It has long been a badge of honor among composers to work out of reach of an instrument, where the inspirations in their head will not be constrained by the limitations of the fingers. For Tan Dun, whose music has often employed organic means such as water and stones, conventional instruments would generally be of little help. But faced with writing music for the violin, Tan frequently returns to his childhood instrument in search of new sounds and techniques.
“The highest status of composition is to arrive at music that is so profound, so organic, so philosophically natural that it achieves the nature of improvisation,” says Tan, whose own youthful fiddling, honed as a music director of a provincial Peking opera troupe in his native Hunan during the Cultural Revolution, later earned him a place at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music once the institution reopened. “Think about Bach. Today we say that Bach is the bible of technique—of all music, actually. But Bach started by improvising on his instrument.”
“I had written my first piece in New York when I was younger, summoning and reviewing my life experience at that time,” Tan recalls. “Recently, my work has become more symbolic, with a hint of broader cultural philosophy. This is something I call 1+1=1, meaning in this case that the young and old can be one. Teenage experiences will later become part of an older person’s memories.”
In writing his Violin Concerto, Tan has essentially worked backward, opening his first movement with atonal percussion riffs from Out of Peking Opera, now recast in funkier rhythms (literally marked “hip hop” in the score) to represent teenage love. The seeming spontaneity of the new material, the composer admits, was largely due to having a fiddle at hand.
With the second movement, the perspective shifts to middle-age, the music becoming more broadly lyrical. Themes of youth from the first movement return with a melancholic edge, segueing into new connective materials that prefigure the main body to come. The third movement, which the composer labels “sophisticated, philosophical love,” retains the core of the original piece while jettisoning its Peking opera riffs at the beginning and substantially altering the conclusion. The result recasts the music’s inherent conflict and resolution into “a rather intellectual account of romantic love,” the composer admits. “Different kinds of musical materials and styles progress over time to symbolize the arc of one’s romantic life, which is really a whole life experience.”
Tan is well aware of the irony that the music in his Violin Concerto representing maturity was the earliest he composed—much of it dating back to 1987, shortly after his arrival in America—while the parts representing youth were added as an adult in his early 50s. “This is a piece about memory,” he says simply. “It is called ‘The Love,’ but it is also a statement about personal understanding at different stages of life. Many times, things that happen to you as a teenager will only return once we’re very old. Only when we’re old do we think so much about young love.”
Tan Dun remarks, “This is a piece about memory and about the possibilities of human love for one another, culture, and the world. It is a statement about personal understanding at different stages of life. Many times, things that happen to us as teenagers are only understood once we mature. Only when we have followed the steps of Confucius can we understand the feelings we had as teenagers. Love is sex. Love is dream. Love is memory. Love is philosophy. Love is blue and red…”
“Mr. Tan’s new Violin Concerto, subtitled “The Love…” [is] in three continuous sections meant to evoke young love, romantic love and philosophical love…”
–Steve Smith, New York Times, October 27, 2009