Ilja Stephan Musikpublizist







Tan Dun - Die Oper unserer Tage

Für Tan Dun ist der Film erklärtermaßen die Oper unserer Tage: „Für mich ist die traditionelle Opern eine alte Form des Kinos, bzw. das Kino die Oper der Zukunft“, so hat Tan wiederholt verlauten lassen. mehr...

Tan Dun - "You suddenly realize that life is boundless"
Interview zu "The Map", Duisburg, 31.10.2005, online:

What is the concept behind the combination of video, soloist and orchestra in The Map. As far as I can see the orchestra answers to the indigenous music recorded on video?
Tan Dun: Orchestra is nature, the video is the tradition and the cello is today. So why I had this idea is because there is a kind of map I have in me, that is trying to find again the people who have passed on, to find a culture that has disappeared and to bring them back to life. The story behind this is when I was a student I went to the mountains in Western Hunan, China, to collect ancient folk songs. I met an old man who was a shaman. He played stone music. He could play a chromatic scale on one single stone. It was so fascinating that I wanted to study with him. He said "No problem. Come back any time." Then I went to study in New York and for some reason I didn't go back for 18 years. When Yo-Yo Ma asked me to write a new piece, I said I wanted to have a map connecting ancient music and modern times. At that time I was conducting the Sydney Symphony and I thought I could do something with aboriginal Australian or Native American Indian music. He said: "No no no do something from your own culture." So I told him about the Stone Man. He said: "Go back to find him." I went back, I found the village, but the Stone Man had died. I was very sad but I decided to stay. I was with the shamans every day trying to find a ritual to bring the dead people back to life. And the shamans said the only way according to shamanistic ritual to talk to the dead people or talk to everything is through the spirit. For example, the local people [believe] that a stone can talk to birds, birds can talk to water, water can talk to you. If you have this kind of music you can connect with the Stone Man. So I started to collect all the music that was around him, which later developed into the Stone Music in The Map. In another village, I also met this beautiful girl - you see her in the documentary. She is very famous in the village for singing this "feige" or "Flying Song." It is a tradition that villagers sing to each other over the mountain. They send this Flying Song to the sky and they wait for replies. And then from the distance you can hear strange echoes from people answering. So I asked her: "Can you sing to someone far away, not just over the mountain, but around the earth?" And she said "Of course." So I recorded her singing. When she was waiting in the video, I composed the music for Yo-Yo Ma to answer. It is very simple but when it is synchronized it becomes very interesting to have this dialogue between an old culture and the orchestra in the present. Yo-Yo said: "Some day in the future when we all have vanished and this piece is still played, then people will still play with her." At that time maybe five hundred years later they will know what kind of people there were five hundred years ago. So it is technology meeting with the spirit, but it is also ancient times meeting with the present.

One movement of The Map is a Ghost Dance and for Kronos Quartet you wrote a Ghost Opera. Spirits from the past obviously quite often haunt your work. What makes this idea so important for you?
Tan Dun: In all nationalities there are two kinds of cultures: a ghost culture and a water culture. In Christianity, they use water as a symbol of rebirth; in Tibet they have a river festival; in China they have a water festival. Resurrection is related to the water. As for ghosts, you have the Halloween festival in the U.S. In China, the ancient ghost dance always had three parts: The first part is to welcome the ghost. The second part is to entertain the ghost. The third part is to send the ghost home. This kind of ghost opera has been living for five thousand years as the resource for, and origin of Chinese ancient theatre. If you are collecting old music especially in this area (Western Hunan), maybe 80% of the local music is from ghost operas. They are always about the people's wish to link the present with the past. Which is a good wish. One ghost they think may be their grandmother; another ghost might be the Stone Man. It is a wish to make yourself feel that your life can be shared with the people who have already passed away. In a similar way, through the mingling of the music of today with ancient knowledge, I think we can make the culture everlasting. Life is limited. We only live 80, 90, 100 years the most. But if we have the desire to live with the people past and future through a music-map - this is the major meaning of The Map - you suddenly realize that life is boundless.

How important is the concept of memory for your work? Reading the program of today I find your Opus 1 already has a piece called Eight Memories in Watercolor.
Tan Dun: This piece is from 1978. It was written four years before Lang Lang was born. The reason why this piece is so special is that I met Lang Lang only a few years ago. He was a teenager then. He said: "I am a pianist, a young pianist, and I'd love to do an audition for you." I said: "Play something." And he played this music. I asked him: "Where did you get this score? It is my Opus 1. It has never been performed." He told me he found it in the library of the Beijing Conservatory. So he gave me the copy of the whole set. I looked at the copy and rearranged it a little bit. Now he is playing the piece everywhere. It's very, very curious. I said: "This is a music map, because this music was written for you to be born." He was the first to perform the whole eight pieces. And when I composed it I was a first year student at the Beijing Conservatory. It is my first piece. I scheduled this piece today to give the Duisburg people a music map of where I came from. Before this piece was written I had rarely heard Western music. Only ghost operas and Chinese instruments. We had violins but we didn't play them like violins but as a Chinese fiddle. We didn't dare to play or listen to any Western music, as it was prohibited. So with this piece I entered the gate to Western music. When you hear this piece it is not 100% great, but it is very pure. It's virginal, a kind of a musical dream. Lang Lang became the first pianist to play this piece completely- and now I am writing a new piece for Lang Lang and the New York Philharmonic.

In Eight Memories you work with Chinese melodies. And in many other works you use music which already is - Bach in Death and Fire for example. So you rework existing music or continue it. Why not invent new music?
Tan Dun: I think it's ... (long pause) ... like Bach. He did a lot of things like this, too. Like Beethoven's Ode to Joy which already existed, and especially Bartók. I really respect Bartók as a role model because he also collected ancient folk music. And he built his orchestral language from this traditional music. He always had the dream to bring his music back to the farmers and peasants, from which he drew inspiration. That's why I brought the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra to the village. My goal in music is always to try to have a dialogue with the past and also to keep the past alive. In the 20th century, there is a tendency to try and avoid tradition, avoid folk, avoid tonality, avoid metres in rhythm. But, I believe that when you have a memory of life by taking in the influences of the various aspects of life, you become a part of everything, even the music. Pierre Audi's speech today was very good, because he said the first part of my life was to establish myself as one of the best among my generation. Afterwards, I wanted to have another life in music in which I tried to embrace the old music, old tradition and to bring my own voice out - like Bartók. It is another direction of invention. The classical aspect in 20th century music was to encourage people to invent from nothingness. For example Schönberg, he is inventing, John Cage is inventing, Philip Glass also is inventing. Nobody had done these things before, nobody had done atonal music before and it is a break in tradition. In the 20th century, everybody is trying to find his own way to compose music which never existed before. They want to cut the link with folk. They want to cut the link with the national voices which are like a dialect in music. They only allow themselves to speak one language. One pure accent. Which is impossible - I speak with a Chinese-accented English, you speak with a German-accented English, everybody speaks with accents. Actually it's so lovely to have dialect in music. So that's why my Map is a big statement about what is today's music. Although I am encouraged by the music of the 20th century, and have been influenced a lot by it, my attitude is not that of a 20th century composer. The tradition of composing is one that continues and this tradition never really starts anew. So my music is a form of reconstruction from old music tradition. Like those old industrial ruins here in Duisburg. They are like avant garde architecture.

You sang on the recording of On Taoism, you conduct or play the stones in The Map - how important is the idea of being a composer-performer to you?
Tan Dun: That's also a matter of tradition. In ancient times and also in the Western music tradition, the performer and writer were the same. For example, I learned so much from conducting as a composer. If you look at the past from Paganini to Rachmaninov from Chopin to Bernstein, everybody was a performer. In the 20th century, the composer has two things which I think are a disaster: First they want to make their music graphically very beautiful but not necessarily in the sound. And second, they want to be an academic controller of the sound. They don't give any freedom to the performer and the conductor. The composer becomes the dictator of the music. Not like in the old times. When you play medieval music, the player is a creator. You can do a lot of interesting things: different spacing, different fermata, different tempo. But in 20th century music from Pierre Boulez to whatever member of the Darmstadt-group, every note, every second is being dictated. The musicians are not allowed to improvise. Which could be great - but for me it is not great because I don't belong to this classical (sphere). My life is very spontaneous and my music is very spontaneous too. My formula says "Life is music - music is life".

In an interview you once talked about giving structure to sound. You too must acknowledge the importance of planning and organizing in music.
Tan Dun: Yes. Without good structure the sound is wasted. You hear so many interesting things when you are walking in the mountains. You hear the wind, you hear the trees, you hear the animals. It's sooo beautiful. But you can't put it in a form to be performed. Meanwhile when you are walking on the street you hear all kinds of industrial sound, traffic sounds. If you have a good structure they become something else, they become art. I realized that music art is the art of timing. Timing means the structure of space. The real meaning of being a composer is that you are the designer of a time structure, and you are the designer of a space structure. And you are not a melody-writer. Writing a melody or a rhythm is just a motif. The most important thing about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is not bam, bam, bam, daaa. It's what he made of it (continues singing). The most important thing I learned from classical music is that structure is very very important.

Being a German musicologist I can tell how Beethoven did this. My problem is that I lack analytical categories how to come to terms with music of Asian composers.
Tan Dun: Before I was 19, I was trained in the Eastern music tradition, or rather, the Eastern music system. When I was 19, I wrote my Opus 1 and started to train in the Western system. I found these two systems totally different. If you hear Elegy for Cello and Percussion there are many rhythms of the Eastern structure. For example if you hear a 4-part rhythm it is not 1 -2 -3 - 4 (4/4-metre) but it is 1 +1 +1 +1. In Western music you are chopping the rhythms - exactly tree triplets to a beat. In Eastern music system you cannot chop because the Eastern philosophy is not based on mathematics. It is based on the flowing of spirit. Taiji. Healing. Ying and Yang in balance. Another example is about pitch. In Western structure often the gesture stops. In the Eastern system, the gesture stops but the music continues. Yesterday, when the percussionist played my music, he hit the Tibetan bell and immediately put it down, instead of letting the sound continue.

In today's performance he lifted it up and let the sound spread out ...
Tan Dun: Yes, it is because I said, "You've got time. The most important thing is not to hit the bell, it is what happens later." You have to see the invisible and inaudible gesture. That's the music. If I work with a German orchestra on the music of Isang Yun or Tôru Takemitsu I will tell a totally different story, I will tell them a completely different way to play. I am a composer like Isang Yun or like Takemistu trained in two different systems. What I learned from these experiences in two systems, and from Isang Yun, John Cage or Tôru Takemitsu is that one plus one equals one.

Tan Dun: I tell you why. It's one Eastern plus one Western and you become yourself. You should not hear too much of just Eastern or just Western. It's the same with my conducting. There is an oboe, there is a flute, and when I ask them to play together, what I want to hear is another instrument. No longer an oboe, no longer a flute. I want to hear an oboeflute. Often with Beethoven you will find that the orchestration for wind is so beautiful because it is not an oboe and it is not a flute anymore. It is one plus one equals one. One plus one plus one plus one is another one. This is what is learned from Tôru Takemitsu - that East and West should be together as one. That is also the history of art. All the masters of art, from Picasso to Bartók, have always collaged many cultural experiences to become themselves.
Millenium Symphony
When I listen to your Symphony 1997 or the Millennium Symphony, it is one plus one plus one plus one plus one etc. equal ten.
Tan Dun: First of all, this is a special case when you have a commission to write a piece for one million people outdoors. It is like a fireworks display. It has a certain function. The Millennium Symphony was composed to be the first piece of music in the new millennium following the path of the sun starting with New Zealand and Australia, China, America, Europe. So the music of Millennium Symphony served the purpose of television broadcasting worldwide for different cultures, different languages. I am still learning. It does not mean I am always right. Sometimes I handle things well, sometimes I handle things not as well. The good thing is you have to practice. What I learned from conducting is how to organize one plus one plus one in different ways. I gave you the example of the oboe and the flute; it is the same when you have melodies instead of instruments. It is the same kind of process dealing with them. I have destroyed many pieces because maybe they were not one plus one equals one. So Symphony 1997 it is not called Symphony 1997 any more - there is a new version coming up called Heaven, Earth, Mankind. This new piece is completely different. When I wrote Symphony 1997, I already had the plan to keep only one part of it as the centre for a concert work after the ceremony. [reunion of Hong Kong with China, IS]. As for the rest of it, it was just for the broadcast on television -- that was it. In the past you have the same kind of thing. When you look at the music from Händel, his Water Music for example. Some music he wrote just for the event. Later he revised it. It became something else. So after the next premiere nobody will remember what happened in 1997. I appreciate your high artistic understanding. But sometimes people apply principles from outside to the creator. You know the artist has a very very spontaneous character. To the real artist making music is great fun. If it is not fun they are not going to do it because it is a tough job. For me in the last 30 years if I am not traveling, every morning from 8.30 am up to 4 pm I am composing. It is like a religious ritual. You need good health and patience. But still you have to have fun. If it was only something philosophical I don't think I would do it.

I thought you where always aiming at an idea of unity in your music?
Tan Dun: I am trying to. For example when you look at The Map the big challenge for me is the structure. Because this is my motivation. It is from nine villages. They all speak different dialects. And it would have been possible to make another piece like the Symphony 1997. (I don't want to criticize that piece, as it was for a certain occasion.) But in The Map I have a special way to link them all together. For example I have an orchestral counterpoint which stays the same while there are different vocal parts. You have a lot of ways to create structure. It is like architecture. So I am quite confident about The Map. It is like a collage although I wouldn't call it a collage because it was well designed beforehand. It is my work, and it is not for any kind of public occasion. Public occasions have double-edged swords. Sometimes they can hurt an artist, but sometimes they can also promote him. It is very dangerous for an artist to take a public occasion. If you know exactly what the public occasion is, you will survive. Otherwise you will be destroyed. Easily.

Nach oben