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January 23, 2016

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Tan Dun’s ‘Water Heavens’ to open in new season

THE unity of man and nature is a recurring theme in arts, but when Oscar- and Grammy-awarded composer Tan Dun brings this topic to the stage, he goes all out.

Water Heavens, a program created by Tan in 2010 that combines music and architecture, will start its new season in March at Zhujiajiao water town in Shanghai.

A concert hall, also called Water Heavens, was constructed specifically for the composition and is connected to a canal. The canal’s water plays a vital role in the program, and audiences can expect to witness multiple-layer communication between East and West, architecture and music, nature and people, Buddha and god. Conceived for strings and vocals, and, of course, water, which plays a central role, Water Heavens is a multidisciplinary piece.

Situated on the riverbank across the Yuanjing Temple in Zhujiajiao, the concert hall is in an old, two-story house that already shows the marriage of East and West that is emblematic of Water Heavens. While the wooden structure of the upper story is kept in the style of about 100 years ago, the iron pillars and steel floor of the lower story are reminiscent of an industrial space fashioned after German Bauhaus style.

The performance usually starts right when Buddhist monks at the opposite river start their evening chanting. As the monks raise their sung prayers, the string quartet sets in with a piece by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The stage is partly submerged in water, and as musicians rock their bodies and move their feet while they play, the sound of splashing water becomes part of the performance.

From the dome, artificial rain showers pour onto certain areas around the audience and the musicians. Varying in intensity, the dripping water also adds to the holistic experience. Even the steel stairs at one side of the concert hall are used to create sounds with performers stepping on them to bring the audience to a unique music world where Bach meets Zen.

In the process, the river flows in and out through the house, linking the interior and exterior space.

“The combination of the Chinese Ming house and German Bauhaus styles, as well as the contrasting sounds of water, iron and other natural elements completes my architectural music wonderland where heaven and man become one,” says Tan. “My ultimate goal for Water Heavens is to create a space where music can be seen and the architecture can be heard.”

Widely known for his score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the medal ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tan has always woven Chinese culture and philosophy into his music. He’s also never limited himself to regular instruments.

Inspired by Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) poet Li Bai’s comment about the beautiful sound of water in nature, Tan created his first “organic” composition — “Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra” in 1998. He later completed the series with “Paper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra” in 2003 and “Earth Concerto for Stone and Ceramic Percussion and Orchestra” in 2009.

The inspiration for the concept of architectural music came during an ordinary walk along the riverbank in Zhujiajiao, Tan says. Listening to Bach through an earphone, the monks started chanting. Their singing dominated his hearing on one ear, while Bach kept playing in the other. Tan was surprised about the adhoc harmony, and when a drop of water then fell on his nose, he couldn’t stop thinking about how he could artistically recreate this experience

“Can 1 plus 1 equals to 1?” Tan asks, referring to his way of taking two unrelated elements and combining them into one single holistic concept.

“According to my philosophy for music, the answer is definitely yes,” he says.

Tan sought out the Isozaki Studio in China to help him design the concert hall that can be played as an instrument and enables audiences to experience a mental and emotional cleansing.

Though Tan’s ideas are often challenged he insists that he has great respect for music.

“Where does music come from? Is it the cello first or music? What is the music like before the birth of instruments?” Tan says of his personal chicken and egg problem. “The sound of nature can make perfect music without physical instruments. Ancient Chinese people used to listen to the river as strings, listen to the mountains as percussions, and listen to the nature as the echo of themselves.”

Apart from presenting the regular Water Heavens program, the concert hall will be open to education programs, different types of performances and fine arts collectives in this upcoming new season.

A regular education program named “Score, Stage and Screen Workshop” will present its first lecture in March, welcoming young music talents’ participation. According to Tan, the workshop will provide a platform for exchange on any stage performances including jazz, pop, classic, movie music, game music and even social media related arts.

“I hope that it may help build a bridge between professors and students to share their imagination, experience and techniques concerning art,” says Tan.


Date: Saturdays, starting March

Venue: Water Heavens Concert Hall

Address: 3, Caogang Tan, Xijing Rd,

Zhujiajiao Old Town

Tickets: 180-1080 yuan

Tel: 6249-0502, 962-388


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