In a fourth-floor rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this week, David Cossin picked up a black rubber flip-flop, its toe thong removed, and whacked the top of a hollow plastic tube immersed in a water-filled cylinder. As he raised and lowered the tube, the sound he produced changed pitch. The effect was unexpectedly alien and visceral.
L.A. musicians Theresa Dimond and Tom Raney watched. Then Raney lifted his own modified flip-flop and followed suit, experimenting with pitch levels and strike force.
The wooden floor below -- already wet from similar exercises involving plastic cups, empty squeeze bottles, salad bowls and fingers -- got wetter.
Despite appearances, these antics weren't child's play. Looking on, Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon interjected questions about tempo and timing as lead percussionist Cossin guided Raney and Dimond through the first splash-through of their parts in composer Tan Dun's "Water Passion After St. Matthew." The Master Chorale will present the work's Los Angeles premiere Sunday and Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Based on J.S. Bach's monumental retelling of the Last Supper and the crucifixion, the piece was commissioned by conductor Helmuth Rilling and the Internationale Bachakademie in Stuttgart, Germany, for the 250th anniversary in 2000 of Bach's death. It is shaped and framed by water -- visually and aurally, as ritual and as metaphor -- in an exotic melding of Buddhist and Christian beliefs and ceremonies and of Asian and Western musical traditions.
"This is one of the most devastatingly emotional readings of the Passion narrative that I know of in all music," said Gershon. "Lord knows, enough composers have done this over the last 400 years, and yet I think where this piece takes us really does unlock new emotional territory and new resonance.
"It really is different in any performance. A lot of it happens spontaneously or is improvised. It takes us all to places that we're not used to exploring in ourselves as performers."
The multifaceted piece is a puzzle to some, concedes New York-based Tan, an Oscar winner for his "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" score. "When you are inspired by all kinds of culture, people sometimes are not so understanding," he had observed by phone a few days earlier. " 'Why are you writing the Passion story, inspired by Buddhism?' My answer is, 'Why not?' "
The Christian story of suffering, hope and rebirth, he feels, resonates across cultural barriers. When biblical texts are set to the music of Tibetan instruments and ancient Buddhist sonorities are set to biblical texts, "it is no longer a church service, it's a universal drama -- a sharing, a ritual of cultures."
Much of the water music in the piece, Tan explained, was inspired by "water splashing festivals," an ancient tradition held each spring in his native China, and by his childhood in the villages of Yunnan. The rivers in the southern province are central to daily life, places to bathe, wash vegetables and launder.
"In the afternoon," he said, "when people washed clothes in the river, they used stones and big wooden sticks and banged the clothes in the water. They made beautiful rhythms."
The gentle water sounds that signal "Baptism," the beginning of "Water Passion," were inspired by an even more personal experience: Tan's being with his wife during an ultrasound test when she was pregnant with their first child.
"I heard this water world," he said. "And I realized that this sound, this water world, is everybody's experience before they come into this life."
Still, the overt theatricality of his vocal, acoustic, electronic and organic "Passion" is among the places less explored by classical singers and musicians. The 90-minute work is meant to be seen as well as heard. Its 17 translucent, illuminated, amplified water bowls, set atop black cylinders arranged in the shape of a cross, aren't the only staged element.
The singers -- including the featured soloists, soprano Elizabeth Keusch and bass Stephen Bryant, who performed in the Stuttgart premiere -- must walk and move about. They are also required to play Tibetan finger cymbals, click and pound stones together and dip their hands into the bowls.
Vocally, they're called upon to combine Western-style classical singing with the non-Western drone chant of traditional Mongolian overtone singing and the swooping extremes of Chinese opera.
The overall effect is "what Tan Dun calls vocal calligraphy," said Gershon, who learned special hand gestures to cue the singers.
"It's liberating," said Master Chorale member Alice Murray. "There are times when it feels like you're just channeling the most ancient sounds. It's like you're not performing, you're not singing, you're just releasing something that existed way before you did. It's pretty overwhelming, very primal."