Avant-garde electronics and Western pop

Fire Crossing Water| Barbican, London; Ikons Of Light | South Bank Centre, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

On paper, Tan Dun's music, with its eclectic mix of orientalism, ancient ritual, modern multimedia, avant-garde electronics and Western pop, has always read like Karl Jenkins with knobs on. Now, judging by the new works heard at the Barbican's Fire Crossing Water festival at the weekend, it's starting to sound that way, too: no longer the music of lived experience; more the rampant plagiarism of a cultural kleptomaniac let loose among the World Music racks at his local record store.

On paper, Tan Dun's music, with its eclectic mix of orientalism, ancient ritual, modern multimedia, avant-garde electronics and Western pop, has always read like Karl Jenkins with knobs on. Now, judging by the new works heard at the Barbican's Fire Crossing Water festival at the weekend, it's starting to sound that way, too: no longer the music of lived experience; more the rampant plagiarism of a cultural kleptomaniac let loose among the World Music racks at his local record store.

So, in the new Crouching Tiger Concerto, a rehash of some Ang Lee film music premiered (with rehashed Ang Lee video images) on Friday, the cello can't be just a cello; it has to pretend to be a Chinese erhu, a Mongolian horse-head fiddle, a Japanese koto, "the desert". It's the same in all his pieces. Tan's strings are rarely bowed. When they are, it's all glissando, microtonal intervals and sul ponticello scrapes. Barely a note is heard that isn't bent.

In Water Passion After St Matthew, the weekend's central work, the baritone soloist keeps interrupting himself with harmonic growls, while the soprano jabbers like a madwoman. Even the chorus gets to shake thunder sheets or clash finger-cymbals. Tan has invented a new instrument, a set of large water-filled bowls into which percussionists dip their hands or plunge objects to create amplified sounds of drips and splashes.

In Passion, there are 17 of the things, underlit, in the shape of the Cross, and at the end, the company all go finger-paddling while words that read like a greetings-card parody of Ecclesiastes - "A time to love, a time of peace, a time to dance, a time of silence" - are sung to a drippy tune like that charismatics Coca-Cola anthem.

Tan's own naive theosophy emerged from Sunday's The Gate - a fey bit of music-theatre in which the composer-conductor's video-magnified presence pretends to judge whether three of literature's female suicides (enacted at length by a Peking Opera performer, an American opera singer and a puppet) are ready to be reborn and to love again. When this piece, too, ended with a watery plop, I had to admit: if nothing else, he's invented a new form of Chinese water torture.

What a relief, on Sunday, to get away to the opening of Ikons of Light, the South Bank's three-week Tavener festival, a gentle concert featuring the world premiere of Apokatastasis, in which the Greek word for ecstasy is repeated ecstatically by solo counter-tenor (a pure-voiced Michael Chance) in three-part rising-and-falling phrases against sustained string writing for viol consort (Fretwork), punctuated by strokes on Tibetan temple bowls and a gong. The whole piece lasts only about three minutes but is followed by about a minute's silence as the last gong-note fades into eternity.

With their esoteric Eastern ethos and love of bells and gongs, Tavener and Tan have much in common; the difference is that, like the proverbial hedgehog and fox, the one knows many things (too many in Tan's case); the other knows just one, but I suspect it's big.

Comments