Tan Dun | Features
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30 World-Renowned Artists Talk to RTHK Radio 4’s Jonathan Douglas
Jonathan Douglas / 2004

I have interviewed Tan Dun more than any other musician –four or five times…. Tan Dun is highly original. He is not trying to be –he just is, whether he likes it or not. He is also deeply committed and genuine. I admire him greatly for his remarkable, natural musical gift, and also because of the way he seems far less constrained by doubt and uncertainty than others. He is not overbearing, he is simply certain and clear about what he wants to do and how he will go about achieving it. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that he is less hampered by the defensiveness and hesitation that others are subject to through their insecurity.

Sometimes he says things to me in an interview that, if spoken by anyone else, would be hard to take seriously. For example, he said, in a more recent interview in early 2004, that in one part of a work called Improvisation for Orchestra, there would be an orchestral dialogue with the sounds of birds. So, in the performance, he would invite some twenty Hong Kong birds to take part, and they would be set up in a “bird group” in the concert hall balcony!

Everything he does is exciting and fresh. Characteristically, he explores ways in which the primitive, the ritualistic, and the natural can combine with a sophisticated Western orchestra, and he does this to magical effect.

A Composer’s Concerto with Hunan Peasants
David Patrick Stearns / November 10, 2004

Music that has to be seen as well as heard – as conventional suspicions go – may not be worth hearing, particularly in classical-music circles. In the case of The Map, Tan Dun’s “video concerto” that receives its local premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra tomorrow, the music on screen comes from rocks banging together. And blown leaves. And profuse weeping.

Sometimes, you just have to trust the composer….

“They’re so poor,” Tan said, talking recently about the musicians he has enshrined. “Several generations live in one room with a fireplace. That’s all. But they’re so rich in a way, with so many beautiful stories and beautiful songs. And they have humorous lives.”

Tan grew up in this world. His fascination for the village life he left in the early 1980s isn’t about colorful costumes, but about unseen lives, secret spiritual practices and shamanistic traditions, which include fantastical ideas such as sending musical vibrations out in the air and having them felt subliminally on the other side of a mountain.

In fact, Tan’s need to compose seems not to come from a neurotic imperative. He seeks “seduction,” even if it’s conceptual. He defines that as an idea so entrancing that he wants to work on it every day. And he needs it with every piece. “Otherwise,” he says, “you can’t remain in the [desk] chair. Life is too colorful. And there are so many other seductions around.”

L.A. Philharmonic Looking Good on Paper
David Mermelstein / April 27, 2005

Though there’s something vaguely Monty Python-esque about a concerto for paper, there’s nothing funny about Tan Dun’s “Paper Concerto.”…

In “Paper Concerto,” Tan transforms paper of different sizes and strengths into variously manipulated percussion instruments, including paper cymbals, wax paper bags (“for blowing and popping”) and something called a paper thunder tube. The directed but largely improvised sounds of these instruments are interwoven with more formally notated orchestral music to form the concerto….

For him, the challenge seems to be in making recalcitrant elements behave as “proper” instruments do. “Paper is unpredictable,” he says. “This new version is the way to handle the naughty boy.”

New York Times: The Great Wall Rises (and Falls) at the Met
Robert Lipsyte and Lois B. Morris, New York Times / October 1, 2006

Walls were big at Lincoln Center this summer. First, in July, came the huge high-tech movable wall that dominated the stage of the New York State Theater in Julie Taymor’s production of Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel.” Then the Great Wall of China was built and torn down on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for Zhang Yimou’s production of Tan Dun’s highly anticipated new opera, “The First Emperor,” which opens on Dec. 21…

What arose on the Met stage this summer was different…

The simulated stones hover above and beside an enormous black aluminum stairway, 36 steps high and resembling an enormous grandstand, which occupies the length and breadth of the stage throughout the opera. Most of the action takes place on the steps, which can become transparent, creating two visible worlds, one atop the structure and another beneath it.