'I eat sushi, I eat spaghetti, I eat fish and chips. That's my life'

Tan Dun is collaborating with director Ang Lee, artist Bill Viola and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He has a lot on his plate, he tells Trevor Johnston
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The Independent Culture

It's a measure of the multi-media esteem in which Chinese composer-conductor Tan Dun is held that, when he calls, all manner of the great and the good pitch right up for him. The roster for "Fire Crossing Water", next weekend's mini-festival at the Barbican, makes for impressively wide-ranging reading, bringing together the likes of leading classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, provocative opera director Peter Sellars, major video artist Bill Viola, and acclaimed film-maker Ang Lee of Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility fame.

It's a measure of the multi-media esteem in which Chinese composer-conductor Tan Dun is held that, when he calls, all manner of the great and the good pitch right up for him. The roster for "Fire Crossing Water", next weekend's mini-festival at the Barbican, makes for impressively wide-ranging reading, bringing together the likes of leading classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, provocative opera director Peter Sellars, major video artist Bill Viola, and acclaimed film-maker Ang Lee of Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility fame.

Over three evenings, London audiences will get their first chance to hear Tan Dun's latest works, which continue to expand his interests beyond the familiar concert-hall routine. His Water Passion after St Matthew, commissioned by the Stuttgart Bachakademie Internationale for the recent 250-year J S Bach anniversary, embraces electronics and so-called water percussion. (Hit gong, drop in basin of water, hear what happens.) Meanwhile, The Gate, the fourth in Tan's Orchestral Theatre series, manages to combine Peking Opera stylings, a Western operatic soprano, Japanese puppetry with large-screen video montage and even a speaking part for the conductor.

However, it's Friday night's world premiere which is bound to be the hottest ticket for contemporary music followers and film aficionados alike. The programme promises "a music and video concerto" which sees Tan conducting his score for Ang Lee's new martial-arts adventure-romance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while images from the movie are projected at the same time. On the evening itself, Peter Sellars will be hosting a prefatory discussion with both composer and film-maker. From his apartment in New York, Tan (now an American citizen) explained quite how it's all going to work.

"Originally, the music was written to support the picture, but in order to create a new concerto form for this performance, the music has now become the foreground," says the 43-year-old, whose remarkable career trajectory has taken him from planting rice fields during China's Cultural Revolution through formative musical experiences with the Peking Opera in Hunan province, to the prominence he has won in the concert halls and opera houses of the West since he left the Beijing Conservatory for studies at Columbia University in 1986. "Basically, I've taken the fragments of the soundtrack music and worked them into a new score which puts more attention on Yo-Yo Ma's cello soloing, his improvised cadenzas, his exotic fingering and crazy stuff. At the same time, Ang Lee is pulling together all his interesting images, even some material he didn't use in the final cut of the film, to run together with the live orchestra. Actually, he's still in the editing room with that, but he's sure he'll be ready in time."

Tan first met Ang Lee, an expatriate from Taiwan, in New York in the late 1980s, when the latter was still an aspiring writer. The Crouching Tiger project, though, emanates from an idea Lee first floated four years ago while finishing The Ice Storm, when he talked of doing "a kung-fu movie with fighting and women characters and the idea of an unreachable, invisible love:. Marking Lee's return to Chinese-language production, the finished film (which is set for UK cinemas next January) certainly fulfils his intentions. It's a beguiling art house-meets-chopsocky combination of dazzling fight sequences and yearning romanticism, all of it undeniably intensified by Tan's score, a fusion of both Chinese ethnic instrumentation and the lush string writing in the great Hollywood tradition.

Although Tan had previously provided the spooky soundtrack for a duff Denzel Washington thriller called Fallen, the Crouching Tiger music, with its bringing together of Eastern and Western modes of expression, and its meeting point between "high" and "low" cultures (surely, the first time the London Sinfonietta has accompanied a kung-fu movie), is rather more more characteristic of the abiding concerns of his "serious" composing career. Still, music critics have decried a distinct sense of musical dilution at the expense of accessibility. Tan's earlier John Cage-influenced avant-garde scores which made his name in the West have been succeeded by increasingly outward-looking forms (including Symphony 1997, the official music of the Hong Kong handover) and his current concentration on the multi-media sphere.

"I eat sushi, I eat spaghetti, I eat fish and chips," he laughs. "That's my life, and not just in terms of food, but politically, spiritually, musically. The idea that you can take something that's not related, but to see it as related, is a very strong element of Taoist philosophy. We didn't invent electricity, for example - it had already been there for millions of years. And it's the same with any art form if you look at it in Taoist terms. You're not trying to invent anything - you're just trying to find something which has already existed.'

 

'Fire Crossing Water', Thursday to Sunday, Barbican EC2 (020 7638 8891)

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