A ripe harvest of Eastern promise

Tan Dun's works effortlessly cross the usual boundaries between East and West, between 'popular' and 'classical'. Now a major festival at the Barbican offers us a deeper understanding of this Chinese composer and his music
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At 43 last month, Tan Dun has become far and away the best known of the generation of Chinese composers who survived the Cultural Revolution and went on to make reputations in the West. Though there have been times recently when his music has seemed almost ubiquitous, in itself remarkable, Fire Crossing Water - a festival built around Tan's work, which can be seen and heard at London's Barbican Centre the weekend after next - promises to give an especially revealing range of contexts to his output.

At 43 last month, Tan Dun has become far and away the best known of the generation of Chinese composers who survived the Cultural Revolution and went on to make reputations in the West. Though there have been times recently when his music has seemed almost ubiquitous, in itself remarkable, Fire Crossing Water - a festival built around Tan's work, which can be seen and heard at London's Barbican Centre the weekend after next - promises to give an especially revealing range of contexts to his output.

The heroic stories of Tan's shamanistically influenced childhood, of being sent to plant rice with the peasants during the Cultural Revolution, and of his 18 months as a fiddler and arranger with a local opera troupe, before gaining a Western musical education and ending up at New York's Columbia University in the mid-1980s trying to write serial music - all these have been reiterated many times.

It has recently been suggested that the composer has somewhat exaggerated his claims to a rural, shamanistic upbringing. Yet it is surely ultimately the quality of his compositions themselves - with their often effortless crossing of the usual boundaries between East and West, between "popular", "Western classical" and "avant-garde" - that matters.

Tan's opera Marco Polo, which won him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 1998, was heard that year at the Barbican, as was Peony Pavilion, a collaboration with Peter Sellars. (Sellars will be, in the fashionable phrase, "curating" Fire Crossing Water, which should help spice up the festival's talks and less formal parts.) But it is Heaven Earth Mankind: Symphony 1997 and 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium - commissioned, respectively, for the reunification of Hong Kong with China and for the Millennium celebrations, and both broadcast around the world - which have brought their composer an international audience of which few can dream.

Yet if these have also brought criticisms that he has sold out to instant, cheap popularity, the Barbican's festival should make some people think again. Surprisingly too, perhaps, there's still much recent music of his which we've not heard, including no fewer than one world and two British premieres, all of which, in their different ways, promise to be substantial.

Fire Crossing Water seems typical of the Barbican's present rejuvenation. The Centre's imaginative deployment of its various spaces - in this case, the Pit Theatre, one of the cinemas, and even the conservatory as well as the foyer areas, in addition to its concert hall - has been vital in bringing different art forms together.

Inspired by Tan's journey from China to New York, by his Buddhist view of life as cyclic, and by his involvement with other artists on their own creative journeys, Graham Sheffield and Charlotte Wadham of the Barbican have tried to build the festival into an integrated whole. At least one potential collaborator - the video artist Bill Viola - is featured, too: as Tan puts it, "what kinds of artists you see today, you really want to work with them tomorrow. I love these ideas."

The Zhang Jia Jie Cymbal Ensemble - from the composer's own Central Hunan province - will be making its first trip outside China to perform the songs and dances of the thousand-year-old tradition of the Tujia people. The imaginative cymbal writing in Tan's new Water Passion after St Matthew is apparently strongly influenced by such musicians.

This work is one of four 21st-century Passions commissioned for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death by the Internationale Bachakademie, all first performed in Stuttgart under a month ago, as I reported here last week. Even for a composer who may have come late to Western classical music, the implicit comparison with Bach's own greatest account of the Passion narrative was daunting. Some 80 per cent of his text is taken directly from the Gospel, in English; the remaining 20 per cent is from Taoist sources and Tan himself.

Perhaps a little cheekily, yet with his own inimitable flair, Tan has made one of his favourite elemental themes, water, into a major feature of this 90-minute work for soprano and bass soloists, mixed chorus, six instrumentalists and electronic processing. Water Passion after St Matthew, the premiere of which I attended, is staged around a cross formed by 17 transparent water bowls, lit with magical effect from below. A percussionist stands at each of three points of this cross, with the conductor - Tan himself - at the base. From the evocative, theatrical opening to the work's closing moments (which I won't give away), these three musicians are crucial, and they play many unusual and even specially constructed instruments (David Cossin, one of the percussionists, was the composer's assistant on this), as well as pouring the water through their fingers and beating and penetrating its surface with all manner of different objects. Stones feature prominently, too.

Typically, Tan originally had all kinds of crazy ideas for this work: incorporating a whole Beijing Opera troupe, specialist singers in many different musical styles, even a ballet dancer. (One wonders what he will make of the commission he has for the Metropolitan Opera in 2005.) In the end, he opted for two main instrumental soloists - the amazing American folk fiddler Mark O'Connor, who also gets two solo spots in the festival, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, an old friend of Tan's, who plays unaccompanied Bach and George Crumb before the Water Passion - and two amplified voices.

The latter must have an unusually large range and be able to do everything from Mongolian-style overtone singing to floating the most beautiful lines imaginable. Elizabeth Keusch and Stephen Bryant, the singers, also have to play many different characters: the soprano's roles include the Devil, and soprano and bass share the parts of Judas and Peter. Keusch - another remarkable, and still young, American who took over quite late into the project - told me that her Beijing Opera-style moments demand "definite characterisation, with very witchy, otherworldly kind of sounds, with something very foreboding in it", pointing out that some of the more histrionic things would simply sound silly sung in Western operatic style. She also says that the hardest thing Tan requires of her is to laugh in the right way.

As suggested, Fire Crossing Water is brimful with other events, too. On Friday there's the first performance of Crouching Tiger, a "music and video concerto" based on the music Tan wrote for Ang Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which James Schamus and Ang Lee set images from the film to music performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the London Sinfonietta; and there's a season of Ang Lee films.

And on Sunday, Bill Viola - introduced to Tan by Sellars - will offer a new video to Edgard Varÿse's classic Déserts (played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pierre-André Valade, before the British premiere of Tan's The Gate: Orchestral Theatre IV. In this, a Beijing Opera soprano, a Western classical soprano and a traditional Japanese puppeteer enact a commemoration of women sacrificed for love. Oh yes, and there's a video artist (Mike Newman) and water percussion as well.

Just another normal day for Tan, then.

Fire Crossing Water, the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891), 29 Sept to 1 Oct

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