Chinese composer Tan Dun’s ethnically diverse and innovative compositions have been performed in the major concert halls of the world and have earned prestigious awards. He has been called on to score music for some the major events of his time, including the reunification of Hong Kong with China and the world’s celebration of the new millennium. Tan grew up planting rice during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, but his music has taken him to Manhattan, New York, and on tour around the globe. He came into the Hollywood spotlight in 2001 when his score for the soundtrack to Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Academy Award. He has become one of most prominent composers in the “world classical” genre, but Tan insists that he is not an ambassador between East and West. His goal, rather, is to “create my own unity,” he told Time.
Born on August 18, 1957 in Si Mao, in China’s central Hunan province, Tan was raised by his grandmother. Recruited to “re-education,” or forced labor, as a child, Tan planted rice during China’s Cultural Revolution. He grew up among peasants in a shamanistic culture that bore a distinct linguistic and folk identity. Tan kept his ears open to the music of village folk songs, and then to occupy his mind, arrangedfantastic compositions of the music with any instrument he could find. In addition to traditional folk instruments like the erhu, or one-string Chinese fiddle, he played on woks and agricultural implements. At 17, he was the village musician, playing at parties, weddings, and funerals. At 19, he heard his first piece of Western classical music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, while playing violin in a Beijing opera company. In 1978, he was selected over thousands of applicants for a spot at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition.
At age 22, Tan was recognized as the leader of an emerging “New Wave” art movement when he wrote the symphony Li Sao, based on a fourth-century Hunan lament, to be played by a Western symphony orchestra. In 1983, Tan was the first Chinese composer to win an international prize since the start of the Communist Revolution in 1949. With his string quartet Feng Ya Song, Tan was awarded the Weber Prize from Dresden, Germany. Subsequently, performances and broadcasts of his work were banned by the Communist Party for six months as “spiritual pollution.” The composer’s orchestral work On Taoism was noted for its Chinese feel though written for a Western orchestra. Inspired by the death of his grandmother, the work was Tan’s first international breakthrough in 1985.
Tan accepted a fellowship at Columbia University in 1986 to work on his doctorate in music. He studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards and made New York City his home. As a student, he wrote in an “international atonal style,” according the All Classical Guide online. His truly
Listened to village songs and played on folk instruments while working in rice fields as a boy; heard first piece of Western classical music at age 19, while playing violin in a Beijing opera company; entered Beijing’s Central Conservatory, 1978; first Chinese composer since 1949 to win an international prize for Fen Ya Song, 1983; work was then banned in China; was recognized internationally for On Taoism, 1985; accepted fellowship at Columbia University, 1986; composed Heaven Earth Mankind for Chinese-Hong Kong reunification ceremony, 1997; 2000 Today. A World Symphony for the Millennium, accompanied New Year’s celebrations worldwide, 1999; composer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film soundtrack, 2000.
Awards: Weber Prize, Dresden, Germany, 1983; Sun-tory Prize Commission, 1992; Marco Polo named Opera of the Year by German opera magazine Oper, 1996; Grawemeyer Prize for Marco Polo, 1996; elected by Toru Takemitsu for City of Toronto-Glenn Gould Prize in Music and Communication, 1996; Classical Musician of the Year, New York Times, 1997; Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Sony Classical, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, (212) 833-8000. Website— Tan Dun at Sony Classical: http://www.tandun.com/index.html.
innovative flair became apparent in Eight Colors for string quartet in 1988, and the next year in 9 Songs, which employed the sounds of 50 newly created ceramic instruments. In 1992, Tan became the youngest composer to win the Suntory Prize Commission, and in 1996, was the youngest to be awarded the Grawemeyer Prize for his opera Marco Polo.
Tan’s first taste of mainstream Western success came with his Ghost Opera, which he wrote for the avant-garde Kronos Quartet in 1994. Tan wove a Bach prelude, a Chinese folk song, chanting monks, and the words of Shakespeare into the work. Marco Polo, which was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival and debuted at the Munich Biennale in 1996, was also voted Opera of the Year by the German magazine Oper. Among the composer’s 14 film scores for American and Chinese films is a jazz-edged score for 1998’s Fallen starring Denzel Washington. His score for director Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon featured famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Asian pop star CoCo Lee. For the work, which was a blend of ethnic and symphonic music, Tan won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. To the delight of the audience, Tan’s Oscar acceptance speech was fast-paced and spoken mostly in Chinese.
Tan has been called on to score music for some of the major events of his time. To celebrate the reunification of China and Hong Kong, Tan composed the 72-minute Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), which featured a bianzhong—a set of 65 ceremonial bronze chimes from China’s Hubei province from 433 B.C. that had been unearthed by archaeologists. Tan conducted the Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestra in the key of D major—the same as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy—to an African beat. Time critic Terry Teachout called the piece “both frankly romantic and immediately accessible— Beethoven’s Ninth boldly recast for postmoderns,” and a “seductively savory multi-cultural stew,” which featured Ma on cello. Tan composed the symphony in 13 short movements instead of fewer, longer ones. Despite the cultural and political importance of the July 1 changeover ceremony, Teachout declared it “the classical-music event of the summer” of 1997. The minute the musicians had set down their instruments, a recording of the event was rushed into print by Tan’s record company, Sony Classical, and debuted at number five on the Billboard classical chart.
2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium, was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Television, and Sony Classical to debut New Year’s Day 2000. A “mosaic” symphony, 2000 Today was a sampling of Tan’s ideas for music in the new millennium. The symphony was heard on 27 hours of New Year’s coverage by more than 55 television networks worldwide as midnight reached each successive time zone.
Though his embrace of many cultures is reflected clearly in his work, Tan cringes whenever he is likened to a musical ambassador bringing together the East and the West. “No East anymore, no West anymore,” he told Time. “My purpose is to be flexible and freely flying around among all kinds of experience. Not to be driven by the wave of culture—fashion, trends, isms, schools—but to create my own unity.”
Five Pieces in Human Accent, piano, 1978.
Li Sao, symphony, 1979-80.
Feng Ya Song, string quartet, 1982.
Fu, for sopranos, bass, and ensemble, 1982.
On Taoism, orchestral work, 1985.
In Distance, for piccolo, harp, and bass drum, 1987.
Out of Beijing, opera for violin and orchestra, 1987.
Eight Colours, for string quartet, 1989.
9 Songs, ritual opera for 20 singers/performers, 1989.
Silk Road, for soprano and percussion, 1989.
Elegy: Snow in June, concerto for cello and four percussionists, 1992.
Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee, for orchestra, 1993.
Lament: Autumn Wind, for any six instruments, any voice, and conductor, 1993.
CAGE, piano, 1993.
Marco Polo, opera, 1994.
Yi, cello concerto, 1994.
Ghost Opera (written for Kronos Quartet), 1994.
Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), 1997.
2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium, 1999.
Snow in June, Composers Recordings Inc., 1993.
Ghost Opera, Wea/Atlantic/Nonesuch, 1997.
Marco Polo, Sony Classical, 1997.
Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), Sony Classical, 1997.
Death and Fire, Ondine, 1998.
Bitter Love, Sony Classical, 1999.
2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium, Sony Classical, 1999.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (soundtrack), Sony Classical, 2000.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1997.
Time, August 11, 1997, p. 76.
“Tan Dun,” All Classical Guide, http://www.allclassical.com (March 30, 2001).
“Tan Dun,” G. Schirmer, Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, http://www.schirmer.com/composers/tan_bio.html (March 30, 2001).
Academy-award winning composer Tan Dun (born 1957) grew up in Communist China during the peak years of Premier Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Although he never had formal music training as a young child, when Dun first heard the music of such Western legends as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart at the age of 19 his life suddenly gained direction and he began his successful career in the symphony.
Dun was born on August 18, 1957, in Simao, Hunan Province, the son of Tan Xiang Qiu and Fang Qun Ying. When Dun was a teenager he was sent to a commune to work in the rice paddies. Chairman Mao, who now led the country in a communist-inspired cultural reawakening since taking over the government in 1949, determined that all China's educated young people must be given the experience of peasants to better understanding their way of life. While living two years in the peasant village to which he was assigned Dun played the violin, began to collect peasant folk songs and music, and became the village's musical conductor. Recalling that period, Dun explained to Martin Steinberg in Asian Week: "For a long time, I would play the violin and have only three strings. That's because I didn't have a violin teacher. During the Cultural Revolution, first of all, it was not allowed to teach Western music. Secondly, I didn't have money to buy the extra string."
Due to a tragic accident that resulted in the death of many musicians affiliated with the Peking opera troupe, Dun was summoned to join the troupe, remaining in Peking for nearly a year and a half. That opportunity gave way to an even greater challenge in 1978 when he was one of 30 students chosen from thousands of applicants to attend the recently reopened Central Conservatory. Mao had died in September of 1976, and life in China was gradually beginning to change as many old-school communists fell from power. Western culture—including music and other arts—was slowly revealed to the Chinese people, and at the conservatory where Dun studied with Zhao Xindao and Li Yinghai, he was finally introduced to the classical music of Europe.
Emerged as a Serious Composer
A visit to China by the Philadelphia Orchestra during the relaxation of cultural barriers in the late 1970s was Dun's first Western-music experience. Exposed to the works of composers such as Bela Bartok, Dun studied with several guest conductors who visited Peking, including Goehr, Crumb, Henze, Takemitsu, and Yun. Tun told Steinberg that, once he started listening to Western music, he "suddenly realized that kind of music should be my future." His talent and passion evident in his 1980 symphony Li Sao, Dun stood out from the other students in his class. Unfortunately, he also became embroiled in controversy when his music spawned debates among the government and public officials, who determined in 1983 that it was "spiritual pollution." That same year he won second place in the international Weber prize competition for his "String Quartet: Fen Ya Song." Dun was the first Chinese musician to win that honor since 1949. His 1985 work, "On Taoism," caused even more political controversy, despite being hailed as one of the most significant classical works ever created by a Chinese composer.
In 1986 Dun moved to New York City to complete his studies in music at Columbia University. Studying alongside classmates Chou Wen-chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards, Dun also often played his violin on the streets of Greenwich Village to help pay for tuition and rent. He received his doctorate in musical arts from Columbia in 1993. By the time he finished his studies Dun had won several awards, and in 1988 his music had been featured on a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)-sponsored Chinese music festival in Glasgow, Scotland. Other honors included an orchestral piece commissioned by the Institute for Development of Intercultural Relations through the Arts in 1988 and Japan's prestigious Suntory Prize in 1992.
Nature Inspired Work
According to Joanna C. Lee in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Dun once described himself as a composer "swinging and swimming freely among different cultures." From his childhood making music with found objects and his solid grounding in Chinese philosophy, Lee noted that, in addition to those critical pieces of his genius, it has been the inspiration of nature that has joined forces with Dun's cultural legacy to add the qualities of "timelessness, spirituality, and mysticism" to his musical compositions.
Several of Dun's compositions serve as tributes to the simplicity of nature, among them his 2002 work, "Water Passion after St. Matthew," the fourth and final sequence in a major musical commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. Barry Kilpatrick, reviewing the composition in the American Record Guide, noted that "Water permeates the work's instrumentation and is a striking visible element of its staging." In performance, a total of 17 lit bowls of water form a cross. A mixed chorus, soprano and bass soloists, violin and cello soloists, and three percussionists are positioned around the cross. The percussionists each play various water instruments, including shakers, tubes, phones, and gongs. Choir members carry Tibetan finger cymbals and smooth stones specified by the composer as coming "preferably from the sea or river." The vocal soloists, according to Kilpatrick, had to master non-Western techniques that included overtone singing, with the bass holding a low C for a significant period of time. The string soloists perform with pitch bending, microtones, and altered tuning systems heard in traditional Chinese orchestras. Dun's two-part "Water Passion," Kilpatrick concluded, is one of the most amazing works of art the critic had ever experienced. On the Sony Classical Music Web site a contributor indicated that the composer uses water as a "metaphor for the unity of the eternal and the external, as well as a symbol of baptism, renewal, re-creation and resurrection."
Hollywood Came Calling
Dun's first film score was composed for the 1997 film Fallen, starring Denzel Washington. On his second film project, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Dun worked closely with director Ang Lee to capture the traditional 19th-century Ching dynasty elements that reflect the martial-arts film's themes of love and violence. Following rave reviews at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, the movie thrilled audiences in cities throughout the world. Lee commented that he created his film as a musical in which Dun's composition is interwoven with the story. In addition to a Academy Award in the United States, the film score won Dun other awards, including a Grammy award and the Anthony Asquith Award of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Dun was also asked to create the film score for director Zhang Yimou's historical action film The Heroes, after the two worked together on a project for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. For his efforts with Yimou, Dun won an award for best original film score when the 22nd Hong Kong Film Awards were present on April 6, 2003.
Nurtured by Symphonic Music
Although Dun has enjoyed his work for film, symphonic music remains his true love. On July 1, 1997, when Great Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong to mainland China, Dun's commissioned symphony, "Heaven Earth Mankind" joined Eastern and Western traditions. The work featured bianzhong bronze chime bells, an important musical instrument in ancient China. According to a contributor to China Radio International Online, the symphony represents a "dramatic montage" that embodies the "panorama of human history and envisages a new global community."
Dun has focused his musical talent in countless ways, and has created a legacy that represents his boundless energy and creativity. Among his original operas are "Nine Songs," 1989; "Marco Polo," 1993–94; "Peony Pavilion," 1998; and "Tea," 2002. His orchestral works include "Feng Ya Song," 1983; "Eight Colors for String Quartet," 1986–88; "Silk Road," 1989; "Soundshape," 1990; "The Pin," 1992; "Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee (German artist, 1879–1940)," 1992; and the experimental performance work "The Map: Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra," 2003.
Chinese Roots Remained Strong
In late November of 2003, Dun made a special trip to his home province in central China for a performance of "The Map: Saving Disappearing Music Traditions." Having premiered the piece earlier that year with the Boston Symphony, the Shanghai Orchestra performed in Hunan for an audience of 3,000, composed mostly of ethnic Miao and Tujia people. Some had never heard an orchestra perform, although they were familiar with the strains of traditional Chinese music that weave throughout the work. The piece itself was inspired by Dun's 1999 tour of Hunan, which is home to many of China's ethnic minorities.
According to Lee, Dun's "Orchestral Theatre" sequence provided "perhaps the best summary" of the composer's concerns in the 1990s. As quoted by Lee, Dun maintained that the cycle aims to "restore music's place 'as an integral part of spiritual life, as ritual as shared participation' through the 'dramatic medium' of the orchestra." In this work, as in other compositions by Dun, the composer reflects on his Chinese roots with the enhanced perspective he has acquired while living in the United States. In an interview for China Daily online, in July 2001, Dun said that, "As a Chinese-born musician, I am always willing to cooperate with any outstanding and ambitious Chinese artist to promote Chinese culture. I will surely get my part done best in this mission."
World Travels Continued
In 1994 Dun married Jane Huang, and the couple had one son. While he made his home in New York City and traveled frequently to China, Dun also continued to appear around the United States and throughout the world at music festivals, including the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival in Massachusetts, where he served as artistic director; the 2000 Barbican Centre's Fire Crossing Water Festival in London, England; and the 2002 Oregon Bach Festival, where he was composer-in-residence. Xinhua News Agency writer Xiao Hong commented that the composer was "born with an enterprising spirit," that had taken him from Hunan to Beijing to Manhattan, "learning to transcend the musical genres of Hunan Drum Opera, Peking Opera and western music." Dun's response to all of this was to note that, "If there is a conservatory on the Moon, I will definitely apply to go there and learn Moon melodies."
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980.
American Record Guide, March–April 2003; July–August 2003.
AsianWeek, February 16, 2001.
China Daily, July 2, 2001.
China Post, December 25, 2000.
Columbia East Asian Review, Fall 1997.
South China Morning Post, April 7, 2003.
Sydney Morning Herald, August 24, 2003.
"Authentic 'World' Composer," China Radio International,http:/web12.cri.com.cn (December 13, 2003).
"Dun," Sony Classical Web site,http://www.sonyclassical.com/artists/dun/adhome.html (December 13, 2003).
Grawemeyer Awards Web site,http://www.grawemeyer.org/music/previous/98.htm (December 13, 2003).
"Tan Dun," G. Schirmer Web site,http://www.schirmer.com/composers/tan-bio.html (December 13, 2003).
"Tan Dun: Profile," British Broadcasting Corporation Web site,http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/music/features/tan-dun.shtml (December 13, 2003).
Born: Si Mao, Hunan Province, China, 18 August 1957
Genre: Classical, Soundtrack
Tan Dun, a much-commissioned and much-honored composer originally trained in the Peking Opera, won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Score for his soundtrack to Ang Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which received the most nominations for a foreign film in Academy history. During the ceremony at which the award was announced, CoCo Lee sang "A Love Before Time," nominated from the score as Best Song; it was co-composed by Dun and Jorge Calandrelli, with lyrics by James Schamus.
Dun conducted the performance of his score by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai National Orchestra, and the Shanghai Percussion Ensemble; soloists on Chinese instruments such as the erhu, bawu, dizi, rawap, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was also nominated for honors in the 2001 Golden Globe Awards competition. It won the 2002 Classical Brit Contemporary Music Award and the 2001 Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. "A Love Before Time" was nominated for a 2001 Grammy as Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media, and one movement, "The Eternal Vow," was nominated for the Grammy as Best Instrumental Composition. Dun won the Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music at the Orange British Academy Film Awards in 2001.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Drago n was the first film score by Dun, who emigrated to the United States from his native China in 1986. However, his musical accomplishments include 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium (1999), commissioned by the BBC, Public Broadcast System Television, and Sony Classical. The piece was heard on fifty-five major television networks during the BBC's live twenty-seven-hour telecast of millennium celebrations around the world on January 1, 2000. Arias from Dun's opera Peony Pavilion were recorded by soprano Ying Huang and released on the album Bitter Love (1999). His Ghost Opera (1994) for string quartet and pipa, with water, stones, paper, and metal, was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Hancher Auditorium/University of Iowa for the Kronos Quartet, and Wu Man, who recorded it in 1996 for a 1997 release. Dun won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his opera Marco Polo (libretto by Paul Griffiths), commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival and performed in Munich, Rome, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, among other cities; it was named Opera of the Year in 1996 by the German magazine Oper. He has won Japan's Suntory Prize (1992) and the City of Toronto-Glenn Gould Protege Prize in Music and Communication (1996). He also maintains an extraordinary career as a conductor.
Dun is a graduate of Beijing's Central Conservatory and holds a doctoral degree in Music Arts from Columbia University. Raised by his grandmother and exposed as a child to China's rural, shamanistic culture, he was sent during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution to a Huangjin commune to harvest rice. Pursuing inherent musical impulses, he began studying local folk music and conducting villagers in musical celebrations and rituals at age seventeen, encouraging them to play whatever sound sources were at hand. When several Beijing Opera musicians on tour drowned in a boating accident, he was inducted as a substitute string-player and in 1978 was one of thirty selected from among thousands of applicants to attend the Central Conservatory. Dun became a leading composer of China's cultural "New Wave" of the 1980s, won recognition at home and abroad for his compositions, but suffered political backlash. He achieved creative breakthroughs in combining the natural sounds of his heritage and personal background with Western symphonic and chamber-music forms. Dun's atonalism is tempered by his command of a vast timbral palette, a sensitivity to dynamics, and a deft use of space and silence, making his music accessible to a wide audience.
Ghost Dance (Nonesuch, 1997); Heaven Earth Mankind: Symphony 1997 (Sony Classical, 1997); Marco Polo (Sony Classical, 1997); Bitter Love (Sony Classical, 1999); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Sony Classical, 2000); Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (Sony Classical, 2002); Passion After St. Matthew (Sony Classical, 2002).
Tan Dun, significant Chinese composer; b. Si Mao, central Hunan Province, Aug. 18, 1957. While working among peasants during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he began collecting folk songs. After playing viola in the Beijing Opera orch. (1976-77), he entered the recently reopened Central Cons, in Beijing in 1978 to study composition (B.A.; M.A.). In the 1980s he attended guest lectures given by Goehr, Henze, Crumb et al. In 1983 his String Quartet won a prize in Dresden, the first international music prize won by a Chinese composer since 1949. His Western compositional leanings led to a 6-month ban on performances or broadcasts of his music soon thereafter. In 1986 he settled in N.Y., where he accepted a fellowship at Columbia Univ. and studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards. His early works are romantic and florid; after 1982, they reveal a progressing advancement of dissonance and sophistication, while retaining Chinese contexts. Many of his compositions require instrumentalists to vocalize in performance.
dramatic: 9 Songs, ritual opera for 20 Singers/Performers (N.Y., May 12, 1989); Marco Polo, opera (1993-94). ORCH.: Li Sao, sym. (1979-80); Piano Concerto (1983); Symphony in 2 Movements (1985); On Taoism (1985; Hong Kong, June 28, 1986); Out of Beijing Opera for Violin and Orch. (1987); Orchestral Theatre I: Xun (1990), II: Re (1992), and III: Red (1994); Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee (1991-92; Glasgow, March 27, 1993); Yi, cello concerto (1993-94). CHAMBER: Feng Ya Song, string quartet (1982); 8 Colors for String Quartet (1986-88); In Distance for Piccolo, Harp, and Bass Drum (1987); Elegy: Snow in June, concerto for Cello and 4 Percussionists (1991); Circle with 4 Trios, Conductor, and Audience (1992); Lament: Autumn Wind for Any 6 Instruments, Any Voice, and Conductor (1993). Piano : 5 Pieces in Human Accent (1978); Traces (1989; rev. 1992); R;Beatles (1990); CAGE (1993). VOCAL: Fu for 2 Sopranos, Bass, and Ensemble (1982); Silk Road for Soprano and Percussion (1989).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire