The individual bodies of work of Tan Dun and Ang Lee have focused on the meeting of the cultures of East and West, and the fascinating hybrid that results — something no longer wholly eastern or western. Tan Dun’s four Orchestral Theater works explored the ways in which a classical western orchestra can generate music that is not classical or western. He has likewise sought to re-imagine and re-invigorate the western concert experience through the integration of traditions from Chinese opera, Asian theater, ancient ritual and the addition of film and live video. Ang Lee’s earlier films Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman have likewise explored the mingling of East and West in human-interest dramas about Asian families living under the influences of contemporary western culture. Like Tan Dun’s Orchestral Theater series, these films focus on that which is born of the cross-fertilization of cultures, traditions and generations. In developing the musical scores to accompany his films, Lee has sought out innovative composers who are adept at creating a contemporary sound in the blending of eastern and western musical traditions. It thus seems a natural progression that Tan Dun’s and Ang Lee’s work should come together, and not only in the format of music accompanying images — but also a work in which images accompany music.
The Crouching Tiger Concerto, for cello and chamber orchestra, is a concert work based on Tan’s Oscar-winning score for Lee’s Oscar-winning film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — a film which joins the quintessential Asian genre of martial arts cinema with the drama of a western romance with a deep metaphorical message.
The concerto is in six movements with cello cadenzas connecting the orchestral movements. Each of the orchestral movements are accompanied by video footage created by Ang Lee and James Schamus. [The video-accompaniment to the concerto is not currently available.] Although numerous concert works have been developed from film scores, this concerto is unique in that it brings the collaborative/creative process full circle. Tan’s film score, written to strengthen and complement the viewing and dramatic experience of the film, was profoundly influenced by the film’s poetic imagery, complex emotions, and exotic landscapes. In the creation of this concerto, the filmmakers were put into the composer’s chair where Tan’s evocative music inspired the reshaping of their images to accompany and enhance the concert listening experience. Lee and Schamus consider these video images as secondary to the music and they are not meant to impart any narrative to the concerto.
The concerto’s video segments are created from material produced entirely during the making of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The one exception is newly filmed digital video of New York City in the first movement, which is interwoven with pre-existing computer-generated sketches and mock-ups of a mythical old and contemporary Beijing. This intermingling of the Beijing imagery (created with the world-renowned effects house Mannex Entertainment) and New York City represents for Lee and Schamus multi-faceted ideas akin to those found in Tan Dun’s music: old and new, East and West. The subsequent movements offer dream-like visions of the bamboo forest of Southern China; abstracted landscapes of the awe-inspiring Gobi Desert and Taklimakan Plateau; an intimate Vermeer-like observation of a young girl in her study and the poetic grace of her calligraphy; a Chinese warrior moving through the elegant movement of Yo-Yo Ma’s fingers on the cello; and finally, a look through the filmmakers’ eyes at the production work and resulting transcendence of the signature image of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — a breathtaking leap off a mountain bridge into the mists of eternity. (Note: The video-accompaniment to the concerto is not currently available.)
The Crouching Tiger Concerto is highly reflective of Tan Dun’s current interest in the historical cultures of the Silk Road. Woven into the film score and concerto are instruments, their performing techniques and articulations, and melodies native to the cultures which intermingled along the Silk Road in China’s Xinjiang province. Of particular interest is the cello melody in the third cadenza which is a folk song from this region. Instruments heard in the concerto which are indigenous to these Silk Road cultures are the tar (a North African frame drum) and the bawu (a bamboo, copper-reed flute which came into China from Southeast Asia). The rawap (a high-pitched, plucked string instrument native to the Uygar culture of the Taklimakan area) is prominent in the film score and represented in the concerto in melodies and articulations transcribed to the cello and the orchestra. The erhu (a Chinese bowed string instrument which has its roots in India) is evoked throughout the concerto in the melodic contours and sonorities called for in the cello’s melodies and cadenzas. Additional instruments from Silk Road cultures can be heard throughout in the gestures and timbres that Tan crafted into the scoring of this Western orchestra.
The Crouching Tiger Concerto was written for and inspired by Yo-Yo Ma. The work received its world premiere in September 30, 2000, at London’s Barbican Centre Festival: Fire Cross Water, of which Tan Dun was artistic director.
Scoring Ang lee’s Dream of China
Had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon been an English language film, it would have been the Best Picture of 2000. It’s the subtitles that have gained it both the Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and not the Best Picture of the year, even though Ang Lee won the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Motion Picture. These awards signify the strength of one of the best films of 2000. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crept into theatres with a limited release in December 2000, and by word of mouth and a box office release campaign that gradually gained momentum, it propelled itself into the top ten list of box office sales during the first week of January 2001 and stayed there for months.
Director Ang Lee’s epic adventure love story is based on a childhood dream born from the wuxia films and novels he grew up with. “This film is a kind of dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies in Taiwan. Of course my childhood imagination was fired by the martial arts movies I grew up with and by the novels of romance and derring-do I read instead of doing my homework. That these two kinds of dreaming should come together now in a film I was able to make in China, is a happy irony for me,” reaffirms Lee. With a story based on Chinese myths and legends, Ang Lee’s film was born from a seventy-year-old novel written by Wang Du Lu and adapted for the big screen. The biggest problem lee had was transcending the idea of making a martial arts film into something special, as he points out. “Another conflict was how to maintain a balance between the drama and the martial arts in the film. The film is not crafted in the realistic style, as my earlier films have been, but the emotions it conveys are real. So you will see that the drama is itself choreographed as a kind of martial art, while the fighting is never just kicking and punching, but is also a way for the characters to express their unique situation and feelings.” This statement reflects the martial arts sequences of men and women warriors dueling on walls, ceiling, and rooftops, across the top of a bamboo tree forest, or even on water, were the images and editing are graceful like dance and music.
Ang lee, who also writes and produces, has directed seven films including Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, and Wo hu zang long or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee has been nominated once before for a Golden Globe for Best Director for Sense and Sensibility (1995), but never in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine that he would win the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Motion Picture for his work as a director in a foreign language film. His humility becomes him, but has been completely overshadowed by his ability to create.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took its audiences by storm. A sweeping romantic epic drama that takes place in stunning locations throughout China showcases an excellent story with a top notch cast, superb acting, magical cinematograph, amazing martial arts choreography, and a score that supports the film perfectly. It’s apparent when you hear those first weeping notes of world-renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma accompany the orchestra, that this is a unique film scoring experience. Composer Tan Dun, who used a traditional orchestra, a folk orchestra, a percussion ensemble, soloists performing on erhu, bawu, dizi, rawap, hand drum, percussion and a sampler, combined with Yo-Yo Ma’s evocative solos, created a hybrid of traditional eastern instrumentation and symphonic elements in a score where east meets west. This merger creates the sweep of a romantic film score while reflecting the action and atmosphere of the film through mesmerizing and often delicate sounds of traditional music.
In actuality it’s Dun’s classical work that has brought him worldwide acclaim over the years. Conductor and winner of the prestigious Grawermeyer Award for Music Composition, he is a graduate of Beijing’s Central Conservatory and Columbia University in New York. Dun has created such works as is operasMarco Polo and Peony Pavilion, a large choral work that commemorated the return of Hong Kong to China called Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind) which Yo-Yo Ma also performed on, a performance and recording to bring in the next thousand years with 2000 Today, the US. Premiere ofDeath and Fire with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and honouring Bach with a new passion entitled Water Passion After St. Matthew, which was performed last September in Stuttgart, Germany. All these compositions reflect a vibrant presence of east and west within Tan, who uniquely creates his own special brand of experimentation and classical originality.
Beyond his world of classical compositions and operas, Tan Dun is mostly known as a film composer from his score to director Gregory Hobblit’s 1998 supernatural thriller Fallen. However, Tan Dun is no stranger when it comes to composing for film. He has also scored four documentaries including In the Name of the Emperor, a four hour PBS special called The Mao Years, director Philip Kaufman’s film Wild East and First Moon by the Boston film company Long Bow, which was Tan’s first American film. So to date, Dun has at least six film scores to his credit.
On Wednesday 6th December 2000, the day after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Los Angeles premiere, I met Tan Dun at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California to discuss working with director Ang Lee and composer/cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his unique opportunity to score Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in China with Chinese orchestras. It was the perfect creative marriage, a Chinese director hiring a Chinese composer to score his film shot in China and all this based on a dream of China. All these circumstances led to Tan Dun being nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score as well as two Academy Awards for Best Original score and Song, and out of all of this came the largest grand prize of all, Tan Dun, Academy Award winner for the Best Original Score of 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
What is film music?
To me film music exists under many stories, underscoring what’s happened on the surface. It gives another dimension of character, another dimension of story to the film. This dimension has the same goal, but it’s different than the facts that are trying to be expressed in the film. Film music has a different kind of mask in its character. There’s a mask of a real character, a parallel going on within the film. Then there’s another mask that doesn’t fit with the story that’s happening. It shows the real side of the story, but it also shows the surreal side. It has different functions, climaxing with the picture and driving the rhythm of it. Also there’s a spiritual function that can tell what the director cannot tell in words and actions.
When did you first get involved in scoring?
I’m telling you a lot of secret things now. I have scored six films in America, but you also need to know that when I was in China I scored many films as well. When I composed my first score for a feature film, I was twenty-two and a composition student in my second year at the conservatory. They were making a huge movie about the Forbidden City. Scoring this historic feature film is how I got started.
Your career mainly highlights you as a classical composer. Where does film scoring fit in your life?
Film scoring to me is like coffee. I have to have my coffee every day, but I think the opera and symphony are my main dish at this stage. I was trained in dramatic music, Peking opera for example, so I’m very interested in film music because it’s one of the most exciting dramatic forces, the same as opera. When I’m working with different media, sometimes I’ll bring those together. Now when I’m doing opera, I try to bring multimedia into the operatic theatre. We’ll bring film, video, and slides into the opera. So everything starts out with coffee, but this becomes part of my big meal and dessert. When I’m composing for film, opera, and the symphony, it all blends into one thing as a composer though.
How did you get the job to score Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
About three or four years ago when Ang Lee finished The Ice Storm he contacted me, we were actually good friends in New York. He asked me, “do you want to work on a film with me?” I said, “What?” He said, “For my next film, I want to do a kung fu film.” I was totally surprised and said “What!” Ang responded, “It’s a different angle, it’s a different way of making a kung fu film. You will love it.” We started to talk about the high and low cultures, east and west, world instruments and the western symphony orchestras, all those types of things we wanted to use in the score. Then we said, “We have to have a bridge here, who’s the bridge?” We both immediately said, “Yo-Yo.” So Yo-Yo became the bridge between high and low instruments. That was our idea that started this thing about four years ago.
When you work with Ang Lee what does he want from you as the composer?
When you work with Ang lee you can’t just get a key idea, you have to have two things ready in order to be perfect. First it’s the passion and secondly it’s the mathematics. He doesn’t count the music by frames, he counts the music by seconds, and so every second has a function of its own movement. When working with Ang, he’s totally open with me, he’s the one artist where passionately it’s one hundred percent, you have to get it, and then you have to mathematically understand the structure. He counts every second just to get the right match with his film and the feeling of it is essential.
What was the key idea in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that opened up the door for your score?
With the opening landscape of the Chinese villages I realized this was a dream and a part of China that doesn’t exist anymore. This raised incredible feelings in me; most of that emotion went into Yo-Yo Ma’s cello solos. Also it was the calligraphy of the martial arts in this picture. Ang lee’s martial arts or the movement in this story is like calligraphy, Chinese brush writing. It’s like a ballet. As soon as I saw this I was immediately inspired.
Was the film temped, if so, how did you deal with this?
This was a very interesting case. I worked on the film with Ang before it was temped with anything. Even after he finished the film he still didn’t temp it. I asked him, “Do you have any specific ideas or know what kind of musical colour you want here?” He said, “Sometimes I have.” I responded, “Do you want to temp the film?” Ang said, “I’m not so sure, because sometimes when you temp the film, it’s misleading, and you can never get out of it.” I totally agreed with him because sometimes you just can’t find a good substitute music to work with, so in this case we temped the film with my music. I gave Ang a lot of my recordings, like A World Symphony for the Millennium and Symphony 1997 to use. His editor listened to a lot of my music and thought it would work as a temp.
But doesn’t this make it even more difficult because you have to recreate yourself?
Yes, sometimes (laughter). It’s very interesting because even after we temped the film, I still had to find out what Ang wanted for me. This time I didn’t mock up the film with keyboards, it was a very, very special case. First of all because I did the whole score in only ten days. When I started to write, the only thing I did was sing for Ang Lee because we didn’t have time. After recording it was amazing because Ang said, “I’ve never done anything like this before in my whole life.” All the music we recorded was completely used and none of it was re-recorded, all this was done without a mock-up or even a test. It’s amazing, even for Fallen, when we had a lot more time and space, we still had to re-record about three to five minutes of the score, but for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon we had very little time and it was perfect. This turned out to be a great test of the chemistry between Ang and I.
Are you a good singer?
My singing wasn’t really about the singing, but I think so. When you hear the fingering of Yo-Yo’s lines in the score, the fingering, those special sliding things, can you believe this can be done by playing piano? That’s why I have to sing, you can demonstrate sitar and other things with your voice.
What was the key when working with Ang Lee that made you succeed in scoring his vision?
The key to working with Ang is communication. We have to fully understand each other, where we’re going. Are we heading in the same direction? That’s definitely the most important thing.
When composing, what techniques do you use?
First I write the score and then I go back and check it with the piano afterwards.
Can you define the structure of your score?
Besides writing my normal musical lines in the score, I also use a system that talks about or describes the picture. Even if you are the conductor, you don’t know beforehand what’s happening. When you see the score, there are specific lines defining certain parts of the film, certain rhythmic things, these are always mocked up in the score. The most important thing to me when writing a film score is the power of structure. If you want to have a powerful structure, you have to treat the whole piece as one. You can’t write your score out piece by piece, you have to write the whole thing out as one thematic relationship.
Ang Lee said that he conceived the film’s martial arts sequences in the manner of a film musical, how did you deal with this?
These martial arts parts have been musically matched within an accuracy of every second, every second has been choreographed. When I got these parts to the picture to score, Ang Lee told me, “You can’t even be off one half of a second when they are moving around, that’s it!
Did the stunning locations filmed in China influence the outcome of your score?
Of course. When they shot the two women fighting on the to of the rood I was there. That took place at three in the morning in a suburb of Beijing. It was extremely cold, minus ten degrees. Thus gave me a very percussive or hard feeling about the scene. At the location Ang had a lot of fires burning because it was so cold. He was around these fires watching his tiny camera monitors to see what was happening. In the meantime there was this huge robot or crane flying people around, it was quite surreal because this was in a wild suburb in the middle of Beijing. Suddenly you’re seeing this huge cinema factory in the middle of nowhere. The night fight scenes as well as the forest fantasy scene were the two parts that inspired me most when writing the score.
Even in Fallen, your scoring signified a hybrid of Chinese music and traditional orchestral song. Is this part of your scoring technique or style?
An artist’s creation more or less always comes from his life experiences, his imagination comes out this way. My imagination always comes out from my experiences in life. I’ve been living in the United States for fifteen years, but I was living in China for more than twenty years. All those experiences crossing together is what comes out of my music. So of course yes, in all my early experiences I was trained in Chinese theatre and music, this has somehow become very interesting because it comes out of my music today.
How vital was Yo-Yo Ma’s performance in your score?
Yo-Yo had a very spiritual impact on both Ang Lee and myself as well. It’s hard to believe that when we were recording Yo-Yo for the score in New York, Ang Lee was in the recording booth with his hands shaking, he just couldn’t help himself from moving. He really got into it. When Yo-Yo was recording with the picture, sometimes he’d be watching the film, but most of the time Yo-Yo closed his eyes. He would watch the film on the first take, but then on the second take e would close his eyes just to play it. Yo-Yo always would put in things naturally into himself.
How many solos did Yo-Yo Ma perform in the score?
He performed solos on about six tracks, it was about thirty minutes of music. It was quite a lot.
Why did you record him separately in New York from the orchestras in China?
Originally Yo-Yo was going to record in Shanghai, China, but right before his departure he had a Visa problem. We decided to drop the idea of recording him in Shanghai and do it in New York. Later we took Yo-Yo’s recordings and then synched it up with the orchestral parts that were recorded in China. This worked perfectly because I was the conductor. Being the composer and the conductor gave me total control and the ability to do this tempo-wise. However, I did use another conductor, Chen Xie Yang, because we used three ensembles in the score. We recorded with the Shanghai National Folk Instruments Orchestra, which was forty pieces, we had the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra which was eighty pieces, and finally there was the Shanghai Percussion Ensemble which was twenty pieces, plus there were a number of soloists. I was the main conductor, but because the music had to be scored in ten days a lot of the time when I had to go back to the booth to talk with Ang Lee I wanted the scoring process to continue, so my other conductor was at the podium ready. The Chinese orchestral material and the percussion I had to conduct myself, but for certain kinds of things like just brass or winds, normally my other conductor can conduct this.
Did Yo-Yo’s performance highlight the romantic and traditional elements of your score?
Absolutely! Yo-Yo was the seed of that haunting feeling in the romantic theme, also he’s the bridge.
What did you learn by working on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
The most important thing I learned is to try and see things from a different angle. Four years ago when the news came out that Ang Lee was going to make a martial arts film people thought, “what is he doing?” Actually no one knew what kind of angle Lee was going to take in this film. After he made the film, people saw it and said, “Oh my God, that’s what he was thinking of.” Martial arts in film has been developed in Hong Kong for the last twenty years, but has gone nowhere. Not until Ang Lee made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was there a new conclusion. He planned his film quite well from a worldly cultural point of view and showed martial arts to the world in a completely different way.
What are your future plans?
I’m doing many things. The most important thing is an opera that takes place four thousand years ago when mankind discovers tea. It’s a very, very sensual story.
That’s great, this is a British magazine and they want to know about tea.
The British brought tea to the west.
What sounds sweeter and more personal than a violin? Many people would say the erhu, a Chinese string instrument dating to the mid-8th century that it has been put to some very modern uses recently. Composer Tan Dun had the instrument in mind when writing music for Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But the sound he imagined didn’t make it to the screen. It was transposed for a cello so that Yo-Yo Ma could play the part.
Now comes the fuller realization of his original intention as he conducts the world premiere performances of the “Crouching Tiger” Concerto today through Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Karen Hwa-Chee Han will be the soloist. “The sound [of the erhu] is like a woman’s voice,” Han said in a recent phone interview from her home In West Los Angeles. “It’s just like talking, like a friend talks.” The instrument has two steel (originally silk) strings and tuned a fifth apart. They run from the top of the neck to a resonating box made of snakeskin (most often python). There is no fingerboard.
Unlike a violin, the instrument is played vertically, like a cello, as it rests on the musician’s thigh. The bow, originally made of bamboo, is horsehair and cannot be removed from between the strings. “When you play the outer string, you use one technique,” Han said. “When you play the inner string, you use a different technique. Normally, we can only play one string at a time because they are so far apart. “We cannot play two notes together, although I will try for this piece.” Several bars call for two strings sounding simultaneously as a special effect. Dun has written a demanding piece for the instrument because he knows its capabilities. He and Han studied at about the same time at the Central Han studied at about the same time at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. “I was in the middle school. He was in the college,” she said. “He knows how to play erhu. He knows the technique and the style. His piece gives me lots of challenges, which I love.”
Han was born in a small town in the Anhui province of China. Her father played the instrument and, believing that an instrumentalist had a longer professional life in music than a singer, insisted that she learn it too. He forced her to practice.”In the beginning, I was mad. It upset me,” she said. “I had to practice hard, every day, two to three hours.”At the age of 10, she was sent to study at the Central Conservatory. “Once I got into the professional school, I started to appreciate these things. I was getting older and more mature. My instrument became one of my friends. If I couldn’t speak out, I could use my instrument to express my feelings.”At times, she practiced eight hours a day. “My hands hurt. Sometimes they got bloody. But if you want something, really badly, you want to practice.”Sometimes that meant sneaking in a few hours practice after 11 p.m. when the school had turned off the electricity. “I would just light a candle and practice until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. Now I love the music, I love the stage, I love performance.” But about the time she was falling in love with traditional music, China was falling out of love with it.
She was in graduate school when China was just opening up to the West, she said. Pop music and rock ‘n’ roll were everywhere, and there was less interest in Chinese music. “I felt quite hurt. Things I worked so hard to learn weren’t being appreciated anymore. But I did get to visit the United States in 1985 on a government-sponsored music tour of 15 cities. That gave me a very good impression that American people would appreciate my music.” She moved to Hollywood in 1988, making it her home and working in films and television and on recording projects involving collaborations with jazz artists and other musicians. She has not returned to China. “Western people are very open, accepting me as one of their own family,” she said. “That makes me feel very encouraged and also very happy. The world is becoming closer.”
–Chris Pasles, LA Times, October 19, 2001
The Crouching Tiger Concerto is certainly unusual in the dominance accorded the score. The concerto incorporates images from the film, but Tan’s score is more than just a soundtrack, for Lee and Schamus in turn reshaped their images in response to the music.
–Barry Millington, The Times, London