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Tan infuses his music with Chinese philosophy
By Zhang Qian

Introducing the music of his motherland to the world has always been composer Tan Dun’s dream. Widely known for his score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the medal ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tan has never stopped weaving Chinese culture and philosophy into his music.

Inspired by Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Li Bai’s comment about the beautiful sound of water in nature, Tan created his first “organic” composition — “Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra in 1998.”



He later completed the series with “Paper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra” in 2003 and “Earth Concerto for Stone and Ceramic Percussion and Orchestra” in 2009.

“The most beautiful melody, according to traditional Chinese philosophy, is the sound featuring the harmony between humans and nature,”the 58-year-old says.

His “Women’s Script” in 2003 that combined modern technology, ancient sound sources and visual effects impressed the world, not only for the special presentation, but also the story of women’s script as a cultural legacy among ancient Chinese women in Hunan Province.

Tan was in Shanghai last Saturday, performing his latest works — “The Rite of Summer (Threaten from the Nature),” “The Rite of Autumn (Tears of the Nature)” and “The Rite of Winter (Dance of the Nature).” The three compositions were created in 2013 to honor Stravinsky and his “The Rite of Spring,” as well as the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the 2012 hurricane that devastated New Orleans.

“Will nature cry for the victims? How should we face nature as its closest friend and probably its biggest threat at the same time?” Tan asks.

Tan cooperated with Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra at Shanghai Symphony Hall for the Qingming Festival on Sunday.

He shares some of his thoughts on Chinese music and culture.

Q: What inspired you to compose the three “Rites” concertos?

A: The birth of “The Rite of Spring” is very remarkable in the history of classical music in my opinion. It was composed by Stravinsky two years after the death of Mahler in 1911, and in some ways declared a new era for classical music featuring very percussive compositions.

The three works were commissioned by North German Radio Symphony Orchestra for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stravinsky in 2013. So I kept my work consistent with that of Stravinsky in some way, but added more Chinese elements in it, as that is the color of me and my motherland.

Q: How do you see the role of both composer and conductor?

A: I like composing and I like conducting as well. I think it may have come from the influence of Mahler, who is always thinking about composing while conducting, and thinking about conducting while composing.

The beauty of music lies not only in creating but also performing. I do not insist on conducting every piece that I compose and I do not consider my conducting necessarily better than the other conductors. But when I conduct my own piece I feel like I am telling my own story. I feel great about the intimate communication with the orchestra and audience.

Many people may label me as creative due to all the musical experiments I have tried. But in my opinion, all those experiments will only be of value when they serve the expression of souls and the delivery of true emotion.

Q: What are you working on these day?

A: I have over the past 10 years been thinking about possible ways to take Chinese music to the world. At the moment, I believe that we can only achieve that by introducing more Chinese culture and philosophy to the world educational system.

Everybody in China knows about Shakespeare and Beethoven because they are in the text books. There are also many great Chinese musicians and philosophers who children around the world can learn from.

I consider it my responsibility to combine the great Chinese culture and philosophy with my music, so that the overseas audiences may access it while listening to my music, and hopefully desire to learn more about it afterwards.

Take the three Rite concertos for example. A lot of glides are used in the first part of the concerto for timpani, which may sound similar to traditional guqin (ancient stringed Chinese instrument) melodies. And a great number of traditional Chinese percussion instruments like Chinese gong chimes and small cymbals used in the piece sound like luoxi (an ancient regional opera in Henan province).

Q: You seem especially interested in percussion. Why is that?

A: I think composers can express themselves quite well in percussion. There are so many possibilities in sound and rhythm. And another reason for my fascination with percussion is that I believe it is a great way to connect Western and Chinese culture.

Drums are universal. They are widely used not only in classical music, but also tango, salsa, African music and traditional Chinese music as well. China enjoys a long and rich history of percussion.


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