Tan Dun | Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds
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What is the secret of nature? Maybe only the wind and birds know …


In the beginning, when human beings were first inventing music, we always looked for a way to talk to nature, to communicate with the birds and wind.


With this in mind, I decided to start by using six ancient Chinese instruments, the guzheng, suona, erhu, pipa, dizi, and sheng, to record bird sounds that I had composed.


I formatted the recording to be playable on cellphones, turning the devices into instruments and creating a poetic forest of digital birds. The symphony orchestra is frequently expanding with the inclusion of new instruments; I thought the cellphone, carrying my digital bird sounds, might be a wonderful new instrument reflecting our life and spirit today.


Inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s study of the mechanics of birds’ flight, I decided to take this idea of waves and water as a mirror to discover the motions of the wind and birds.


In fact, the way birds fly, the way the wind blows, the way waves ripple … everything in nature has already provided me with answers. With melody, rhythm and color, I structured the sounds in a passacaglia.


Through nine evolving repetitions of the eight-bar patterns, the piece builds to a climax that is suddenly interrupted by the orchestra members chanting. This chanting reflects ancient myth and the beauty of nature. As it builds, it weaves finger snapping, whistling, and foot stamping into a powerful orchestral hip-hop energy.


By the end, the winds, strings, brass, and percussion together cry out as one giant bird. To me, this last sound is that of the Phoenix, the dream of a future world.