Four Secret Roads of Marco Polo has two meanings. One is on the philosophical level — about humanity. It’s a reflection of the phenomenon of historical Silk Road cultures, a search that is still so haunting. From my personal point of view, I see Si Lu (Chinese words for Silk Road) as very open and inspirational — just like a caterpillar spinning its cocoon, no matter how long you pull the silk, the thread never breaks. That invisible thread always exists. To me, Si Lu is an invisible yet unbreakable connection. Four Secret Roads of Marco Polo is a soulful search of cultural harmonies that are organically related, although these individual elements all grow in different forms and directions. This work is about the many secrets that exist between cultures and their relationships.
Secondly, as a composer, I always retreat to my own secret land, that inner creative source that I revisit from time to time, from piece to piece. There are always different technical and spiritual inventions in my secret land.
For this piece, my inspirations come from those sounds made on extremely haunting, plucked instruments such as the sitar and pipa. From the ancient times, philosophers believe that any sound that exists has a life — a starting point, duration of its sounding, and an end. A sound is a life, and life is sound. I transpose and enlarge these inspirations from plucking sounds (plucking living sounds) to orchestral colours and gestures.
Interview with Joanna Lee on Four Secret Roads of Marco Polo
(originally entitled Secret Land)
Joanna Lee: You just finished your work, Secret Land, for the Berlin Philharmonic cellists and the orchestra. What is this “Secret Land”? Can you please describe it?
Tan Dun: Actually, Secret Land has two meanings. One is on the philosophical level – about humanity.It’s a reflection of the phenomenon of historical Silk Road cultures, a search that is still so haunting. From my personal point of view, I see Si Lu (Chinese words for Silk Road) as very open and inspirational — just like a caterpillar spinning its cocoon, no matter how long you pull the silk, the thread never breaks. That invisible thread always exists. To me, Si Lu is an invisible yet unbreakable connection. Secret Land is a soulful search of cultural harmonies that are organically related, although these individual elements all grow in different forms and directions. This work is about the many secrets that exist between cultures and their relationships.
Secondly, as a composer, I always retreat to my own secret land, that inner creative source that I revisit from time to time, from piece to piece. There are always different technical and spiritual inventions in my secret land.For this piece, my inspirations come from those sounds made on extremely haunting, plucked instruments such as the sitar and pipa. From the ancient times, philosophers believe that any sound that exists has a life – a starting point, duration of its sounding, and an end. A sound is life, and life is sound. I transpose and enlarge these inspirations from plucking sounds (plucking living sounds) to orchestral colours and gestures.
JL: You use so many organic imageries. But how do you compose a piece like this?
TD: Although culturally, technically, and aesthetically I have a large spiritual base, every new piece for me is a secret land, because sometimes when you write it’s not that you just choose a topic and compose music: it’s a process, a reflection, letting your creative spirit “swim freely” to let the composition take shape. A composition comes to you because you are psychologically connected to the sound. As a composer I always compose in silence. I never use piano, computer, just old-fashioned pen and paper. But I do hear everything.When I compose it is a very “noisy” activity, because all the sounds are “sounding” in me. When someone calls me after 6 hours of my working in silence, I am physically shocked. When a composer works in this silent inner space, he is in contact with millions of sensations and thoughts. That’s my secret land. I draw on many sounds that are within me and outside of me – my Manhattan home and studio environment, my blood pumping, my heart beating, and also memories of sounds from my other home, the Chinese village shamanist rituals.These sound memories, these sound maps, are my secret lands. They resurface depending on different compositions, and I am deeply engaged in this psychological process.
JL: How did the Berlin Philharmonic commission come about?
TD: Three years ago, when I was rehearsing my Water Passion After St. Matthew in Tokyo, some guests from Berlin came to visit me. Some of them are members of the cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic. One of them is Georg Faust, and we had immediate rapport. Sometime later, I met with Sir Simon Rattle in Paris when he was conducting there, and I was also conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon at the Cité de la musique.We met in a fascinating, seductive house near the Centre Pompidou. As soon as he opened the gate for me, he started to take me on a tour of the house, analyzing its architecture, how each of the floors and rooms were designed. I learned about the history of the house, including an interesting stone staircase, because it was built as a brothel. Customers arrived through certain passages, and on the second floor there is a large room where the women would mingle. This building is like a secret castle, with so many hidden corners and structures. Sir Simon told me how smart they were in building this house – a secret lover could hide here, and another couple could hide there. We arrived at the top floor, where there was a beautiful fireplace. Sir Simon said, “Would you like a cup of tea?” We both realized that structure could make a space so much more interesting. Without good structure and form, the best melodies, harmonies and textures would still be wasted. Then he approached me to write this piece for the Berlin Philharmonic. The visit to this house was a wonderful prelude, a fitting prelude to Secret Land.
JL: Was that how you arrived at this title?
TD: I never imagined then that I would name this piece Secret Land. When a composer starts a piece, he can never predict whether the piece will go according to the initial plans, whether the technical aspects of the composition or the actual subject will change. I find that composing is balancing act – I adjust to my processing of sounds, my direct contact with my sound world, like practicing some musical yoga.
JL: How was the initial balance achieved? For example, how do you imagine the cello section, your 12 soloists?
TD: I wanted each of the cellists to represent one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Actually, I even asked each of the cellists to send me his or her birthday and astrological sign. I was trying to test if I could form a secret method playing the role of Chinese astrologist and fortune teller, to figure out what type of a person each of them is, how each of them can perform in my music composition. That was my first conceptual idea for the piece.
JL: This is fascinating – combining Chinese astrology with musical composition. Did it work?
TD: I started to compose. I started with the tiger (one of the twelve animals) because my son was born in the year of the tiger. I love tigers. When I finished my sketch, I found out that I had already written 20 minutes worth of music! If I continue this path, taking care of the rest of the 11 animals, we would need 3 concerts for the entire work to unfold. That wouldn’t work.So I thought of a “secret” approach – tapping into my own secret thoughts for the four movements of the piece (Misterioso Adagietto, Misterioso Scherzo, Misterioso Melancholia, Misterioso Generoso).
JL: Where are these mysteries? Do you tell a story or are they states of mind?
TD: These movements are results of my own psychological processes. I imagine a real or surreal journey in each of them. It could be a sacred pilgrimage of a writer, maybe Italo Calvino, perhaps an ordinary traveler, or Marco Polo, or a musician of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the cellists . . . or a musical cartographer.
These secret journeys are mysterious, because the origins and destinations are unknown but all linked to some forbidden city that could be real or surreal.
JL: But what is the difference between real and surreal?
TD: My compositional process is always real and surreal. For me, surreal imaginations include unknown darkness, or sonority of sounds transcending, moving toward shapes and splendid gestures. Reality for me is our biographical history – such as education and cultural background. It always strikes me howMarco Polo was so brave to set out on his journey from Venice to China, but his journey is also my secret journey in the process of composition.
JL: Let’s now turn to the actual movements of Secret Land.
TD: The first movement is based on a two-note motive, either semitone or a tone apart. For me, it’s the gesture of plucking a string, an echo of that plucking sound. Think of the Indian sitar – after you created the sound, the ringing seemingly goes on forever when the player uses vibrato on the fingerboard. People often neglect the continuation of sound, but in Chinese and Indian music that is essential. How a sound is made, in which manner it is created, and how the sound is stopped is all physical, but in fact the echo of invisible and inaudible sounds goes on forever. Perhaps this is very Taoist, but the Indians share the same beliefs. My music is that secret search, that haunting search for this inaudible gesture of a single sound, its unlimited realm, and how it excites and calms our senses.
JL: How would you characterize the first movement, Misterioso Adagietto?
TD: The first movement illustrates the inaudible gestures of a plucking sound. If I have to be technical – it actually starts like a concerto grosso, a large contrast between the 12 cellos and the rest of the orchestra. The first movement is a black and white Chinese ink painting. The music develops like calligraphy – a single line joins the many points on this map of sound leading out from darkness.
JL: What about the second movement, Misterioso Scherzo?
TD: This movement emphasizes the attack, that initial sharp beginning of a plucking sound. Sometimes when you see a sitar or pipa being played, there are hundreds of ways to start and sustain a sound. I love the swiping, plucking gesture of the hand over strings in the pipa and sitar, so this movement is a storm of sounds, a musical storm. The single gesture of swiping the strings is enlarged and increased manifolds by the orchestra. The plucking sounds are also transformed into clapping on brass mouthpieces, woodwind reeds and flute headjoints. Finger strumming extends also into percussion instruments (especially those with metal surfaces). The string section is also filled with quick finger-strumming
JL: I see on the score there are many improvisatory moments in the third movement, and there are repetitive melodic patterns.
TD: I constructed the third movement on a set of ragas, which I made up through my study of the Indian sitar. I composed 7-note ragas that imitate the original Indian ragas. Each of these ragas is given to each of the cellists as cadenza materials, as each of them constructs his or her own musical map. These individual maps are different – revealing each of their characters, whether tender, angry, hopeful, or cheerful. Each cadenza is introduced by orchestral hints of the textures out of the 7-note raga. Each cadenza also ends with the soloist’s vocalization and orchestral response. This follows the ritual format. Although the words “hei-zo-zo” do not mean anything, they do come from my childhood memories.I want to construct real dialogue between soloist and conductor. I imagine a good conductor must also have his secret land, a place he shares with his players in terms of anchoring, for nurturing and fading out music. So this movement contains raga cadenzas and antiphonal chanting on stage.
JL: We come to the last movement of Secret Land. What is symbolic here?
TD: We reach the end of the secret journey, although really, there’s no end in anything or any life, or any note or sound. But for me, it is infinity – I imagine the Forbidden City with its 999 rooms, the Potala Place with its 9,999 rooms, or Parnassus (soul mountain) with its 99,999 caves as the home of the artist’s soul. To me, the colour that I associate with is a glorious pink and bright darkness.
In Chinese cooking, we always treat bitterness as the most effective taste, something that other cuisines avoid it totally. I refer to bright darkness, because only with darkness can we explain the brightest feeling and the brightest arrival. Without bitterness, how can you taste sweet? So here is a place where all secret motives, sounds, gestures, characters and passions meet. It’s one of the greatest pauses of Marco Polo’s journey, which I imagine as his arrival at the Forbidden City, Potala Palace in Tibet, or Parnassus in ancient Greece.
JL: But how does one arrive at the ending of a work, literally physically and musically?
TD: Wherever you arrive is where you are in your own mind. This arrival is not final, it’s just a splendid pause. I am very inspired by Mongolian long song, when the final statement of the singer makes it so meaningful. I imagine Marco Polo riding his horse on his long journeys. What is horsing around? Marco Polo certainly was horsing around. The Mongolian long song still symbolizes the special characteristics of nomadic life. Actually, everybody who lives life fully is horsing around, but no one knows that horsing around also makes a graceful map for each of our lives. Mongolians, on the other hand, seem very vocal and passionate about their own horsing around. The long song is a soulful, haunting lament and celebration of horsing around. Horsing around can be John Cage and Taoist too. Through them, we find our Secret Lands.
–Joanna Lee is a musicologist based in New York. Her articles on East/West art and folk music have appeared in Financial Times, Asiaweek, Philharmonic magazine in China, and the current edition of New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
“It is one of the biggest successes we have had. It’s a fantastic success. Every day the tickets were sold out and the audience, both old and young, came to Tan Dun’s concert and often stood there for a long time after the performance to show their great enthusiasm about Tan’s music. I can say this week in Stockholm we have a Tan Dun’s fever or craze,”
–Stefan Forsberg, Director: Stockholm Concert Hall