On November 20 at New York City’s Asia Society, Tan Dun presents a program exploring his research on the cave temples of Mogao in Dunhuang. The caves, which include more than 4,500 wall paintings depicting musical instruments, were at the crossroads of the Silk Road and tell the story of a neglected part of music history. With his research and musical reconstruction, Tan Dun seeks to redefine the history of the orchestra and to offer audiences the opportunity to hear sounds from more than one thousand years ago.
“In the Gobi desert is a place called Dunhuang. Its beauty has haunted me for many years, and when I had the chance to visit, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Tan Dun. “A story I heard there changed my life and work for a decade.
“More than a hundred years ago, an abbott found an undiscovered cave filled with sutras, scores, and paintings. He greedily sold them, unaware of their cultural worth. Many were lost, but some were saved by the government.
“This story inspired me to rediscover the lost music of Dunhuang. I set out to reconstruct the beliefs and sounds of the people who lived there a thousand years ago, with the goal of opening this culture to the world. I have spent the last two years visiting the national libraries and museums of London, Paris, Tokyo and Boston, learning, tracking and studying the Dunhuang manuscripts and sutras.
“While completing my research in Dunhuang, I visited many of the caves and realized that the people sealed them from within so that those from the outside world would not see any trace of the sutras. I could hear the people praying, meditating until reduced to bone, leaving nothing but a trace of their soul behind.
“The Dunhuang wall paintings preserved the beliefs and ancient musical wisdom of a remarkable people. I thought that it would be amazing if I could discover the shape, body and color of the ancient instruments in the paintings. Could we still hear their rhythm, tune and melody? Could we interpret their ancient songs?
“With this in mind, I started my Dunhuang project.”
The afternoon at the Asia Society includes a presentation of music from the 8th century manuscripts, interpreted for the first time by a composer. Percussionist Chenchu Rong and pipa player Wenqing Shi perform.