Tan Dun | Explore Tan Dun’s story
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Explore Tan Dun’s story

Tradition and Innovation: The Alchemy of Tan Dun

Tradition and innovation forge a symbiotic relationship for Tan Dun whose multifaceted output simultaneously erases the boundaries between cultures and artistic disciplines.

about-3Tan Dun’s creations can be unabashedly populist, radically experimental, or—most frequently—both. While his work does not neatly fit within previously-existing categories—perhaps the closest fit is opera in the broadest cultural context, Tan has created several new artistic formats, which—like opera—encompass sound, sight, narrative, and ritual. In addition to his contributions to the repertoire of opera and motion pictures scores, Tan’s new formats include: orchestral theatre, which re-contextualizes the orchestra and the concert-going experience; organic music, which explores new realms of sound through primal elements such as water, paper, and stone; and multimedia extravaganzas, which incorporate a variety of cutting-edge technologies.

Tan’s reconciliation of disparate and seemingly contradictory elements is a direct byproduct of his life’s experience. Now living amidst the 24/7 densely-populated ever-changing urban sprawl of New York City, Tan was born and raised in a rural Hunan village in the People’s Republic of China where millennia-old shamanistic cultural traditions still survived. However, Tan’s life and the life of millions of Chinese people would be irrevocably changed by the time Tan was a teenager as Mao Zedong’s astringent plan for social transformation, the Cultural Revolution, attempted to completely reinvent China. Tan was sent to plant rice alongside the local farmers in the Huangjin commune, but soon became involved in their local music scene and ironically, through his knowledge of music and instrumental resourcefulness, became the preserver of their traditions. After two years, a boat carrying a traveling Peking opera troupe capsized resulting in the death of many of the musicians, and Tan was recalled grammyfrom his farming duties to serve as a fiddler and arranger for the troupe. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, China re-opened its Central Conservatory and Tan was one of only thirty selected to attend among thousands of applicants. Visiting lecturers—such as Alexander Goehr, George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, and Chou Wen-Chung—introduced Tan to a wide range of international contemporary music. Within a few years he became the first Chinese composer to win an international composition prize since the founding of the People’s Republic. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1986, where he soon immersed himself in the music of John Cage and the New York downtown avant-garde scene, Tan Dun was already famous in China. In these past two decades, Tan Dun has transcended stylistic and cultural boundaries to become one of the world’s most famous and sought-after composers.


“My life is opera!” says Tan Dun. “Everybody’s life is opera.” While the word opera, using the broadest definition, could probably be used to describe any of Tan Dun’s works, to date there are only five works he specifically designates as such, though each of them stretch the genre as it has come to be known in the West as well as how it has been known in the East. The five operas, which range from an intimate, non-narrative dance and theatre ritual to a full-fledged epic grand opera, amalgamate tradition and innovation, sometimes exploring a direct confrontation from these two creative pulls.

The first of Tan Dun’s opera, Nine Songs (1989), is an exciting multi-disciplinary rendering of an ancient sequence of shamanistic nature poems attributed to Qu Yuan (340-277 B.C.E.), who is regarded as China’s first great poet and is honored by Chinese people around the world to this day with the annual Dragon Boat Festival. In Tan’s recasting, these poems serve as a catalyst for dancing, ritualized acting, and singing in both classical Chinese and contemporary English, as well as about-2performing on a wide range of instruments spanning East and West, including a specially-built set of 50 ceramic instruments which are struck, blown, and bowed. Nine Songs, created for a 14-member ensemble and premiered in a small theatre, was a compositional breakthrough for Tan. In it, he explored new notational approaches, liberating himself from the pitch and timbre limitations of conventional Western music notation; these approaches have been a hallmark of his work to this day. (A recording of Nine Songs was issued on CRI which is currently available through New World Records.)

Tan’s next opera, Marco Polo, which premiered in 1996, might initially seem more traditionally operatic compared to Nine Songs—the work features a cast with specifically-designated roles and is accompanied by an orchestra, but it is perhaps an even more radical work.  Composed to a libretto by Paul Griffiths, Marco Polo’s elliptical narrative defies linear time and space. For starters, Marco and Polo are two separate characters. And to highlight the cross-cultural implications of the historic 13th century East-West meeting with Kublai Khan, Dante, Shakespeare, Gustav Mahler, and the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po all make appearances on stage during the opera. The music is also a synthesis of European and Asian traditions. The cast includes singers from both Western and Eastern operatic traditions, and the orchestral ensemble includes instruments from China, Tibet, and India, as well as a wide range of percussion. Marco Polo, which has had three different productions and has been performed in more than 20 cities around the world, marked a significant milestone in Tan Dun’s recognition as one of the world’s most prominent composers; the complete opera was released worldwide on CD by Sony Classical in 1997 and subsequently honored with the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the world’s most prestigious award for composers, in 1998.

Tan’s next work in the medium, The Peony Pavilion, which premiered in 1998, veers closer to plot-driven opera. The libretto is a direct adaptation of one of the most treasured classics of the Chinese theatre written by Tang Xianzu in 1598, exactly four hundred years before the premiere of Tan Dun’s opera, sung in an English translation by Cyril Birch. Although the plot for the opera is a love story—opera’s most common theme, Tan still manages to defy standard operatic procedures. The main characters of the opera are the two lovers who perform in a wide variety of vocal styles. Additionally there is an actress from either the Peking or older Xun opera tradition. The compact ensemble of only six musicians, who perform on traditional Chinese instruments as well as a wide array of electronics, each also plays a character in the piece and sings in the chorus. The musical styles range from neo-medievalism and post-Cagean experimentalism to pop and rock. The original production, directed by Peter Sellars, has had more that 50 performances worldwide. (Selections from Tan Dun’s music for The Peony Pavilion has been issued on the Sony Classical CD Bitter Love.)

In Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002), Tan explores how China’s most famous commodity spread throughout the world. The overarching story, inspired by the classical Chinese Book of Tea and transformed into a libretto by the composer in collaboration with Xu Ying, also revolves around opera’s perennial topic—a pair of ill-fated lovers. But its presentation is anything but conventional: The traditional walls that separate the cast, the orchestra, and the audience in an operatic production are eradicated for Tea and its circular staging affects the total immersion of ritual practices. The music for the opera is more conventionally operatic, in the Western sense, than any of Tan’s previous operas but it still contains unmistakable elements of Tan’s signature primal sonorities—its hefty orchestra of western instruments also includes water, paper, and ceramic instruments. (Tea has been issued on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.)

about-newTan’s most recent work for the operatic stage, The First Emperor(2006), is his most ambitious yet. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera with a title role created for the legendary tenor Placido Domingo (the first role ever to be premiered by him), The First Emperor , featuring an English-language libretto Tan co-authored with the celebrated Chinese novelist Ha Jin, retells the story of the unification of China on a grand scale. It is also a story about the conflict of tradition and innovation. The First Emperor , like many subsequent rulers of China and elsewhere in the world, attempted to recreate China by destroying all vestiges of its previous culture. The emperor’s plan to reshape the minds of the Chinese people through a newly created anthem which will stir the entire nation is thwarted by its composer who reuses a work song from his rebellious home province. Tan’s music for The First Emperor is an amalgam of the sound world of standard repertoire opera and a clearly 21st century pan-ethnic eclecticism. In addition to large cast of singers trained in the western classical tradition, there is a very prominent role requiring a Peking Opera background. In addition to a full orchestra, there is a large ensemble of ancient ritual instruments (giant bells, ceramics, stones, etc.) which performs on stage. While the vocal writing features some of Tan’s most lyrical melodies, his orchestral interludes are almost cinematic in their emotional sweep. Following a sold-out run in its premiere season in 2007 and returned to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera 2008.

While those five works are the only ones that Tan Dun has specifically designated as operas, there are additional compositions which use opera as a reference point. E.g. his violin concerto, Out of Peking Opera(originally 1987, revised 1994), begins with a direct quotation from the jung hu fiddling music played in Peking opera. But the most operatic of Tan’s non-operatic works is probably the now-classic Ghost Opera(1994), for pipa and string quartet whose members also perform with water, stones, paper and metal. In fact, the work’s inspiration from shamanistic sources relates it to the ritual opera of Nine Songs, while its use of organic materials also relates it to Tan’s subsequent organic music and its extension of a conventional ensemble relates it to his Orchestral Theatre concepts. Originally created on commission from the Kronos Quartet, who have toured the work around the world and recorded it on CD for Nonesuch with pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Ghost Opera also incorporates some clear staging elements such as minimal sets and lighting. According to Tan:

“Even when I work on a concert piece, any note is like a life. From a shamanistic or theatrical point of view, I’m always trying to search where this note came from, how you want to play with it, and where you want to send it. This to me is very operatic.”

Orchestral Theatre and Other Idiosyncratic Approaches to the Orchestra

Ritual performance meets the concert hall experience in a series of works Tan composed during the final decade of the 20th century, collectively known as Orchestral Theatre. The idea for such a project originated in an attempt to make a more viscerally vital orchestra experience. According to the composer:

The idea of an “orchestra theatre” gradually came to me as a way of bringing the isolated performing arts back to people, back to the audience. Music can once again become a ritual bridge between the creative and the re-creative, completing the circle of spiritual life. How could a classical orchestra sound not classical? Could it convey the sense of another culture, a ritual of instruments and vocalization? Could this, which is common in Chinese theater and folk celebration, be done with a Western orchestra? What would primitive sounds be like with Western harmony? I began to see the orchestra itself as a dramatic medium, as theater.


In Orchestral Theatre I: O, composed in 1990, members of the orchestra yell, murmur, chant, and sing in addition to playing their instruments in a variety of unconventional manners. In Orchestral Theatre II: Re, from 1992, movement also plays a significant role and the audience participates in the performance along with a divided orchestra, led by two conductors. Orchestral Theatre III: Red Forecast (1996) incorporates a pre-edited video as additional instrument in the orchestra and juxtaposes a variety of musical references in poly-stylistic homage to the turbulent 1960s. Video plays an even more important role in Orchestral Theatre IV: The Gate, from 1999; an integral component to the performance are video images which are abstracted from the stage action in real time by the conductor and the soloists: a Western operatic soprano, a Peking Opera singer, and a Japanese puppeteer. (The entire series of five works was released on a 2 CD set in 2008.)

Tan Dun has also created a significant repertoire of works in nominally more standard forms, such as concertos and symphonies, although his approaches to these weighty historical forms have been quite different from their antecedents. As Tan puts it: “If you gave me rice, I’m not going to cook you risotto, because I don’t know how to cook it; but I use the rice to cook rice balls, rice porridge, or rice soup. When I use a violin, I don’t want to look up how Schoenberg or Respighi used a violin. I know there’s a pipa way and a koto way and a shamanistic way; why don’t we use this way.”

If there are any clear conceptual precedents for Tan’s symphonies in the Western tradition, they are the final symphony of Beethoven and the vast symphonic canvasses of Gustav Mahler in which a symphony attempts to portray an entire sonic universe. Like Beethoven’s ubiquitous Symphony No. 9, which has frequently been performed as part of celebrations for important world events, Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997 Heaven Earth Mankind for solo cello, bianzhong bells, children’s chorus, CD Player, and large orchestra (recorded on a Sony Classical CD), was created to celebrate the reunification of Hong Kong with mainland China. An even more grandiose global coming together was effected in Tan’s 2000 Today, A World Symphony for the Millennium (also recorded by Sony Classical), a work combining such seemingly unblendable instruments as the Australian didgeridoo, Trinidadian steel pan, and Hawaiian guitar with chorus, orchestra and electronics, which was created for a monumental telecast tracking the beginning of the year 2000 as clocks reached midnight in all of the world’s time zones.

6478343901_206ae2f46f_oTan’s body of concerto compositions is extremely eclectic and features works for standard classical instruments, traditional Chinese instruments, and newly invented ones. In addition to his aforementioned concerto for violin ( Out of Peking Opera, which Cho-Liang Lin recorded for Ondine), he has made an important contribution to the guitar concerto literature ( Yi2, issued on a Grammy-winning Teldec recording featuring Sharon Isbin), and has just completed a new piano concerto which Lang Lang will premiere later this season with the New York Philharmonic. His concertos for the traditional Chinese zheng and pipa, accompanied by a Western orchestra, extend the concerto form’s inherent dualism. But his most fascinating contributions to the genre are one-of-a-kind works such as a Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and Ten Instruments, his works featuring soloists performing on organic instruments with an orchestra, and multimedia concertos such as The Map in which a cello soloist and a video featuring traditional music performances by rural Chinese musicians vie with the orchestra.

Organic Music

Since the late 1980s, Tan Dun has explored making music with various organic materials, such as water, paper, wind, ceramics, metal, and stone.  His earliest composition to employ these elements, Soundshape (1989) is a 45-minute work for seven musicians performing on water, paper, and ceramic objects.


In the 1998 Water Concerto for water percussion and orchestra, a soloist manipulates water through various means including a soda bottle, a waterphone, a pair of water tube drums, a water gong, and two basins of water. The performance is as visually compelling as it is sonically intriguing. In 2000, these techniques were incorporated into the remarkable Water Passion after St. Matthew , written to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, and scored for soloists, chorus, and a diverse array of musicians performing on water as well as acoustic and electronic instruments. According to Tan Dun, “Water is a metaphor for the unity of the ephemeral and the eternal, the physical and the spiritual—as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, re-creation and resurrection.”

With the Paper Concerto (2003), Tan Dun created another work which is as fascinating to see as it is to hear. To create various sounds with large sheets of paper, the soloists move all over the stage creating a work which is a choreographically intricate as it is musically inventive.

Award-Winning Film Scores and Multimedia Extravaganzas

While Tan Dun’s incorporation of the most fundamental and ancient sonic elements—such as water and paper—into the fabric of the orchestra have created a whole new sonic vocabulary, he has also created a series of works which enhance the audiovisual experience of the orchestra through the latest technologies.


Tan Dun’s acute attention to the visual elements of making sounds has made him an extremely sensitive composer for motion pictures and he is now highly sought after by directors in Hollywood and around the world. His film scores include the Academy Award-winning soundtrack for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), and the Denzel Washington vehicle Fallen (1998).

But whereas in motion pictures, music is just one element which must blend in with a larger totality of sight and sound to meet the director’s vision, Tan Dun has recently embarked on a series of works in which video images are elements which blend in with an overarching musical structure. Tan Dun turned the tables on the film-scoring process with his 2000 Crouching Tiger Concerto for cello, video and chamber orchestra. Each of the works six movements contains footage from the film. But here the music inspired reshaping the video images to serve as an accompaniment and an enhancement to the listening experience rather than imparting narrative meaning.

Tan’s most remarkable application of video thus far, however, is The Map (2002), another concerto for cello, video, and orchestra. In this sonic documentary, video footage of traditional musicians from Tan’s home province of Hunan blend seamlessly with the cello soloist and the orchestra, building upon ancient musical traditions while forging new ones. The immediately-appealing work was literally a homecoming for Tan Dun—a DVD issued by Deutsche Grammophon captures a live performance conducted by Tan featuring the Shanghai Symphony who traveled to Hunan province to play this music for the very people whose music inspired it. The Map is emblematic of this unique alchemy of old and new, sound and image, an alchemy that has led to some of the most provocative music of our time.

For Tan Dun, there is ultimately no separation between populism and avant-garde aesthetics: “The most avant-garde artists are the most popular people I didn’t want to be avant-garde or popular at all, I have just tried to do my work.”

–Frank J. Oteri (October 15, 2007)

Frank J. Oteri, a New York-based composer, is the American Music Center’s Composer Advocate and the Founding Editor of its web magazine NewMusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org).