North by East-West

Tan Dun is a composer of operas like no other. Nick Kimberley met him

Tan Dun became a father three months ago. He and his wife decided to call the baby Ian, because he was conceived in Scotland, where Tan is Conductor for Creative Programming with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The sound "Ian" also resembles the Chinese question-word for "How, what, where, when?" So Ian Tan's name honours many cultures and many continents, while simultaneously asking a stream of questions. Just like his father's opera Marco Polo which, with the composer conducting the BBC SSO, receives its British premiere next week.

Marco Polo is an opera like no other. The title role is taken by two singers, one Marco, the physical being, sung by a woman; the other Polo, representing memory, sung by a man. Other characters include Dante, Shakespeare, Mahler, Kublai Khan and Li Po (sung by a Peking Opera singer). The libretto is by Paul Griffiths, an English music critic whose novel Myself and Marco Polo persuaded Tan that he had found his ideal collaborator. The opera is not an adaptation of the novel, but explores certain preoccupations of both composer and librettist, "not like Western opera," says Tan, "and not like Eastern opera, but with many layers, many journeys across many cultures, many kinds of music."

This is imaginative history, and Tan's orchestra likewise stretches conventional boundaries, with a Western orchestra augmented by sitar, tabla, Chinese popa, Tibetan horns, singing bowls and bells. Tan's mixing has led some British critics to pooh-pooh his work as "crossover", but that takes no account of a life that could hardly fail to generate a synoptic approach to music. Tan was born in 1957 in Hunan province, China:" a place that almost no Western music had touched. It was too far from urban culture. Until I was almost 20 I had never heard Western composers, only my own culture, where music is part of life, in local kunqu theatre, or shamanistic ritual, mostly at weddings and funerals. I started playing Chinese folk instruments, bamboo flutes and the erhu two-string fiddle. Then when I was 10, I got a violin. Physically it was a violin, but culturally it was not, because it only had three strings, and as I had no money to replace the fourth string, I treated it as a three-string fiddle. In my early musical education there wasn't chamber music or symphonic music, only the theatre of rituals, real theatre in a ceremonial space, or beside a rice field, or in someone's home. To me making music is a theatrical thing. Whatever I write, I treat as part of an opera."

Living in rural China meant not only no Western music, but also a certain distance from Mao's Cultural Revolution, although Tan did spend two years of "re-education" in the rice paddies. "I was too young, I didn't understand what was happening," he says. "I didn't dare recall some of the things I saw until now. I remember when I was about nine years old, the Cultural Revolution had just started, and I was shopping with my grandmother in the city of Hunan. I suddenly saw a bunch of Red Guards join arms and jump from the top of a building crying, "Long live the Revolution, long live Chairman Mao." I simply did not understand what I was seeing."

The only music officially permitted during this period was propaganda opera and ballet, faint traces of which may have surfaced in his own work, notably Symphony 1997: Heaven Earth Mankind, composed for the reunification of Hong Kong with mainland China, and performed at this year's BBC Proms. Eventually, the Cultural Revolution subsided, more open-minded education became possible, and the Central Conservatory in Beijing re-opened. In 1978 Tan was among thousands who applied for a handful of places: "I was little more than a farmer; I had never seen a piano or any of those fancy instruments. I wasn't really competent. Some of the professors said. 'How can we accept him? He doesn't even know who Bach is'; another said, 'But he can improvise for three hours ...' At first they rejected me, and I cried, but a month later, I got a letter saying my case had been re-examined."

And so Tan travelled to Beijing to start a new life. "It was a 30-hour train journey, so my 'jet-lag' was terrible, but even worse was the culture- lag. I arrived in Beijing on the day that the Philadelphia Orchestra arrived to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The professor who had argued on my behalf took me straight to the concert, and I dragged all my peasant- farmer baggage into the hall. I'd never heard of Beethoven. I'd never heard a Western orchestra before, and I'd never seen a conductor conduct so many musicians."

Initially that "jump" led him to abandon the traditions in which he'd grown up, but soon they reasserted themselves, as in his 1985 work On Taoism, which he recorded with the BBC SSO in 1992. The piece opens with Tan himself, howling and moaning like a Hunan shaman, before the orchestra enters with brooding power. Questions about whether it is an Eastern or Western work fade into irrelevance before the eerie insistence of the music, written to mark his grandfather's death. In 1986 Columbia University offered Tan a study-grant, and although he was at first forbidden to leave China, he eventually went to New York to take up his place.

Not that he knew what he was in for. "When I arrived, I took the subway from the airport to Manhattan, and I immediately understood that it wasn't at all the place I had imagined. I saw many people in the subway car, and they were all different colours. I asked myself, 'What country is this?' As Columbia was only paying my fees, I had to earn money to live, so I worked in restaurants and played my fiddles on the streets in Greenwich Village. That was my biggest classroom, and in some way it was very close to my village in China, with its ritual music and its religion. What I saw was a world culture of literature, poetry, painting, music, and that woke me up. I wanted to get away from the kind of depressing, bitter, atonal, selfish and super-intellectual post-post-whatever music I had been writing at Columbia."

Tan then began a series of works that revealed his unique vision, such as Paper Music (1993), "a ritual in sound and dance" written for an orchestra of recycled papers ("20 New York Times Magazines, 40 wax bread bags, two rolls of newspapers..."), stones and human voice. This is contemporary music that is bewitching, stimulating, even, heaven forbid, entertaining; music that, like Marco Polo, blurs distinctions between what is ancient and modern, between East and West. "It's not a question of following trends, or feeding trends," Tan says. "We are not trying to bring together the East and the West, but the East and the West pull us together: there is no other way."

Tan meanwhile has a cluster of new commissions, including, for Tokyo in 2002, an opera about the 7000-year history of tea: "the most important plant, an invisible bridge of communication, of harmony, of exchange" he says, and another work for New York's Metropolitan Opera in 2005. More immediately, he is writing a place for the very august New York Philharmonic, a Concerto for Water and Orchestra. Water is one of Tan Dun's favourite instruments. He incorporated it (alongside Bach and Chinese pipa in his Ghost Opera, written in 1994 for the Kronos Quartet; and in Peony Pavilion, his spectacular collaboration with director Peter Sellars, seen at London's Barbican Centre in September. In his work-room, there is a beautiful bowl filled with water, and as we talk he demonstrates how he deals with those moments in the creative process when the brain closes down; he dips his hand in the water, then allows it to trickle through his fingers, back into the bowl. The sound is as soothing, and as energising as a babbling brook. Tan Dun's work shares that sense of returning music to its elemental origins, and in so doing it suggests a way of discovering its future.

Tan Dun conducts 'Marco Polo': Huddersfield Town Hall (01484 430528), 22 November; Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), 24 November; BBC Radio 3 broadcast 6.30pm 28 November. 'Marco Polo' is available on CD (Sony).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory