“How, or if, a classical orchestra could 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? Why must harp be only harp, and koto only koto, forever separate?”
These are the questions Tan Dun addressed as he began writing Orchestral Theatre “O” (pronounced “oh”), the first piece in what would become his multimedia Orchestral Theatre tetralogy (1990-1999). According to the composer, the “O” in the work’s title stands for “origin” or “original”: it is an ur piece, that which was before all else, as well as one which keeps returning. By adding music for xun soloists, Tan later developed the work into his Orchestral Theatre I: Xun (1990), later revised in 2002.
Various dramatic sounds color the ritual-like Orchestral Theatre “O” — yelling, chanting, murmuring, striking, and singing, produced both instrumentally and with the orchestra members’ voices; vocalized syllables belong to no specific language and have no real meaning, but are intended as pure sound. It follows the structure of Chinese theater, in which opening free beats become a rhythmic sequence, suddenly interrupted by an orchestral murmuring; this cycle plays back and forth between instruments and voice. The orchestration treats instruments in atypical ways, often borrowing from Chinese music. (For example, strings are sometimes played as percussion, the harp is played like the “zheng,” an ancestor of the koto, and the piccolo like a bamboo flute.) The piece has no story-line or theme, but unlike a totally abstract musical work, expresses strong dramatic and emotional images. Tan Dun recalls: “As I wrote this piece in New York, a lot of things were running through my mind: the faces of Peking opera actresses, sacrifice, human noise in Tien An Men Square – all these images appeared to me as hallucination, jumbled together on a huge stage.”
‘Orchestral Theatre’ is the form that I was trying to create for a modern symphony, having a sort of ancient ritualistic performance format, combined with the symphonic traditions. And so in “Orchestral Theatre”, so far I wrote four of them; No.1 focuses on the ancient rituals, the orchestra players not just playing but they are shouting, hunting, humming, singing, and it’s like Balinese, it’s like Aboriginal, it’s like a kind of ensemble in the village. So “Orchestral Theatre”, the concept of it is enlarged, as the music develops from earlier themes. So I think to continue to save the life of orchestra, we had to continue the tradition of all kinds of not just 200 or 300 years of a Western or Chinese sort of condition, but we have to go much wider.
“Orchestral Theatre I: “O” unites the primitive sounds of Chinese drama with Western harmony to create a memorable work.”
–Stephen Ellis, Fanfare