Tan Dun: Tradition and Invention

Tan Dun: Tradition and Invention

Tan Dun has found a way to simultaneously be an experimenter and a populist.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

A conversation in Tan Dun’s Chelsea studio in New York City

October 8, 2007 – 11 a.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is impossible to simultaneously be an experimenter and a populist, but Tan Dun has never accepted conventional wisdom. He is as comfortable writing music for fifty ceramic objects or an ensemble performing with water, paper, and stones as he is composing the soundtrack to a movie starring Denzel Washington.

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In fact, there is a great deal of common ground between his experimental works for the concert stage and for the big screen—the magical sonority used whenever the jade sword appears in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was created using Tan’s unique water percussion creations. And he has been equally feted in several music communities—receiving a Grawemeyer for his bizarre Marco Polo (in which Marco and Polo are separate characters), an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, and commissions from the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera along the way.

All of Tan Dun’s music, no matter the medium, has a strong sense of theatre and a firm belief in visual and physical reality. According to him, everything is opera to some degree, and to ignore the optical and tactile implications of sound is ultimately stupid. The roots of his aesthetic philosophy come from ancient Chinese shamanistic traditions which he experienced first hand growing up in a village in the province of Hunan. But they have also been molded by his living through the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China as a teenager and then discovering the 1980s downtown avant-garde in New York City in his late 20s.

For Tan Dun, all of these elements form part of a larger expressive language, one that has proven to be extremely communicative with audiences around the world.

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