For most journeys, a map can be stubbornly literal. One may appreciate such accuracy in the physical realm, but matters of the soul require a certain flexibility. For Tan Dun, music has long been a way of charting his own personal journey, of choosing the right path amidst a thicket of possibilities. And more often than not, that path has paradoxically moved forward by looking back.
In this particular journey, The Map has is roots in the ancient village music of Southwest China and its limbs in the cultural currents of the 21st century. It is a ripple from a stone case more than two decades ago, when Tan Dun suffered his first crisis of cultural identity as a student at Beijing’s Central Conservatory, surrounded by music that had been previously condemned during the Cultural Revolution. Fearing that he has “forgotten the things of my youth,” he returned briefly in 1981 to Hunan, where he encountered a practitioner of ba gua stone drumming, an ancient ritual combining principles of the I Ching with shamanistic vocalizations. “The man talked to the wind,” Tan Dun recalls. “He talked both to this life and the past one. I had nothing to offer him, or even to make a record of him, but I promised that one day I would return.”
Nearly two decades later, armed with a commission for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tan Dun returned to the same village in 1999 with a camera crew to document the ancient practice. In the midst of a ceremony, the villages informed Tan Dun that “the tea is cold” – that the stone drummer had died, and with him, his tradition. “That is when my piece became a very personal, spiritual journey,” says Tan Dun. “I began reaching inside my heart, drawing the map I could use to find him again.”
In one sense, The Map merely extends a journey that began in earnest with Tan’s move to New York in 1986. Indeed, much of Tan’s output seems devoted to recreating that chance encounter with the stone man. Ghost Opera (1994) his music-theatre-ritual piece for string quartet and pipa, requires musicians to play stones, paper and water as well as their respective instruments. His subsequent Concerto for Water Percussion (1999), Water Passion after St. Matthew (2000) and opera Tea (2002) progressively distilled those elemental sonorities into a musical vocabulary of unusual emotional and dramatic resonance.
Nor does his use of video in and of itself mark a new direction. A former Peking opera fiddler and music director, Tan has similarly cultivated more modern multimedia forms, receiving his most popular acclaim with his Oscar-winning score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and its subsequent adaptation as a multimedia concerto. Previously, though, he had embraced video elements in his orchestral theatre works, Red Forecast (1996) and The Gate (1999).
In The Map, however, Tan’s documentary footage wholly drives his compositional material. Central to the nine-movement piece is a series of filmed field recordings capturing the musical life of the Tuija, Miao and Dong, three of the 55 ethnic groups comprising China’s non-Han minority population. “I was looking for inspiration, but I also wanted to create something new,” he says. “I didn’t want this to be a documentary film or an MTV video, but instead to invent an entirely new form.” Using footage from two separate trips to Hunan in 1999 and 2001, Tan not only spins ethnic source material into abstract sonorities, but often keeps that source material in its pure state on the video screen while simultaneously exploring its timbres in orchestrational terms. In a particularly striking example, Tan draws on the antiphonal Miao vocal tradition by having the solo cellist on stage engage a singer on a video screen. Suddenly, a musical form originally intended to communicate across mountains and open fields navigates entirely new boundaries of time, place and culture.
Tan describes The Map as being “about minority cultures in China, looking at the past as well as the future.” Not for him is the curatorial approach that preserves a tradition at the expense of its vitality. Rather, the composer brings ethnic rural tradition literally into counterpoint with the modern urban avant-garde. “I’m not re-creating a tradition,” he maintains. “I’m reconstructing my personal memory of someone who could do something that no one else could do.” His stone drummer may be gone, but Tan still struggles to keep his tea warm.
I. Nuo (Ghost Dance and Cry-Singing) – The work opens by juxtaposing two broadly contrasting musical elements of rural Hunan: the plaintive pleas of professional mourners and the festive percussion of ancient opera. Typical of Nuo, a form of masked drama that blurs the boundaries between theatre and religious ritual, are tripartite ghost stories that broadly divide into searching for the ghost, entertaining the ghost, and sending the ghost home. The percussive dance here, part of the ghost’s entertainment, contrasts strongly with traditional cry-singing, where sounds of anguish actually contain subtle melodies and meaningful texts that admonish the living as much as they mourn the dead. Each inspires considerably different music from Tan, who matches the oxhorns and ritual bells of the dance with suitable sounds in the orchestra, and shapes the vocal gestures of the mourners into fully melodic material for the opening cello line. “What is the old? What is the new? It no longer matters,” says Tan. About his footage, he explains, “Toward the end of the cry-singing I made sure that the young children got to see what their grandmothers could do. None of them had ever heard them sing before, and you can see their reactions.”
II. Blowing Leaf – In the hands of young Tujia men, a leaf is not just a primitive musical instrument but a requisite implement of courtship. By blowing a steady stream of air over the lower edge of the leaf’s surface, a gifted player can communicate a surprising range of emotional states, the richness of which will greatly determine his success in finding a mate. From the Tujia player’s melodic material in this video footage, Tan fashions an often lighthearted exercise in orchestral wind timbres, complete with brass players blowing into mouthpieces alone. The leaf player’s melodic material is answered directly in the cello line.
III. Daliuzi (Cymbal Coloring) – Tan translates this movement as “cymbal coloring,” he says, because the more literal meaning – “striking things” – barely reflects the breadth of timbre and subtlety of textures inherent in Tujia percussion music. The percussionists in this field recording establish tremendous collaborative rapport as well as a wide range of sonorities imitating the sounds of nature. By the time the video clip enters, the entire orchestra—first percussion, then brass, then winds, then strings—has already framed the rhythm and timbre with a full instrumental realization of the sonorities, allowing live and taped performances to come together in multimedia counterpoint at the end.
IV. Miao Suona (Pipa) – The suona is commonly known as “the Chinese trumpet” for its open bell, its piercing tones and its militaristic associations. The Miao suono, a more rustic version of the Han reed instrument, requires a delicate balance of fingering and breathing to control pitch and volume. The videotaped performance begins after the orchestra and solo cello have already set the mood, with phrasing and ornamentation derived from suona playing styles.
V. Feige (antiphonal singing) – Partly to endure that the Miao marry outside of immediate kin, their folk singing has developed a piercing vocal quality guaranteed to carry their courtship songs across mountains and valleys. Their feige, or “flying song,” is a form of antiphonal singing in which the two participants traditionally never see each other, requiring their voices to communicate a maximum of emotional expression to their perspective partners. Borrowing that song form, this movement opens with a solo cello initiating the exchange with a videotaped Miao girl who listens and responds. The singer, whose Sinofied name is Long Xiane, was recorded in the Hunan ancient town of Fenghuan. Although her song recounts a young boy that she met at the market and is longing to see again, Tan had initially envisioned that she was communicating with someone on the opposite side of the earth. “In her moments of silence,” he says, “I was already composing the cello’s response.”
VI. Interlude: Mapping the Portrait – The only movement without a full videotaped field recording, this Interlude opens with a scrolling text introducing the story behind The Map, as well as the composer’s desire “to keep things from disappearing,” amidst a symphonic backdrop exploring a range of modernist orchestral sonorities.
VII Stone Drums – Rather than using a field recording, this movement opens with a video clip of Tan Dun emulating the abstract stone-throwing of the ba gua master who originally inspired him. The sentiment is later echoed in the orchestra as the musicians also play with stones. “I am not recreating a ba gua,” Tan explains. “I’m not even interested in ba gua. I’m interested in this man, and in recreating my memory of him and what had shocked me so much when I met him.”
VIII. Tongue-singing – In this movement, the orchestra decidedly takes a back seat to a quintet of Dong women, whose ensemble performance represent an extremely rare example of polyphonic folk singing. Called da ga, or “big song” (describing the size of the ensemble rather than the song’s duration), Dong part-singing uses vocal techniques more characteristic of Slavic nations like Bulgaria than of any other music found in China. The form highlights a vocal leader accompanied by slow-moving drones comparable to medieval organum, with singular vocal techniques that imitate the sounds of nature. In this case, their refrain makes extensive use of rapid tongue articulations that imitate the sound of cicadas.
IX. Lusheng (Mouth Organ) – The Map concludes with a musical portrait of the lusheng, a free-reed mouth organ that is the most characteristic instrument of the Dong, Miao and other ethnic minorities in Southwest China. Ranging in size from about 12 inches to more than 12 feet, the lusheng is a staple of village celebrations, with melodies that correspond to specific ritual dances, played by performers who often have trouble staying in rhythm if their bodies don’t move with the music. Throughout this movement, the recorded component becomes in essence an additional instrumental section, which Tan folds into the orchestra at large.
–Ken Smith, July 2004
Mapping The Portrait: An Interview with Tan Dun on the Creation of The Map
In the winter of 1981, while a student at Beijing’s Central Conservatory, I returned to my home province of Hunan to collect folk songs. When I arrived at a Tujia village, I met a famous ‘stone man’ who welcomed me by playing his stone music, a very ancient stone drumming. In 8 positions, according to the I Ching and with shamanistic vocalizations, he talked to the wind, clouds and leaves; he talked to the next life and the past one. At that moment I felt he was a map. Then I asked him, ‘Someday soon, might I come back to record your performance and study music with you?’ For years, I didn’t find the chance to return, not until 20 years later when I started this piece for Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony. In the winter of 1999 I went back; the Tujia villagers welcomed me with a warm tea ceremony and told me “‘one has left, tea is cold’ – the ‘stone man’ has gone with the old music that nobody knew anymore.” I left the village with emptiness.
I really wanted to find a way to search for him, to follow him, to bring him back. Might we find a way to follow all that is vanishing? To keep things from disappearing?
The Map is a multi-media concerto grosso. I wanted to discover the counterpoint between different media, different time-spaces and different cultures. The structures and musical textures are designed to create antiphonal music by counterpointing between the cello solo and video, orchestra and video, solo and ensemble, text and sound, and multi-channel video and live playing of stone. Metaphorically, the orchestra becomes nature, the soloist symbolizes people, and video represents tradition.
The Map can be considered as four sections: Movements 1, 2 and 3 constitute the first section and are played in succession. Sonic counterpoint is designed differently in each of these three movements. The following two movements are studies in contrast. Movement 5 creates a dialogue not only through space (a Feige is always sung antiphonally across mountains and valleys by a woman and a man), but also across time (the same woman in the video will for all time sing antiphonally with the cellist on stage, therefore transcending history). Movement 6 is an interlude in which video images are replaced by text and sound in counterpoint, leading into Movement 7, a video quartet with live stone solo. The last section is made up of Movements 8 and 9, where the cello solo, orchestra and video become “one” and recreate music in its original, monophonic state: simple, like heartbeats. It is a finale that does not end.
Actually my greatest wish in composing The Map was to meld technology and tradition. Through tradition, technology can be humanized; through technology, tradition can be renewed and passed on. Today, ancient cultural traditions vanish everyday, everywhere. If artists embrace the past and the future within their hearts, miracles will arrive. As my soloist Anssi Karttunen once told me: “My old French cello follows The Map to Xiangxi. It has received great karma from the water there, and has made true connections with the roots of the people there. The ancient music of Xiangxi has given my cello new sounds and a fresh life.” Yes! If one composes for a European orchestra, but incorporates the unique perspectives of different cultures, as well as one’s own personal roots, it becomes a new orchestra – like Schoenberg’s and Bartok’s did. People always say that human life is finite, but we forget that renewing the cultures and re-inventing the traditions can extend human life infinitely.
–Tan Dun, July 10, 2004
“What the orchestra plays, along with the extensive obbligato contribution of Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, is vivid enough. The greatets asset of Tan’s score is the colour and imagination of its writing, which deploys a wide range of special effects without allowing them to slide into mere decoration.”
–Andrew Clements, The Guardian, March 23, 2009