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Where High and Low Culture Meet

Classical and pop culture are mixing it up more-with poor results. Among the few successes: 'Crouching Tiger's' composer.

April 15, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

For a long time now, high and low culture have been mixed-up, indefinable categories. For instance, popular culture is a commonplace academic subject, with Bob Dylan's lyrics just as suitable for a doctoral dissertation as the lines of Dylan Thomas. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, like many other such institutions, seems happy as a lark these days when it can contrive to display popular artifacts in a prominent place.

Nor can the once-elevated classical music possibly hope for immunity from the "infection" of low art. Commercial interests, bolstered by the high sales of pop artists who make classical CDs (such as Andrea Bocelli) and classical artists with a flair for pop (such as Yo-Yo Ma), have seen to that. But confusion is also an interesting, and natural, state of affairs and often a necessary one for creativity.

At this year's Academy Awards ceremony, I was struck by the appearances of Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Tan Dun. Dylan sang the winning song he wrote for the film "Wonder Boys': a pop tune for a pop film by a legendary pop artist whose music has pervaded our culture for decades. Yet what an inscrutable rendition that was. Only one out of 10 words was intelligible. Performing live via satellite from Australia, where he was on tour, Dylan was shot at extremely unflattering close range and from arty, surrealist angles. Everything about this weird performance suggested a fascinating esoteric art, say that of a foreign-culture art song filmed by an experimental video artist.

Then there was the duo of Ma and Perlman, the world's most celebrated classical cellist and violinist, respectively. They played in person for the glamorous crowd of movie stars. Seated on a raised platform-this was high culture, after all-they vividly emoted as if digging deep to find the last drop of ostentatious expression from Bach or Beethoven. Yet they played only treacly arrangements of film scores, most of them treacle already, designed for popular consumption.

It was almost as if Dylan, answering only to himself, and the eager-to-please Ma/Perlman duo had simply changed places on the high-low continuum. The one exception was the sensuous, eerie cello solo from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that Ma played as he does on the soundtrack to the film.

Next up was Tan to accept the Oscar for his "Crouching Tiger" score. Tan has gone to exceptional degrees to overcome categories. "My music is to dream without boundaries," he breathlessly told his billion or so viewers. "As a classical composer, I'm thrilled to be honored here. 'Crouching Tiger' bridged East and West, romance and action, high and low cultures."

Tan gets quite a bit of attention for being just such a bridge builder. Many of my colleagues are far more suspicious of him than they are of Ma or Perlman. Tan has a reputation for unbridled opportunism and self-promotion. More than once I've heard him called a charlatan. His Oscar won't help him be taken seriously, nor will the fact that the "Crouching Tiger" soundtrack sells some 15,000 copies a week, an extraordinary figure for a classical composer.

Yet I find Tan one of the most effective composers working today, and one of the most appealing. His approach to incorporating the high and the low is not to raise one, or lower the other. He finds, instead, a common ground, and that ground is the music of the future. Born and raised in China, Tan was a victim of Mao's culture purges, so he came late to all Western music, whether classical or pop. He has fewer prejudices than the rest of us.

But what, I think, makes Tan so successful at eradicating the barriers between high and low is that he treated his missing background as an opportunity. Of all the Chinese emigre composers who are now making such an impact in America, Tan began as the most avant-garde. Upon arriving in New York in the mid-'80s, he immediately turned his attention to the downtown new-music scene, where the high/low barriers had long been irrelevant. He viewed music as ceremony-he still does-and focused on creating vessels for sound.

One such experimental project was his music to an erotic ballet by Muna Tseng called "The Pink," based on a forbidden 16th century Chinese novel. Tan's score was written for recycled papers of various sorts (magazines for blowing and swinging, wax bread bags for popping, cardboard tubes for hitting with sticks, etc.), with which he produced an astoundingly sexy score not through anything crude but through drawing our attention to the allure of physical sounds in a way that makes us sensually alert.

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