Yi0 (pronounced “zero”), the ur-piece upon which he subsequently built his “Yi” series of three concertos: Intercourse of Fire and Water: Yi1 for Cello and Orchestra (1995); Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra: Yi2 (1996); and Yi3 for Cello, Bianzhong (ancient Chinese bronze bells), and Orchestra (1997). An independent orchestral “concerto,” Yi0 underpins and unites the “Yi” series by weaving the soloists’ distinctive music into its own structure in various ways. And though it was always Tan Dun’s intention that Yi0 (1995) be performed as an autonomous concert work, to date it has never been performed as such; this week’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts mark the piece’s world premiere performances.
An abstract, 23-minute work, Yi0 is characteristic of the avant-garde compositions that built Tan Dun’s career. It was only a decade ago when adventurous American concertgoers first encountered Tan Dun’s music, then frequently labeled “a shock from the primitive silence.” For Tan’s music was radically different in sound from the minimalism or neo-Romanticism that had gained favor amongst many listeners: Its compositional elements were reordered into priorities astonishing to Western ears. Tan wove melodies into complex patterns like aural calligraphy, and assigned paramount importance to the attack, decay, and subtle microtonal shadings and bendings of pitches, rather than to functional harmony or a prominent metric pulse. Silence, transparent textures, and the evocation of nature were hallmarks of his episodic scores, as well as mysterious, ritualistic chanting, dramatic climaxes terrifying in their intensity, gestures borrowed from Peking Opera, and the whimsical repetition of short melodic patterns. Kaleidoscopically changing tone colors reigned supreme, and everyday sounds—like the exhaling of breath, tearing of paper, and clacking of stones—seemed startlingly poetic. Most significant, however, was Tan Dun’s desire that his music express “the deep singing of the soul and the longings of the human spirit.”
Not surprisingly, Tan Dun’s music has been shaped by extraordinary life experiences. Born on August 8, 1957, in Hunan, China, he was raised in a rural area filled with magic, ritual, and shamanism. Sent to plant rice on a commune during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Tan was summoned to play fiddle with the provincial Peking Opera troupe when a number of its musicians drowned in a boat accident. After Mao’s death, Tan studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music; there he intertwined the aesthetic of traditional Chinese music and the mysterious sounds of his childhood in remarkable compositions that stunned and inspired many. Considered the leading composer of China’s experimental “New Wave” movement, Tan journeyed to America in 1986 to study at Columbia University.
The essence of Yi0 is how it functions within the Yi series. Because one of Tan’s key compositional concerns is to find a “balance” between the old and new, he creates each of the Yi concertos by superimposing an independent work for a solo instrument onto Yi0. The “orchestral concerto” Yi0 therefore is “that which already exists”; the instrumental solo lines are the potential to be discovered. Nevertheless, Tan does not mix the soloist’s and the orchestra’s musical materials haphazardly; he carefully seeks to discover connections or similarities between their elements and then weaves them together into a new entity. Furthermore, each of the soloist’s lines in this cycle is unique in conception and style; they do not function as commentary on one other in any way, nor do they play off the underlying Yi0. Consequently, each of the Yi concertos is distinctive in sound and mood. Tan’s goal in this cycle is simply to discover the two works—Yi0 and the superimposed solo piece—as “one.”
The use of counterpoint in its myriad forms, another of Tan’s interests, can be seen clearly in Yi0’s juxtaposition of the old and new: its use of musical fragments from Tan’s opera Marco Polo (1996) and his early chamber works Eight Colors for String Quartet (1986-88), In Distance (1987), and Silk Road(1989), composed shortly after he moved to New York City from China. Use of these excerpts also symbolizes for Tan his own musical “journey,” a potent metaphor for him as well as the leitmotif ofMarco Polo.
Intercourse of Fire and Water: Yi1 for cello and orchestra, written for and premiered by cellist Anssi Karttunen, is the first, and most abstract, work in Tan’s Yi cycle. In this concerto, Tan counterpoints East and West by having the cello (a Western instrument) use bowing techniques borrowed from the Erhu and Mongolian fiddle. Echoing his belief that change is continual, Yi3 for Cello solo, Bianzhong, and Orchestra—which is embedded in Tan’s Symphony 1997: Heaven Earth Mankind as the central section entitled “Earth”—is a further development of Yi1. This symphony, commissioned to celebrate the reunification of Hong Kong with China, likewise contrasts the lush Romantic harmonies and sweeping lines characteristic of Western music with the Chinese bianzhong bells. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma premiered Yi3 with the Imperial Bells Ensemble of China and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, conducted by Tan Dun.
Decidedly different in character is Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Yi2), which presents a “counterpoint of styles.” Here, Tan’s writing for the solo guitar is completely different from that for the cello; rhythmically and melodically, the guitar’s materials are influenced by Spanish flamenco music. Furthermore, a “cultural counterpoint” is found within the guitar part itself. It blends and contrasts the different traditions, relationships, and characteristics of two plucked instruments: Spain’s flamenco guitar and China’s pipa. The guitar’s solo line is no longer coherent as either flamenco or pipa music; it has been transformed by this mingling and exchange of two cultural traditions. Something entirely new has been created which doesn’t echo tradition, but nevertheless retains the “shadow” of its roots. This work also has undergone further development or change: Tan recently developed from Yi2 a collage for solo guitar entitled Seven Desires for Guitar on Pipa (2002). Here, the guitar desires to “become” a pipa: to achieve union with it by reproducing its sound through use of the pipa’s performing techniques. Guitarist Sharon Isbin, for whom Yi2 was written, will premiere Seven Desires in November 2002 in New York City.
Since his arrival in the West, Tan Dun’s career has grown quickly, and placed him at the center of the international music scene. In 1998, he became the youngest winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Music, the world’s most prestigious prize for composers, for his opera Marco Polo, set to a libretto by Paul Griffiths and commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival. Among his compositions, which are played throughout the world by the leading orchestras and ensembles of our time, are Ghost Opera, which has toured worldwide with the Kronos Quartet; the Orchestral Theatre series, a four-hour exploration of multimedia and multicultural concerns, and Crouching Tiger Concerto, based on his Oscar-winning film score for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Tan Dun’s own idealism and creative vision also have shaped a highly unusual career that has allowed him to conceive and lead festivals and orchestral programs without pursuing a conventional conducting career. With a primary interest in multicultural, multimedia programs that feature today’s emerging, boundary-breaking music, Tan has conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Montreal Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, National Orchestra of France, and the NHK Symphony of Japan, among others. Recent collaborations have included Water Passion After St. Matthew for the Internationale Bachakadamie in Stuttgart, commemorating the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death; the U.S. premiere of Death and Fire with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and James Levine; premiere performances of a contemporary adaptation of the Chinese opera Peony Pavilion, directed by Peter Sellars; and the Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra for the New York Philharmonic with Kurt Masur and soloist Christopher Lamb. Tan’s upcoming commissions include the opera Tea, for Japan’s Suntory Hall, to premiere in Tokyo next week (October 22, 2002) in a co-production with the Netherlands Opera and the Shanghai Grand Theatre, directed by Pierre Audi; a multimedia cello concerto entitled The Map, for Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony, which will premiere in Boston in February 2003 and tour to Carnegie Hall the following month; and a new opera for the Metropolitan Opera, scheduled for 2006.
Although Tan’s musical concerns—particularly, communication on a spiritual or meditative level—have remained remarkably constant over the years, he is increasingly embracing a more global perspective in his music. Use of contemporary technology lends a 21st-century atmosphere to his works, as well as making them more accessible to non-specialist audiences. In its ability to help listeners experience the world in new and provocative ways, Tan Dun’s music remains challenging to audiences of all ages and levels of sophistication, not merely entertaining.
Balance and counterpoint is one of the most important things to me in writing music — not only note-to-note in a single style and tempo, but in a much broader sense. Through the Yi-Ching (the Chinese philosophical work Book of Changes, 5th century BC), I became interested in the balance between that which already exists, and that which has not yet come to be. I learned that ways of balancing the existing and the potential are truly unlimited. This idea began to enlarge my understanding of counterpoint. I began to think that it could include not only the relationship of notes, but of styles, tempos, timbres, dynamics, structures—even of different ages, of the converging worlds of East and West.