Simple things carry within themselves the potential for complexity, or for an unlimited number of changes, believes Tan Dun. In Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and Ten Instruments, written in memory of his mentor John Cage, Tan examines the countless ways four pitches, C-A-G-E, can be articulated and resonate. (Although this work presents the spelling of Cage’s name, it does not incorporate any of his musical or philosophical ideas; Tan was attracted to the Do-La-Sol-Mi CAGE motive because he also finds it sonically Eastern in character.) The piano presents in all different registers the four notes of this motive; they are plucked inside the piano, directly on the strings, and not played in the traditional way with keyboard. Each of these notes is developed further through the soloist’s use of fingering techniques borrowed from the pipa, a Chinese plucked instrument; colors of individual pitches are enriched with harmonics and by manipulating the strings with a plate and bottle. The concerto is structured in a variation form: the first part focuses on and develops only the pitch C; the second part, A; the third, G; and the fourth, E. Subsequently, all four pitches are mixed and varied together. Pitch content is similarly restricted in the ensemble, but developed differently. Gradually their notes become rhythmically livelier, and the concerto culminates in an exuberant, tutti expression of “imaginary jazz”.
Just as this concerto’s jazzy ending represents Tan’s current life in New York, he says, so its “dance festival atmosphere” recalls events from his teenage years. Born in 1957 in Hunan, China, Tan led village peasants during the Cultural Revolution in impromptu musical celebrations on folk instruments and cooking pots. Here, the players gather “like ritual dancers in a village ceremony”, in a carefully positioned circle around the pianist. Sounds travel at times around the circle, moving alternately clockwise or counterclockwise, or shoots diagonally across it. The Concerto was commissioned by the Paris Festival d’Automne, and premiered in 1995 by Contrechamps with Margaret Leng Tan as soloist. The solo part may be performed separately as C-A-G-E for piano.
–Mary Lou Humphrey