadest cultural context, Tan has created several new artistic formats, which—like opera—encompass sound, sight, narrative, and ritual. In addition to his contributions to the repertoire of opera and motion pictures scores, Tan’s new formats include: orchestral theatre, which re-contextualizes the orchestra and the concert-going experience; organic music, which explores new realms of sound through primal elements such as water, paper, and stone; and multimedia extravaganzas, which incorporate a variety of cutting-edge technologies.

Tan’s reconciliation of disparate and seemingly contradictory elements is a direct byproduct of his life’s experience. Now living amidst the 24/7 densely-populated ever-changing urban sprawl of New York City, Tan was born and raised in a rural Hunan village in the People’s Republic of China where millennia-old shamanistic cultural traditions still survived. However, Tan’s life and the life of millions of Chinese people would be irrevocably changed by the time Tan was a teenager as Mao Zedong’s astringent plan for social transformation, the Cultural Revolution, attempted to completely reinvent China. Tan was sent to plant rice alongside the local farmers in the Huangjin commune, but soon became involved in their local music scene and ironically, through his knowledge of music and instrumental resourcefulness, became the preserver of their traditions. After two years, a boat carrying a traveling Peking opera troupe capsized resulting in the death of many of the musicians, and Tan was recalled grammyfrom his farming duties to serve as a fiddler and arranger for the troupe. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, China re-opened its Central Conservatory and Tan was one of only thirty selected to attend among thousands of applicants. Visiting lecturers—such as Alexander Goehr, George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, and Chou Wen-Chung—introduced Tan to a wide range of international contemporary music. Within a few years he became the first Chinese composer to win an international composition prize since the founding of the People’s Republic. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1986, where he soon immersed himself in the music of John Cage and the New York downtown avant-garde scene, Tan Dun was already famous in China. In these past two decades, Tan Dun has transcended stylistic and cultural boundaries to become one of the world’s most famous and sought-after composers.


“My life is opera!” says Tan Dun. “Everybody’s life is opera.” While the word opera, using the broadest definition, could probably be used to describe any of Tan Dun’s works, to date there are only five works he specifically designates as such, though each of them stretch the genre as it has come to be known in the West as well as how it has been known in the East. The five operas, which range from an intimate, non-narrative dance and theatre ritual to a full-fledged epic grand opera, amalgamate tradition and innovation, sometimes exploring a direct confrontation from these two creative pulls.

The first of Tan Dun’s opera, Nine Songs (1989), is an exciting multi-disciplinary rendering of an ancient sequence of shamanistic nature poems attributed to Qu Yuan (340-277 B.C.E.), who is regarded as China’s first great poet and is honored by Chinese people around the world to this day with the annual Dragon Boat Festival. In Tan’s recasting, these poems serve as a catalyst for dancing, ritualized acting, and singing in both classical Chinese and contemporary English, as well as about-2performing on a wide range of instruments spanning East and West, including a specially-built set of 50 ceramic instruments which are struck, blown, and bowed. Nine Songs, created for a 14-member ensemble and premiered in a small theatre, was a compositional breakthrough for Tan. In it, he explored new notational approaches, liberating himself from the pitch and timbre limitations of conventional Western music notation; these approaches have been a hallmark of his work to this day. (A recording of Nine Songs was issued on CRI which is currently available through New World Records.)

Tan’s next opera, Marco Polo, which premiered in 1996, might initially seem more traditionally operatic compared to Nine Songs—the work features a cast with specifically-designated roles and is accompanied by an orchestra, but it is perhaps an even more radical work.  Composed to a libretto by Paul Griffiths, Marco Polo’s elliptical narrative defies linear time and space. For starters, Marco and Polo are two separate characters. And to highlight the cross-cultural implications of the historic 13th century East-West meeting with Kublai Khan, Dante, Shakespeare, Gustav Mahler, and the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po all make appearances on stage during the opera. The music is also a synthesis of European and Asian traditions. The cast includes singers from both Western and Eastern operatic traditions, and the orchestral ensemble includes instruments from China, Tibet, and India, as well as a wide range of percussion. Marco Polo, which has had three different productions and has been performed in more than 20 cities around the world, marked a significant milestone in Tan Dun’s recognition as one of the world’s most prominent composers; the complete opera was released worldwide on CD by Sony Classical in 1997 and subsequently honored with the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the world’s most prestigious award for composers, in 1998.

Tan’s next work in the medium, The Peony Pavilion, which premiered in 1998, veers closer to plot-driven opera. The libretto is a direct adaptation of one of the most treasured classics of the Chinese theatre written by Tang Xianzu in 1598, exactly four hundred years before the premiere of Tan Dun’s opera, sung in an English translation by Cyril Birch. Although the plot for the opera is a love story—opera’s most common theme, Tan still manages to defy standard operatic procedures. The main characters of the opera are the two lovers who perform in a wide variety of vocal styles. Additionally there is an actress from either the Peking or older Xun opera tradition. The compact ensemble of only six musicians, who perform on traditional Chinese instruments as well as a wide array of electronics, each also plays a character in the piece and sings in the chorus. The musical styles range from neo-medievalism and post-Cagean experimentalism to pop and rock. The original production, directed by Peter Sellars, has had more that 50 performances worldwide. (Selections from Tan Dun’s music for The Peony Pavilion has been issued on the Sony Classical CD Bitter Love.)

In Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002), Tan explores how China’s most famous commodity spread throughout the world. The overarching story, inspired by the classical Chinese Book of Tea and transformed into a libretto by the composer in collaboration with Xu Ying, also revolves around opera’s perennial topic—a pair of ill-fated lovers. But its presentation is anything but conventional: The traditional walls that separate the cast, the orchestra, and the audience in an operatic production are eradicated for Tea and its circular staging affects the total immersion of ritual practices. The music for the opera is more conventionally operatic, in the Western sense, than any of Tan’s previous operas but it still contains unmistakable elements of Tan’s signature primal sonorities—its hefty orchestra of western instruments also includes water, paper, and ceramic instruments. (Tea has been issued on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.)

about-newTan’s most recent work for the operatic stage, The First Emperor(2006), is his most ambitious yet. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera with a title role created for the legendary tenor Placido Domingo (the first role ever to be premiered by him), The First Emperor , featuring an English-language libretto Tan co-authored with the celebrated Chinese novelist Ha Jin, retells the story of the unification of China on a grand scale. It is also a story about the conflict of tradition and innovation. The First Emperor , like many subsequent rulers of China and elsewhere in the world, attempted to recreate China by destroying all vestiges of its previous culture. The emperor’s plan to reshape the minds of the Chinese people through a newly created anthem which will stir the entire nation is thwarted by its composer who reuses a work song from his rebellious home province. Tan’s music for The First Emperor is an amalgam of the sound world of standard repertoire opera and a clearly 21st century pan-ethnic eclecticism. In addition to large cast of singers trained in the western classical tradition, there is a very prominent role requiring a Peking Opera background. In addition to a full orchestra, there is a large ensemble of ancient ritual instruments (giant bells, ceramics, stones, etc.) which performs on stage. While the vocal writing features some of Tan’s most lyrical melodies, his orchestral interludes are almost cinematic in their emotional sweep. Following a sold-out run in its premiere season in 2007 and returned to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera 2008.

While those five works are the only ones that Tan Dun has specifically designated as operas, there are additional compositions which use opera as a reference point. E.g. his violin concerto, Out of Peking Opera(originally 1987, revised 1994), begins with a direct quotation from the jung hu fiddling music played in Peking opera. But the most operatic of Tan’s non-operatic works is probably the now-classic Ghost Opera(1994), for pipa and string quartet whose members also perform with water, stones, paper and metal. In fact, the work’s inspiration from shamanistic sources relates it to the ritual opera of Nine Songs, while its use of organic materials also relates it to Tan’s subsequent organic music and its extension of a conventional ensemble relates it to his Orchestral Theatre concepts. Originally created on commission from the Kronos Quartet, who have toured the work around the world and recorded it on CD for Nonesuch with pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Ghost Opera also incorporates some clear staging elements such as minimal sets and lighting. According to Tan:

“Even when I work on a concert piece, any note is like a life. From a shamanistic or theatrical point of view, I’m always trying to search where this note came from, how you want to play with it, and where you want to send it. This to me is very operatic.”

Orchestral Theatre and Other Idiosyncratic Approaches to the Orchestra

Ritual performance meets the concert hall experience in a series of works Tan composed during the final decade of the 20th century, collectively known as Orchestral Theatre. The idea for such a project originated in an attempt to make a more viscerally vital orchestra experience. According to the composer:

The idea of an “orchestra theatre” gradually came to me as a way of bringing the isolated performing arts back to people, back to the audience. Music can once again become a ritual bridge between the creative and the re-creative, completing the circle of spiritual life. How could a classical orchestra sound not classical? Could it convey the sense of another culture, a ritual of instruments and vocalization? Could this, which is common in Chinese theater and folk celebration, be done with a Western orchestra? What would primitive sounds be like with Western harmony? I began to see the orchestra itself as a dramatic medium, as theater.


In Orchestral Theatre I: O, composed in 1990, members of the orchestra yell, murmur, chant, and sing in addition to playing their instruments in a variety of unconventional manners. In Orchestral Theatre II: Re, from 1992, movement also plays a significant role and the audience participates in the performance along with a divided orchestra, led by two conductors. Orchestral Theatre III: Red Forecast (1996) incorporates a pre-edited video as additional instrument in the orchestra and juxtaposes a variety of musical references in poly-stylistic homage to the turbulent 1960s. Video plays an even more important role in Orchestral Theatre IV: The Gate, from 1999; an integral component to the performance are video images which are abstracted from the stage action in real time by the conductor and the soloists: a Western operatic soprano, a Peking Opera singer, and a Japanese puppeteer. (The entire series of five works was released on a 2 CD set in 2008.)

Tan Dun has also created a significant repertoire of works in nominally more standard forms, such as concertos and symphonies, although his approaches to these weighty historical forms have been quite different from their antecedents. As Tan puts it: “If you gave me rice, I’m not going to cook you risotto, because I don’t know how to cook it; but I use the rice to cook rice balls, rice porridge, or rice soup. When I use a violin, I don’t want to look up how Schoenberg or Respighi used a violin. I know there’s a pipa way and a koto way and a shamanistic way; why don’t we use this way.”

If there are any clear conceptual precedents for Tan’s symphonies in the Western tradition, they are the final symphony of Beethoven and the vast symphonic canvasses of Gustav Mahler in which a symphony attempts to portray an entire sonic universe. Like Beethoven’s ubiquitous Symphony No. 9, which has frequently been performed as part of celebrations for important world events, Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997 Heaven Earth Mankind for solo cello, bianzhong bells, children’s chorus, CD Player, and large orchestra (recorded on a Sony Classical CD), was created to celebrate the reunification of Hong Kong with mainland China. An even more grandiose global coming together was effected in Tan’s 2000 Today, A World Symphony for the Millennium (also recorded by Sony Classical), a work combining such seemingly unblendable instruments as the Australian didgeridoo, Trinidadian steel pan, and Hawaiian guitar with chorus, orchestra and electronics, which was created for a monumental telecast tracking the beginning of the year 2000 as clocks reached midnight in all of the world’s time zones.

6478343901_206ae2f46f_oTan’s body of concerto compositions is extremely eclectic and features works for standard classical instruments, traditional Chinese instruments, and newly invented ones. In addition to his aforementioned concerto for violin ( Out of Peking Opera, which Cho-Liang Lin recorded for Ondine), he has made an important contribution to the guitar concerto literature ( Yi2, issued on a Grammy-winning Teldec recording featuring Sharon Isbin), and has just completed a new piano concerto which Lang Lang will premiere later this season with the New York Philharmonic. His concertos for the traditional Chinese zheng and pipa, accompanied by a Western orchestra, extend the concerto form’s inherent dualism. But his most fascinating contributions to the genre are one-of-a-kind works such as a Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and Ten Instruments, his works featuring soloists performing on organic instruments with an orchestra, and multimedia concertos such as The Map in which a cello soloist and a video featuring traditional music performances by rural Chinese musicians vie with the orchestra.

Organic Music

Since the late 1980s, Tan Dun has explored making music with various organic materials, such as water, paper, wind, ceramics, metal, and stone.  His earliest composition to employ these elements, Soundshape (1989) is a 45-minute work for seven musicians performing on water, paper, and ceramic objects.


In the 1998 Water Concerto for water percussion and orchestra, a soloist manipulates water through various means including a soda bottle, a waterphone, a pair of water tube drums, a water gong, and two basins of water. The performance is as visually compelling as it is sonically intriguing. In 2000, these techniques were incorporated into the remarkable Water Passion after St. Matthew , written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, and scored for soloists, chorus, and a diverse array of musicians performing on water as well as acoustic and electronic instruments. According to Tan Dun, “Water is a metaphor for the unity of the ephemeral and the eternal, the physical and the spiritual—as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, re-creation and resurrection.”

With the Paper Concerto (2003), Tan Dun created another work which is as fascinating to see as it is to hear. To create various sounds with large sheets of paper, the soloists move all over the stage creating a work which is a choreographically intricate as it is musically inventive.

Award-Winning Film Scores and Multimedia Extravaganzas

While Tan Dun’s incorporation of the most fundamental and ancient sonic elements—such as water and paper—into the fabric of the orchestra have created a whole new sonic vocabulary, he has also created a series of works which enhance the audiovisual experience of the orchestra through the latest technologies.


Tan Dun’s acute attention to the visual elements of making sounds has made him an extremely sensitive composer for motion pictures and he is now highly sought after by directors in Hollywood and around the world. His film scores include the Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), and the Denzel Washington vehicle Fallen (1998).

But whereas in motion pictures, music is just one element which must blend in with a larger totality of sight and sound to meet the director’s vision, Tan Dun has recently embarked on a series of works in which video images are elements which blend in with an overarching musical structure. Tan Dun turned the tables on the film-scoring process with his 2000 Crouching Tiger Concerto for cello, video and chamber orchestra. Each of the works six movements contains footage from the film. But here the music inspired reshaping the video images to serve as an accompaniment and an enhancement to the listening experience rather than imparting narrative meaning.

Tan’s most remarkable application of video thus far, however, is The Map (2002), another concerto for cello, video, and orchestra. In this sonic documentary, video footage of traditional musicians from Tan’s home province of Hunan blend seamlessly with the cello soloist and the orchestra, building upon ancient musical traditions while forging new ones. The immediately-appealing work was literally a homecoming for Tan Dun—a DVD issued by Deutsche Grammophon captures a live performance conducted by Tan featuring the Shanghai Symphony who traveled to Hunan province to play this music for the very people whose music inspired it. The Map is emblematic of this unique alchemy of old and new, sound and image, an alchemy that has led to some of the most provocative music of our time.

For Tan Dun, there is ultimately no separation between populism and avant-garde aesthetics: “The most avant-garde artists are the most popular people I didn’t want to be avant-garde or popular at all, I have just tried to do my work.”

–Frank J. Oteri (October 15, 2007)

Frank J. Oteri, a New York-based composer, is the American Music Center’s Composer Advocate and the Founding Editor of its web magazine NewMusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org).

About Tan Dun

Official Biography

The world-renowned artist and UNESCO Global Goodwill Ambassador Tan Dun, has made an indelible mark on the world’s music scene with a creative repertoire that spans the boundaries of classical music, multimedia performance, and Eastern and Western traditions. A winner of today’s most prestigious honors including the Grammy Award, Oscar/Academy Award, Grawemeyer Award, Bach PrizeShostakovich Award, and most recently Italy’s Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement, Tan Dun’s music has been played throughout the world by leading orchestras, opera houses, international festivals, and on radio and television. Most recently, Tan Dun was named as Dean of the Bard College Conservatory of Music. As dean, Tan Dun will further demonstrate music’s extraordinary ability to transform lives and guide the Conservatory in fulfilling its mission of understanding music’s connection to history, art, culture, and society.

As a conductor of innovative programs around the world, Tan Dun has led the China tours of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra. His current season includes leading the Orchestre National de Lyon in a six-city China tour, the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra in a four-city tour of Switzerland and Belgium as well as engagements with the Rai National Symphony Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra where he was recently named Artistic Ambassador. Tan Dun currently serves as the Principle Guest Conductor of the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra. In 2016, Tan Dun conducted the grand opening celebration of Disneyland Shanghai which was broadcast to a record-breaking audience worldwide. Tan Dun has led the world’s most esteemed orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Filarmonica della Scala, Münchner Philharmoniker, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Tan Dun’s individual voice has been heard widely by international audiences. His first Internet Symphony, which was commissioned by Google/YouTube, has reached over 23 million people online. His Organic Music Trilogy of Water, Paper and Ceramic has frequented major concert halls and festivals. Paper Concerto was premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the opening of the Walt Disney Hall. His multimedia work, The Map, premiered by YoYo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has toured more than 30 countries worldwide. Its manuscript has been collected by the Carnegie Hall Composers Gallery. His Orchestral Theatre IV: The Gate was premiered by Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra and crosses the cultural boundaries of Peking Opera, Western Opera and puppet theatre traditions. Other important premieres include Four Secret Roads of Marco Polo for the Berlin Philharmonic, Piano Concerto “The Fire” for Lang Lang and the New York Philharmonic. In recent seasons, his percussion concerto, The Tears of Nature, for soloist Martin Grubinger premiered in 2012 with the NDR Symphony Orchestra and Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women Symphony for 13 Microfilms, Harp and Orchestra was co-commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. Most recently, Tan Dun conducted the premiere of his new oratorio epic Buddha Passion at the Dresden Festival with the Münchner Philharmoniker, the piece was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Festival and will go on to have performances in Melbourne, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Rome, Hamburg, Paris, Singapore and London in the coming seasons.

As a visual artist, Tan Dun’s work has been featured at the opening of the China Pavilion at the 56th Venice Art Biennale. Other solo exhibitions include the New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Beijing’s Chambers Fine Art Gallery, and Shanghai Gallery of Art. Most recently, Tan Dun conducted The Juilliard Orchestra in the world premiere of his Symphony of Colors: Terracotta for the opening of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s epic exhibition The Age of Empires. 

As a global cultural leader, Tan Dun uses his creativity to raise awareness of environmental issues and to protect cultural diversity. In 2010, as “Cultural Ambassador to the World” for the World EXPO Shanghai, Tan Dun envisioned, curated and composed two special site-specific performances that perform year-round and have since become cultural representations of Shanghai: Peony Pavilion, a Chinese opera set in a Ming Dynasty garden and his Water Heavens string quartet which promotes water conservation and environmental awareness. Tan Dun was also commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to write the Logo Music and Award Ceremony Music for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Tan Dun currently serves as Honorary Chair of Carnegie Hall’s China Advisory Council, and has previously served as Creative Chair of the 2014 Philadelphia Orchestra China Tour, Associate Composer/Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony, and Artistic Director of the Festival Water Crossing Fire held at the Barbican Centre.

Tan Dun records for Sony Classical, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Opus Arte, BIS and Naxos. His recordings have garnered many accolades, including a Grammy Award (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and nomination (The First EmperorMarco PoloPipa Concerto), Japan’s Recording Academy Awards for Best Contemporary Music CD (Water Passion after St. Matthew) and the BBC’s Best Orchestral Album (Death and Fire). Tan Dun’s music is published by G. Schirmer, Inc. and represented worldwide by the Music Sales Group of Classical Companies.

For more information on Tan Dun, please visit www.tandun.com.




About Tan Dun


Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement
Venice, Italy (2017)

The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement is the highest award given by the board of La Biennale di Venezia (The Venice Biennale). In 2017, during the 61st International Festival of Contemporary Music at the 57th Venice Arts Biennale, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Tan Dun, “one of the composers most representative of the creativity born in the East that has so intensely engaged with and in deed bonded with the West.” The award ceremony and concert took place on September 30th, 2017 at the Teatro alle Tese where Tan Dun conducted the Orchestra Sinfonica della Rai in the Italian premiere performances of three compositions by Tan Dun – Concerto for Orchestra (from Marco Polo), Percussion Concerto “The Tears of Nature” and Passacaglia: Secrets of Wind and Birds.

BAFTA Award for Best Film Music

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts identifies, rewards and celebrates excellence at its internationally-renowned, annual awards ceremonies. Tan Dun was awarded BAFTA’s Anthony Asquith Award for Original Film Music in 2001 for the score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack includes Asian-American pop star CoCo Lee singing the end-title song “A Love Before Time,” with music by Tan Dun and Jorge Calandrelli, and cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma.

To create the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan Dun blended the rich sounds of a western orchestra with the distinctive textures of traditional Eastern instruments such as the rawap, tar drums, and Chinese erhu. Director Ang Lee and Tan Dun worked closely to create a score for the film that would capture its traditional 19th century Chinese setting and heighten its impact for audiences around the world. Ang Lee has said that he conceived the film’s elaborate martial arts sequences in the manner of a film musical, making Tan Dun’s score an even more vital element in the film. With cellist Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, the music has the sweep of a romantic film score while reflecting the action and atmosphere of the film through the mesmerizing, often delicate sounds of traditional Chinese music.

Academy Award For Best Original Score
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

The Oscars reward the previous year’s greatest cinema achievements as determined by some of the world’s most accomplished motion picture artists and professionals. The Academy’s roughly 6,000 members vote for the Oscars using secret ballots, which are tabulated by the international auditing firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack includes Asian-American pop star CoCo Lee singing the end-title song “A Love Before Time,” with music by Tan Dun and Jorge Calandrelli, and cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma. The score reunites Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma, who collaborated previously on Tan Dun’s Heaven Earth Mankind (Symphony 1997), written to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to China.

To create the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan Dun blended the rich sounds of a western orchestra with the distinctive textures of traditional Eastern instruments such as the rawap, tar drums, and Chinese erhu. Director Ang Lee and Tan Dun worked closely to create a score for the film that would capture its traditional 19th century Chinese setting and heighten its impact for audiences around the world. Ang Lee has said that he conceived the film’s elaborate martial arts sequences in the manner of a film musical, making Tan Dun’s score an even more vital element in the film. With cellist Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, the music has the sweep of a romantic film score while reflecting the action and atmosphere of the film through the mesmerizing, often delicate sounds of traditional Chinese music.

In Tan Dun’s own words:
“We often say music is a universal language without boundaries. Yet, it is in fact the most divided industry. It creates boundaries between parents and children, ethnic groups and communities. Artists/performers battle over what form of style is more accurate.

The key led me to America, to New York. I chose New York, because everyone here had a goal in mind, to eliminate all boundaries. And that is what brings us all here today. Like myself, I believe everyone here share the same goal, to break that boundary. At the same time, it is also crucial that we create and nurture the audiences for the future.

Like I said earlier, this award is for you. It is only with your effort and support that we can reach higher. So let us take our key to reach and be beyond!”

“My music is to dream without boundaries. With the Academy, I see boundaries being crossed. Blending distinct elements of all artistic traditions to touch basic chords of human experience, Oscar evokes elements of nature and human passion and mortality. As a music composer, I am thrilled to be honored by the Academy. The film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” breeds east and west, romance and action, high and low cultures, and that is what I hope my music can bring to the audience too.”

Grammy Award For Best Soundtrack
Los Angeles, California (2001)

The recording industry’s most prestigious award, the Grammy, is presented annually by The Recording Academy. A Grammy is awarded by The Recording Academy’s voting membership to honor excellence in the recording arts and sciences. It is truly a peer honor.

The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack includes Asian-American pop star CoCo Lee singing the end-title song “A Love Before Time,” with music by Tan Dun and Jorge Calandrelli, and cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma. The score reunites Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma, who collaborated previously on Tan Dun’s Heaven Earth Mankind (Symphony 1997), written to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to China.

To create the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan Dun blended the rich sounds of a western orchestra with the distinctive textures of traditional Eastern instruments such as the rawap, tar drums, and Chinese erhu. Director Ang Lee and Tan Dun worked closely to create a score for the film that would capture its traditional 19th century Chinese setting and heighten its impact for audiences around the world. Ang Lee has said that he conceived the film’s elaborate martial arts sequences in the manner of a film musical, making Tan Dun’s score an even more vital element in the film. With cellist Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, the music has the sweep of a romantic film score while reflecting the action and atmosphere of the film through the mesmerizing, often delicate sounds of traditional Chinese music.

UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador
Paris, France (2013)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun as its Goodwill Ambassador.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said Mr. Tan was chosen because of his “efforts to promote intercultural dialogue through music, consciousness of the scarcity of natural resources such as water, and the diversity of languages,” as well as for his dedication to the ideals and aims of the UN.

Mr. Tan is known for his creative repertoire which spans the boundaries of classical music, multimedia performance, and Eastern and Western traditions. He is most widely known for his scores for the movies ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Hero.’ His music has been played throughout the world by leading orchestras, opera houses, international festivals, and on radio and television.

Mr. Tan has also conducted renowned orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Berliner Philharmoniker. As a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Mr. Tan will join the ranks of distinguished personalities who use their name and fame to spread the ideals of the agency, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela of South Africa, United States jazz musician Herbie Hancock and Cuban ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso.

The Grawemeyer Award
Louisville, KY (1998)

The Grawemeyer Prize awards outstanding works in contemporary music, and recognizes ideas and works that “help make the world a better place”. Tan Dun was awarded the Grawemeyer Prize for his opera, Marco Polo.

Marco Polo (1992-96) features a libretto by Paul Griffiths, author of the novel Myself and Marco Polo (1989).  In Marco Polo, Tan Dun sought to discover a 21st-century form for opera – one that incorporates multiple languages, cultures and time periods, Eastern and Western operatic traditions, and varied musical styles to create an authentically international genre.  Marco uses the famed 13th-century Italian traveler as a metaphor to explore the meaning of “journey” on several levels.  Its formal structure presents three journeys  – spiritual/psychological, physical/geographical, and musical – within two “operas” that gradually amalgamate to a common goal.

Musical America’s Composer Of The Year Award
Highstown, NJ (2003)

Musical America established its Musician of the Year award in 1960, recognizing many of the foremost artists of our time.  The four categories of composer, conductor, instrumentalist, and vocalist were added in 1991 due to the expansion of the classical-music community in the intervening years. Ensemble, accompanist, and educator awards were subsequently established.

“For the world beyond Tan Dun’s Hunan village, the process of discovery has worked in two ways. As Tan himself finds his place in the musical realm of Bach, Beethoven, and John Cage, worldwide audiences are discovering a richness in authentic Chinese musical sources that goes far beyond the sing-song choruses of Turandot and Ravel’s cracked teacup. Tan has been particularly skillful in blending authentic presences East and West without blurring their original nationalities. He has done this, furthermore, over a wide variety of musical forms: in serious operas like the 1996 Grawemeyer-winning Marco Polo (with a text by British-born critic Paul Griffiths), the massive, hour-long “symphonies” to celebrate the unification of Hong Kong with China and to proclaim the universal meaning of the Millennium.”
— Musical America Profile, Alan Rich

Shostakovich Award
Moscow, Russia (2012)

Tan Dun will be awarded with the D. D. Shostakovich Award by the Yuri Bashmet International Charitable Foundation on November 3, 2012. The award ceremony was held on May 14th outside Moscow in the historic city of Yaroslavl and will be a part of a concert conducted by Maestro Bashmet and Tan Dun for charity. Tan Dun is the first artist from China to have received the award, previous winners include Anne-Sophie Mutter, Valery Gergiev, Gidon Kremer, Evgeny Kissin and Yefim Bronfman.

Bach Prize
Hamburg, Germany (2011)

Tan Dun has been honored with the prestigious Bach Prize of the City of Hamburg. The Bach Prize is awarded every four years to an exceptional composer of our time. Tan Dun is pictured here with a copy of Bach’s original St. Matthew Passion manuscript on which he based his own composition Water Passion after St. Matthew.

Musikpreis Der Stadt Duisburg
Duisburg, Germany (2005)

The German city of Duisburg presented composer Tan Dun with its  Music Prize on October 30, 2005. The prize has been given annually since 1990 for outstanding achievements in music and music theater in association with the Köhler-Osbahr Foundation. Previous winners include Hans Werne Henze and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Pierre Audi, Artistic Director of the Netherlands Opera, introduced Tan Dun at the award ceremony held in the William Lehmbruck museum in Duisburg.  Mr. Audi, who worked with Tan Dun on a production of his opera, Tea, in Amsterdam, spoke about the composer’s work, saying: “The prestigious Duisburg Music Prize is once again for Tan Dun a confirmation of the great appreciation his music continues to command. His stature as an artist and his commitment to bringing us closer to accepting that music is not confined to our Western traditions but indeed highlights how much this tradition owes and relates to Eastern influences are once again recognized and honored by today’s prize.  Tan Dun has done this with style, with depth, with invention. We are only half way on the journey he has taken. His talent is to suggest dreams and make those dreams – his dreams – our own. Somehow East/West is no longer an issue. We stand face to face with ourselves.”

At the ceremony, Tan Dun said, “It is such a great honor for me to be included in the same circle of luminaries such as Penderecki and Hans Werner Henze. It is so wonderful being here in this world-class museum, amidst these world-class people, all embracing an award that symbolizes the dialogue between Fire and Water, East and West, Past and Future. I am deeply encouraged by the past and will continue to forge ahead into the future, exploring and expanding the scope of my music.”

The Eugene Mcdermott Award In The Arts
Boston, Ma (1994)

The Eugene McDermott Award was established in 1974 by the Council for the Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to honor the memory of Eugene McDermott, benefactor to the Institute in education and the arts. From 1974-1989, the McDermott Award was presented annually to an individual for “major contributions to the arts as a means of human fulfillment.” Recipients during that time included such distinguished artists as Henry Moore, Gyorgy Kepes, I.M. Pei, and Richard Leacock, as well as the chairmen and co-founding members of the Council for the Arts at MIT.

“Tan Dun’s McDermott residency, in connection with his 1994 award included visiting music classes and a master class of a media lab workshop entitled Performing Experimental Musical Instruments. Tan Dun was a part of a public forum with Cai Guo-Qiang discussing their cross-discipline artistic collaboration. Tan Dun previewed undergraduate Kathy Lin’s recital violin performance featuring works by Taiwanese and Taiwanese American composers. In addition, Tan Dun explored the labs and areas of the MIT campus.”

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Tan Dun works with Juilliard Orchestra for Met Museum performances
NEW YORK, USA (2017)

Tan Dun works with the students of the Juilliard Orchestra for the world premiere performances of his Symphony of Colors: Terracotta. They appear on March 31 and April 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for concerts coinciding with the opening of the museum’s Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C – A.D. 220).

Symphony of Colors: Terracotta is a multimedia work in which the ancient and modern collide, showcasing Tan Dun’s film footage of the terracotta warriors in Xi’an. It draws on music from his opera The First Emperor.

Tan Dun and the orchestra are also joined by violinist Ken Hamao, cellist James Jeonghwan Kim, and pianist Robert Fleitz for the world premiere of his Triple Concerto: Hero.

Outreach with Hong Kong String Orchestra
HONG KONG (2016)

In March 2017, Tan Dun led an educational initiative with the Hong Kong String Orchestra, a professional ensemble in Hong Kong offering an international mentorship program to music graduates.

“We live in a very interesting, diverse time – our left leg might be standing on Bach and Beethoven, but our right is set on rock ‘n’ roll and jazz,” Tan Dun notes. “This is very exciting, but we need artist-educators who can focus on making the right leg and left leg work together.”

During his time in Hong Kong, Tan Dun worked with young musicians from the Hong Kong String Orchestra, presenting a lecture and masterclass on technology in music at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and leading the orchestra in a program titled “Music of the Future” at the Hong Kong Cultural Center.

“Young people are the driving force of the future,” says Tan Dun. “When we work with them in universities and educational institutions, we need to focus on the culture in our everyday lives. In Hong Kong, I will focus on the vision and life of young people, from cellphones and WeChat to YouTube and Beethoven. We’ll look at how creation and the concert experience might include influences of the visual, the Internet, social media, and mobile formats.”

Rising Artists’ Work

Tan Dun spearheaded the effort to encourage rising young artists to feed off each other’s talents by acting as chairman of the Young Talents Program, which is a part of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. Nine brilliant young adults studied together for an arduous six months; at the end of their lessons taught by masters of the arts, including Tan Dun, the chosen nine performed six short pieces of their respective crafts. Among the nine were Wang Chong, who created a short film that Tan Dun described as “watching a good chef in the kitchen,” and Li Zeyu, who, at the age of 12, was described as a “musical genius” by master violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

These unique artists performed their works on October 19th and 20th at the Shanghai Drama Arts Center in front of a prestigious audience, which included teams from the Salzburg and Belgium festival. The powerhouse nine gave an outstanding performance that surely inspired the masses. RAW’s program truly exhibits the potential of gathering such a group of talented artists together.

Open Ears, Open Minds

For four months, six young Australian composers – Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, Lachlan Skipworth, Tristan Coelho, Melody Eötvös, Christopher Larkin and Timothy Tate – were busy with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s 2012 composer residency program featuring masterclasses with Tan Dun and a final performance of their pieces by members of the ASO at the OzAsia Festival.

“When Tan Dun got up to speak, he addressed the whole audience, and proceeded to speak to us and somehow draw us in to his exciting future visions for the contemporary music scene, especially in Australia. We knew we were in for a lively two hours!” says workshop composer Lachlan Skipworth

“We definitely all walked away a little more confident and inspired to propel forward for what brings on in the future, and eager to explore further in what someone of Tan’s stature sees in the music we are making here in Australia,” says workshop composer Annie Hsieh

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