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).

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine