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.

Music for Film

Frank J. Oteri: I’m curious about your compositional process when you work on a film score. By necessity it has to be much quicker. Can you experiment as much as you’d like to? I’ve listened to some of the film scores, and I heard some of the same experimentation that your concert works have: the water sounds, etc. It’s all there. And I wonder how you get these guys who are studio musicians working on a very tight schedule to negotiate this material.

Tan Dun: I love film, and I love film music. In the very beginning, I was fascinated by Takemitsu always telling about how film is such a great field for your music, because you’ve got this chance and you’ve got a budget. At that time, because I didn’t have much experience, I was understanding Takemitsu’s words much more from a financial point of view. They give you opportunity, they give you studio, they give you musicians, and they give you incredible recording facilities. But actually, later on when I was getting involved with film, more and more, I find actually that the treasure is because film is a very, very multi-way form of culture. Because of these multi-ways of culture, you must have multi-ways of composing. For example, the melody becomes sound, the sound becomes melody, the silence becomes melody, and also sometimes the melody needs to sound like silence. For example, sometimes you see, for example, The Hours composed by Philip Glass. It’s wonderful to analyze. Philip did a wonderful job for this film. Sometimes this minimalism—chords, melodic or arpeggio movement—can serve as a silent sound, and make you psychologically understand a person’s mind much more. If you have this philosophical way to compose a film score, you make the film much deeper and the film more valuable. And sometimes it’s the other way. You can use a silence as a most violent, powerful way of composing your music. In Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, I was quite amazingly touched by how silence produced in certain periods of time in the film becomes so violent.

All those things I learned when I came to my music soundtrack writing. For example, in a courtyard chase in the movie Hero, I used silence to represent something very violent. And in Fallen, which as you mentioned is one of these non-Chinese subjects starring Denzel Washington, they use a touch to affect another passing bad soul. I said, “What kind of a sound could represent this secret touch?” And the director asked me to propose several choices. Then I said, “Why?” Because philosophically, I only can give you one choice, which is the best choice. So I gave them the sound of didgeridoo. They loved it. First of all, you have to make yourself be able to know what a didgeridoo is. So it already involves a [different kind of] musical training. If you are a typical sort of serial or atonal [composer], how could you know didgeridoo? So that’s why I thought to learn music as a world culture is very, very important.

FJO: Now in terms of getting musicians to do this in the studio, I mean, I don’t imagine they have someone on hand who plays didgeridoo, or do they?

TD: That’s another thing for film. They are able to make it happen, if it’s a commercial film project.

FJO: Do you graphic notation at all in your film scores?

TD: The phenomenon of notation is a combination between creator and the performer. [Depending on the] kind of function, you can create another kind of a format of notation. For example, you can vocalize sound, and ask the didgeridoo people to recreate it. You really don’t know how to notate it, but you have imagination here, and you just record it. “Hey guys, this is the way I want it. Can you do it?” “Oh, no problem; let me listen to it.” Then it comes out. This is also notation. Notation could be handwriting, but it also could be a demonstration of acting or singing.

I hope all the composers could train themselves as sound performers. If you are an academic composer who only researches sound as a very, very philosophical behavior, and do not train yourself as a performing artist, that becomes difficult. I find the most successful composers—from Takemitsu and Stravinsky to John Cage and Mahler—are all wonderful communicators; they get people to recreate their imagination of sounds which had never been done before. And I had a lot of this kind of experience in film music making. Especially, for example, the sound of the green jade sword in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The first time when director Ang Lee asked me, “What do you imagine when the sword comes out?” I said, “Why are you asking me this question?” In my references, when they’re talking about the sword, it’s always like a Hong Kong film or Taiwan film. It’s sort of like a junk kung fu sort of a 1980s kind of a format. But in his mind, the sound of the sword is different, but he doesn’t know. I said, “Oh, first of all the sword comes as a echoing of heart and inner space.” He said, “Exactly, but how?” Where is the sound? Then I found that the waterphone has the quality of metal, metal in water actually, and the jade sword is like that: a sword of metal with a windy, watery quality. That was how we found the waterphone sound. And the waterphone sound is also impossible to notate. You only can verbalize it or graphicalize it a certain way for the performer.

FJO: Of course, ultimately in a film—unlike in a concert work or even an opera where the composer is the central person and everything happens around the music—the composer is just one member of a larger creative team. Even though the composer has a very important role, that role is the same as, say, the cinematographer or even the hairstylist, who can also have a very important role. Everybody’s working together to create this work and the director picks and chooses pieces of things and then shapes the work.

TD: To be a good film composer is not to occupy the whole room. The definition of good film composer is if your spirit can blend together with many, many spirits in this room: without you those spirits cannot be perfectly linked, but with you everybody becomes powerful. Technically to me, it’s very much like you’re composing opera. In opera, you have many, many ways to write your opera score. You have the sort of literal story line, you have aria vocalization, then you have the orchestra. In a film, same. First of all, you have to have a story. The music serves it; it promotes it or pushes it in certain ways. Secondly, you have dialogue. The style must be heard. Thirdly, you have orchestra music. Fourthwise, you can have environmental sound in the space of the story. And these four to me are a giant string quartet. So although you only write the music line, you have to analyze all the other lines in your music score. So to hear other things in order to compose your things, there’s a psychological component. That’s my way. My sketch of film music always comes with four lines. And everything happens in the film including lighting and sometimes costumes also. I can really collaborate with all the spirits from a notation point of view. In my experience, to handle your music in this way it’s pretty much safe. That’s why when I was recording Hero, Crouching Tiger, and [most recently] the Banquet, I never really actually rescored or changed much after my writing. It was a hundred percent accepted by the director.