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A Cultural Revolutionary

Chinese-born composer Tan Dun's first string quartet shocked his conservative campus. Ever since, he's fearlessly blended elements of East and West.

December 15, 1996|Ken Smith | Ken Smith is a music writer based in New York

NEW YORK — Manhattan's Lower East Side, where Asian and European traditions mix with a vibrant immediacy on the streets, seems a natural place to first encounter composer Tan Dun. A similar tug of influences--East and West, old and new--has helped shape his artistic perspective into one of the most prominent musical voices to emerge from China in the last 20 years.

"I'm pretty much against those pieces that simply put East and West together physically," says Tan, sitting shoeless in black T-shirt and jeans in his sparsely furnished apartment at the edge of Chinatown. "I'm much more interested in the process of mingling the elements to find a new territory, a new sound that will work. It's not really about either East or West; it's about being yourself. By mixing cultures, you can express yourself in a more interesting way."

On Monday, when Tan leads members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's New Music Group in his "Circle" and the West Coast premiere of his Pizzicato Piano Concerto, Western music will meet Chinese sound and ritual. He has designated the concert "An Evening of Spiritual Journeys," and both of his pieces carry the subhead "a ritual performance."

The program also includes works by Stravinsky ("The original multicultural composer," says Tan, "neither Russian nor German but both, on his own terms"); Scottish composer James MacMillan (whose "Three Dawn Rituals" Tan considers MacMillan's personal response to "The Rite of Spring"); Asian-influenced German composer Gerhardt Stabler; and Toru Takemitsu, the Japanese composer first championed by Stravinsky in the 1950s and later a mentor to Tan himself.

"This whole concert is like a ritual, a journey in sound, all of which contains parts of home [for everyone]," Tan says. "All religions--Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity--share a sense of the meditative. I'm interested in finding a musical structure and technique that can likewise embrace all kinds of sounds. Never before have different cultures embraced each other as they do today. It marks a huge change, in a cultural sense."

"Tan is like a transplanted person, speaking a new language with a foreign accent," says violinist Cho-Liang Lin, who performed "Circles" and the Pizzicato Piano Concerto with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at last summer's Lincoln Center Festival. "Musically, he doesn't care where the language comes from, as long as it expresses what he wants to say."

"Every time I talk to Tan, I'm always aware of how different his musical experience is from mine," says David Harrington, first violinist and music director of the Kronos Quartet, whose recording of Tan's "Ghost Opera" with Chinese pipa player Wu Man is due out on February. "His sense of musical color attracted me immediately, and there's a fearlessness in his approach that I really like. He's a person who listens to his own sense of inner music, and it's hard to separate that music from his personality."

"Most [Chinese] composers who came here either became Western or else gave up entirely on Western culture," Wu Man says. "Tan came here to work out the difference."

Tan is among the first generation of Chinese composers to emerge after the Cultural Revolution's crackdown on all things Western. He was born in 1957 in the Hunan village of Ci Mao to professional parents (father a civil servant, mother a doctor) and never heard Western classical music as a child. With his parents dragooned into working in the rice fields by Chinese authorities, Tan was left with his peasant grandmother, who taught him to play the erhu, a traditional Chinese fiddle, and initiated him into village culture. As a "ritual boy," Tan performed music for funerals and other occasions.

By the time he was a teenager, Tan was supporting himself as an itinerant musician. At 17, he joined a local Hunan opera troupe. His fiddling impressed his colleagues enough to win him a place at the prestigious Beijing Conservatory in the mid-1970s just as Western music, albeit of the Soviet school, was making its way back to China. The conservatory forced him to immerse himself in Western musical technique for the first time.

"At the beginning it was very difficult. It took about five years to totally block my old culture in order to learn the new," he says.

Fairly early in that process, at age 19, he heard a cultural exchange concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra and had an epiphany.

"Immediately I wanted to be a composer like Beethoven," he says. He began absorbing the Romantics, and later Schoenberg, Boulez and Cage, but as he set pen to paper, memories of his childhood began to return.

"His first string quartet in 1978 shocked the whole campus," recalls Wu Man, who attended the conservatory two years behind Tan and emigrated to the U.S. in 1989. "The school was very traditional, very Russian, and here he was writing dissonances and doing crazy things like putting Western and Chinese instruments together and in strange combinations."

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