Visual feast marks composer’s workTan Dun lost his luggage while changing planes on the way to Seoul. When he arrived downtown Tuesday morning for a press conference at the Chosun Hotel, he apologized to reporters about the way he was dressed. Wearing a loose red sweater and denim jacket with the collar turned up, he naturally wore the aura of a music celebrity.
“Image” has always been vital for Tan Dun, a 47-year-old composer whose works subtly mix classical and contemporary, Eastern and Western, and musical and visual. His performances are saturated with visual details that are heavily rooted in the composer’s cultural upbringing.
The metaphors embedded in the idea of water and the way Tan Dun presents them on stage in his “Water Passion After St. Matthew” ― which he will perform tonight at the Tongyeong music festival ― is more visual than acoustic. That may explain why some critics call him “a conceptual musician.”
“I always try to think music can be seen, and that images can be heard in a concert,” he says.
“People in classical music say visuals distract sounds. But one can’t become a good composer without visual imagination, the sense of color, the vision and the theatrical experience.”
Tan Dun has collaborated with dancers, opera singers and filmmakers. He has recorded two soundtracks, including the original score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” by Ang Lee and “Hero” by Zhang Yimou.
He is currently working on a new opera for the Metropolitan Opera and James Levine, which will premiere in 2007, and a new work for the Berlin Philharmonic.
For those who demand credentials, Tan Dun is a winner of some of today’s most prestigious music awards: the Grawemeyer Award for classical composition and Musical America’s “Composer of the Year.” His music has premiered throughout the world; performed by leading orchestras, opera houses and at international music festivals, by celebrities such as Yo-Yo Ma, Christopher Lamb and Simon Rattle.
Born in Hunan, China, in 1957, he has spent the last 18 years in New York. He studied music at Beijing’s Central Conservatory and Columbia University.
“By the way,” he interrupts. “You know two people from the province of Hunan. One is Mao Tse-tung. The other is me.”
“Water Passion After St. Matthew” is an homage to Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” originally made to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. The work gathers a dynamic instrumental ensemble, which includes transparent water bowls, percussion instruments and electronically processed sounds from ancient stringed instruments.
It uses the idea of water as a metaphor for Jesus’ resurrection and other biblical references. In contrast to Bach’s heavy and low mixtures, the tone for Tan Dun’s “Passion” gets lighter and higher as it reaches the climax, suggesting the death of Christ is nearing.
“I took a Buddhist approach to it,” he says. “In Eastern tradition, we see that a person becomes spiritually lighter as death comes closer and we ascend to heaven. We become more free.”
For Tan Dun, the performance tonight at Tongyeong is a meaningful occasion. The festival is a celebration of composer Yun I-sang, a Korean exiled to Germany for political reasons. Tan Dun says Yun’s works greatly influenced his early compositions.
“Yun is like a bridge,” he says. “His presence in classical music allowed us to reconstruct a voice between east and west.”
As for his luggage, it arrived eventually, so he won’t have to perform in the denim jacket.
by Park Soo-mee
Tan Dun will perform “Water Passion” at the Tongyeong International Music Festival tonight, and again at 6 p.m. Sunday at the LG Arts Center.