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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 5

Chinese composer Tan Dun fuses old and new*

by Bruno Deschênes / February 9, 2004

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Tan Dun is without doubt the best known Chinese composer in the West. His popularity seems to owe as much to his participation in political and media-based projects as to his talent, the best example being his Symphony 1997, written for the handing over of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Tan Dun's works from the 1980s have fused with the spirit of a counter-culture like those of Toru Takemitsu or John Cage, which question the dominance of Western music. In the 1980s, Tan Dun's composing changed considerably and his style was to have a great influence on other Chinese composers.

Tan Dun would allude to all sorts of other works, even falsifying some of them. The most important change in his writing was that he brought together, in a single work, stylistic and cultural elements from highly diverse sources. In many of his subsequent compositions, he developed a more stripped-down style, less complex, simpler.

His opera Marco Polo, written between 1991 and 1995 and given its world premiere in 1996, is a very good example of a composing style that resembles a sound mosaic more than anything else. He describes this work as "an opera within an opera." It incorporates musical themes borrowed from various cultures or other works, including Mahler's Song of the Earth and Shakespearean passages recited in the style of the Peking opera.

Tan Dun's Symphony 1997 is also filled with the most disparate musical references. Among others, you can hear the famous Chinese bells made over 2,400 years ago that produce two different sounds, passages from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a melody from a Hong Kong street opera, and a quote from his concerto for cello. Strange to say, he cites the Chinese air "Molihua" (jasmine flower) from Puccini's Turandot rather than the original, traditional melody.

Tan Dun cites, reproduces, and imitates other music in order to give these melodies a fresh context. He offers his audience musical mosaics of his own expression, which could be heard very clearly in his score for the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

* This article is a summary of the article by Christian Utz, "A Marco Polo (re-) constructed by the West, Intercultural Aspects in Tan Dun's Compositional Approach," appearing in World New Music Magazine, # 12, pp. 1–7.

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