To give you an idea of the breadth of creativity of Tan Dun, here is a piece he wrote to played with water.
The composer grew up in a rural village in Hunan, China:
He is now one of the most sought after contemporary composers in the world.
Perhaps it is a bit of an offense to even write of Tan Dun on this blog, as his fame is immensely extensive in not only circles of the concert hall but pop culture as well. The man has won copious awards for his avant-garde, populist style (yes, that exists) that you might’ve heard in films like Crouching Tiger and Hero.
However, the piece I’ve decided to post to showcase his unhinged, precisely chaotic style seems to be relatively unknown among his expansive repertoire of operas, organic music, soundtracks, and orchestral theatre.
The piece is entitled Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra (1999). The work is an arrangement from another one of his pieces called Ghost Opera for Pipa and String Quartet.
China has had a “Ghost Opera” tradition at Taoist funerals that dates back 4,000 years. In the tradition, shamans “communicate with spirits from the past and future and establish dialogues between nature and the human soul.”
Tan Dun wrote the piece in light of his experiences with this tradition as a child.
For good measure, let’s take a little peek at the Pipa.
Although it originated in Persia (modern day Iran), the archetype was introduced to the Chinese by India in 346-53 CE
Originally with 4 frets it developed greatly over the millennium and by the 20th century was seen with 17, 24, 29 or 30 frets.
Besides whole and half steps between notes like on a piano, the pipa has a few ¾ notes- something not often heard in the Western repertoire.
Its sound is unmistakably “Chinese” to the common Western ear.
The composer has truly amalgamated Western and Eastern music traditions in a extraordinarily attractive way.
Beautifully written for in the work, here is Tan Dun’s second movement of his Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra.