Thinking about good vibrations

When it comes to audience participation, Tan Dun has a cultural revolution in mind. Nick Kimberley meets a composer who wants us to rattle and hum like Buddhist monks
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Music finds its way into every nook and cranny of our lives. Thanks to headphones, we can have the sensation that music permeates our whole body, even our mental apparatus. Yet for most of us the music remains external, something done to us. This schizophrenic experience of music as simultaneously within us, yet impossibly distant, is quintessentially Western, but some - composers, performers, listeners - are looking for a different model.

The Chinese composer Tan Dun, who has lived in New York since 1986, describes his music as "swinging and swimming freely between Western techniques and my early experience of music as something spiritual". Tan was born in the village of Si Mao in the Hunan province in 1957 - "a special mountainous area," he recalls, "where people came from far and wide to bury their dead. Every day when I was growing up, I would hear music in temples, in funerals, shamanistic ritual celebration sounds. There is an ancient Chinese tradition that music is a total spiritual experience between the audience and the players, between the creators and the re-creators. There is no concept of music as a 'performing' art, it's simply part of life."

Growing up when he did, Tan Dun could not avoid the affects of Mao's Cultural Revolution. In his teens he was sent to work among peasants, which only deepened his involvement with music. He began to collect peasant songs, and to lead the local ensemble at funerals and weddings, encouraging the players to use whatever came to hand, instrument or cooking utensil. After a year and a half playing fiddle with the Hunan Provincial Opera, he went to Beijing in 1978, to study at the Central Conservatory. Then, a musical thunderbolt: "The Philadelphia Orchestra came to Beijing and played Beethoven. I had never heard music like this. It was a huge shock, harsh enough to make me forget everything I had before. I just got totally involved in Western music. It became my whole world."

In 1980, the British composer Alexander Goehr visited the conservatory and introduced students to Western modernisms. Paradoxically - or perhaps not - contact with that world sent Tan back, he says, to "the old experiences, the old life, the village sounds. All that came back." The result was On Taoism, composed in 1985. Here, a recognisably Western orchestra finds itself "swinging and swimming freely" between Eastern and Western modes of musical thought. The piece opens with Tan himself chanting, shaman- style. Later the players are called on to deploy Eastern techniques of playing and wordless vocalising.

Tan now considers On Taoism the piece in which he found his voice, in which "the West and my home are one". Soon after writing the piece, he was offered a fellowship at Columbia University in New York, and he moved there in 1986, initially supporting himself by stints as a busker and a dishwasher. He has lived in New York ever since, although he returns frequently to China. His international reputation continues to grow.

Among those attracted by this powerful new voice was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned a piece from him. The result, Orchestral Theatre I: Xun (the xun being a kind of Chinese ocarina, 11 of which are introduced into the standard orchestra), was premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1990, and marked the beginning of a fruitful association between the Scottish band and the Chinese composer. In 1992, Tan conducted the orchestra in the premiere of a second work written for them, Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee, and two years later he was appointed the BBC SSO's Associate Composer / Conductor.

Tomorrow night, at the Proms, players and composer combine to present both the London premiere of Orchestral Theatre I: Xun and the UK premiere of Orchestral Theatre II: Re. As Tan says, "The two pieces are perfect for the Albert Hall. For too long there has been a gap between musicians and audiences. In both Orchestral Theatre I and II, I try to bring them back together by approaching the Western orchestra from a different cultural base. Music used to be more unified, a spiritual journey between the player and the enjoyer."

The two pieces use different methods to achieve this unity. In the first, Tan has the orchestra singing and chanting as well as playing its instruments - "and I try to change the nature of the instruments themselves: I try to use the piccolo like a bamboo flute, a shakuhachi, and the harp like a pipa or koto." In the second, the composer goes even further, venturing into realms of audience participation unexplored at the Proms since Pierre Boulez banned David Bedford's With 100 Kazoos from the 1972 season for fear the Prommers might disrupt the rest of the programme by playing their kazoos off cue.

"In Orchestral Theatre II," says Tan, "I bring orchestra and audience together, so that the audience isn't just listening, it is part of the performance. I place orchestra members among the audience, and at the beginning I get the audience to hum a long pitch so that orchestra and audience together build the harmonic structure. Then, in the middle of the piece, the audience is chanting, murmuring, shouting, like a choir of monks. I can't wait to see five or six thousand people in the Albert Hall making this kind of Buddhist vibration."

In October, Tan will conduct the London Sinfonietta at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. The concert is called "The Chinese New Tide" and it will introduce music by composers - Tan himself, Qu Xiasong, Chen Qigang, Julian Yu, Guo Wenjong - who, since Alexander Goehr's visit to Beijing, have proceeded to reinvent Chinese composition. As Tan now says, "When the Cultural Revolution stopped, we were standing on ruins, on nothing. The culture was destroyed, no education, everything disallowed. The first generation of composers after the Cultural Revolution was able to hook up its experience to a wider world view. They all had a personal approach to sound, to political and spiritual expression: something similar is happening in Chinese film. Most of the New Tide composers have left China now, but they have already rewritten the history of Chinese music, and the changes are still going on: in musical training, in publishing, in the exchange of ideas."

Tan's current projects include Orchestral Theatre III, a multimedia piece that re-examines the worldwide culture and politics of the 1960s. "We will see the results of the 1960s in the 21st century." And then there is his opera Marco Polo, written to a libretto by British music critic Paul Griffiths: "It will be two operas happening simultaneously. One represents the Western operatic tradition, the other the Eastern tradition of Peking Opera, kabuki. The Western opera will show Marco Polo's geographical journey from West to East; the Eastern opera will represent a spiritual journey from the past to now, and departure from now to the future. It will make a cultural counterpoint."

That kind of cultural counterpoint is nothing new, but in Tan Dun's music it has resonances that are fresh and exciting, and utterly natural. Speaking for himself, and for all the composers of the Chinese New Tide, Tan says: "What we are doing is not avant-garde, it's not revolutionary. It's a fact. It's what we have to do."

n The BBC SSO play Tan Dun's 'Orchestral Theatre I: Xun' and 'Orchestral Theatre II: Re' (plus Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich) at the Proms: 7pm tomorrow, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (booking: 0171-589 8212); pre-Prom talk: 5.45pm Royal College of Music.

n'Chinese New Tide' concert: 22 October, QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)