Soundshape is written for an ensemble of ceramic instruments, created by Tan Dun and New York based potter, Ragnar Naess. More than 70 ceramic instruments are classified into the five categories of skin, wood, bamboo, metal and earth, and played by blowing, striking, plucking and bowing. Inspired by ancient Chinese carillons of jade or metal, and by sounds that Tan Dun has encountered in ethnomusicological research in rural China, these instruments copy no traditional shape, tuning or material, but are arrived at experimentally through the composer’s visual design and the potter’s skill in forming his special hard, thin, ringing clays.
Tan and Naess began to develop ceramic sound-forms in 1988; many struck pieces were used in Tan’s “Nine Songs” ritual opera, which premiered in New York in 1989. The categories of plucked, bowed, and blown forms were added later that year, for performance at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s “Works and Process” series in January, 1990 by Tan’s ensemble, Crossings. Development of the system continues, both of the forms themselves, and of compositions for the ceramic ensemble.
“The results are spectacular: the two pieces performed— Soundshape and the world premiere of Silent Earth— combine crashing energetic percussive bursts with silences, and melodic use of bells, chimes and wind instruments. The musicians perform vibrantly, creating great swathes of sound and are lead by Tan Dun himself.”
–Alan McCredie, Evening Standard (Edinburgh), August 27th, 1991