A Cultural Revolutionary

Ken Smith is a music writer based in 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."

Even though that quartet earned a major prize at the Dresden Music Festival, its extreme experimentalism brought down the wrath of the Chinese establishment. Soon banned from travel, Tan began searching for a way out of China. In the mid-'80s, he introduced himself to Cho Wen-Chung, the Chinese-born head of Columbia University's graduate music program, who had provided fellowships to a number of other mainland Chinese composers, including Bright Sheng. Such recognition could overcome the authorities' objections.

"I had seen so many cheap imitations of Soviet music that I didn't expect much," Cho says of his encounter with Tan in China, "but in these works I found someone totally free of that ideology, with all the potential of being a great composer."

After securing a Columbia fellowship in 1986, Tan hit the New York streets running, interacting immediately with composers and performers. In one year, a dance company choreographed three of his pieces and commissioned two more. Soon Tan's works were appearing on programs in New York, Berlin and Tokyo.

"The Chinese composers of Tan's generation all have both a strong commitment to what they want to do and the aggressiveness to get it done," Cho says. "They had to be achievers, because of the circumstances they were brought up in."

In Tan's case, that aggressiveness, which has caused some grumbling in other Asian musical quarters, has also helped spark his conducting career in Europe and the U.S., most notably as resident composer and conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony.

"Chinese composers are coming here and showing us something new and original, and none has done so more dramatically than Tan Dun," Mark Swed wrote in these pages in July. But Tan's voice, unlike that of other composers of his generation, has been centered in the provinces, where cultural roots run deeper that those of his urban-born contemporaries.

"We're all used to using elements from the civilized art world, from 'good' colors or 'good' texts," Tan says. "But beyond this there's so much more--ritual culture for example--that is just as important. Perhaps even more so, because these things are close to everybody."

"You hear hints of Tan's background in his music, but you can't really grasp it the way you grasp the Bohemian-ness of Dvorak, for example," says Lin, who has recorded Tan's violin concerto "Out of Peking Opera." "The first four bars are a straight quote from Peking Opera, out of which he constructs something totally new. In Glasgow and Helsinki, the audiences took the piece very seriously, but when we played in Shanghai, the audience completely cracked up. That's when I realized how famous this tune was and how brilliantly he had transformed it."

When it comes to ritual culture, Tan's work is about evocation rather than literal depiction. "Ghost Opera," in which ancestor spirits play a part, requires not just a string quartet and pipa but also stones, metal, paper and water. Ritual is also evoked in mastering the piece.

"How does a violinist learn to play with stones in his mouth?" asks the Kronos' Harrington, referring to the fact that the score calls for vocalizing through stones. "We had to approach this music from our own experience, in a way that felt right for us. It was also about letting go of time, of not forcing the next event but just allowing it to grow. 'Ghost Opera' is like one large beat with everything happening within it, like being on the surface of a bubble that you can see through. It has a very shamanistic quality."

For Tan, that spiritual quality leads directly to his way of relating to music.

"If Tan has any shortcomings musically, it's as a conductor," Lin says. "He has a very clear vision of how his music should be played, and in his enthusiasm he sometimes forgets the intermediate step of telling musicians exactly how to execute the music on the page. He's a very expressive vocalist, however, so the more adventurous his music gets, the more he sings to us how he wants it played. He wants to conduct like a musical high priest directing ceremonies, which is very Chinese."

As a child, Tan had considered becoming a priest. As a conductor, he finds that his goals are not much different.

"Music is a training of the spirit," he says. "It isn't often mentioned in Western music, but it's a very important thing."

Tan's most ambitious work to date, his opera "Marco Polo," which premiered at last summer's Munich Biennale, takes that spirituality to a new level: A Western opera depicting the explorer's journey from West to East runs simultaneously with a Chinese opera tracking the spiritual journey from past to future. The recording, set for release this summer, marks the first in an exclusive multi-disc association with Sony Classical.

"This work is the summit of my first 10 years," he says, "the result of a decade of cooking and preserving myself."

Not that that process of "cooking and preserving" the new and the old, the Chinese and the Western is complete.

"We still have a chance to watch these artists develop," Cho says. "Having an extra heritage means they have a responsibility to bring that heritage to bear on the music. Time will tell whether they will become truly Chinese American artists and ultimately who their audience will be. Since China's recent interaction with the West, the preferred style there is international; anything of Chinese tradition is finished. None of them would be accepted in China, and these composers are writing music to be accepted."

But for now, Tan has an idea of who his audience is and what it is looking for:

"I am pleased that my music seems to attract young people, usually in their 20s and 30s. These people come to be challenged, in either an entertaining or spiritual way. They never come to concerts as a cheap entertainment; they go to bars for that."

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* Tan Dun conducts "An Evening of Spiritual Journeys," Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, Japan America Theater, 244 S. San Pedro St., Monday, 8 p.m. $15-$20. (213) 365-3500.

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