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July 31, 2011

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Tan Dun builds Water Music Hall in water town

TAN Dun, the celebrated composer of the score of ìCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? (2001), is always innovating and surprising his listeners, known for incorporating the sounds of water, paper and stones.

Once he shocked people, today he is considered a pioneer and sought after for Hollywood scores (none accepted since ìCrouching Tiger? ) and operatic works.

He has traveled from a childhood on a farm in central China, to work on a government commune, to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, to advanced studies in New York City and work with experimental composers. He lives in New York.

These days the Academy Award-winning musician is very interested in the relationship between music and architecture and integrating the two in his works.

His interest in architecture arose three years ago when he first visited Zhujiajiao, an ancient, tranquil water town in suburban Shanghai.

ìI was sitting on the river bank, watching the sunset,? he recalled. ìMonks were chanting their evening prayers behind me. It was very quiet, very peaceful and I was very much touched all of a sudden.?

He decided to move into the historic building, an old residential compound and barn, opposite the temple where the monks were chanting. Today the building is Tanís studio, which he calls Water Music Hall. A stream flows through it and thereís a floating performance stage.

Named one of the Ten Most Influential Musicians of the Year (1997) by The New York Times, Tan is widely recognized for promoting traditional Chinese music as well as what he calls ìorganic music? using bowls of water, sheets of rice paper, rocks and stones, pots and pans, even agricultural implements.

He once told The New York Times , ìIf you want to be a Chinese avant-garde artist, the safest way is to stick to your grandmotherís tone. The most dangerous way is to follow Western music.?

Today Tan tries to forge something new, reconstructing Chinese concepts in Western idioms.

Born in 1957, Tan was raised by his grandmother in a small village outside Changsha in central Chinaís Hunan Province. He was fascinated by shamans, their rituals and music involving natural objects.

In his works one finds traces of the traditional and mysterious Orient. Thatís why Tan was selected to compose music for the awards ceremony music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; it features the chimes of Chinese bells that are more than 2,000 years old.

In 1978, he entered the Central Conservatory of Music with a violin of just three strings. His first symphony ìLi Sao? (The Lament) stirred controversy because its use of traditional drums and the xiao, a vertical bamboo flute. The sound was considered avant-garde and weird. During eight years in Beijing he was applauded and criticized.

But Tan was looking for a bigger stage.

"I felt like a fish. Hunan was a small pond for me. I felt so free when I was in Beijing but I soon felt restricted. New York was the sea for me," he told a Chinese magazine. He described himself as a Chinese Marco Polo, moving from East to West and finding more possibilities in music.

In the 1986, he became a doctoral student in composition at Columbia University and felt that his talents were being unleashed . In 1988 he held his first solo concert, becoming the first Chinese musician to hold concert in the United States.

Last month Tan wrote in his microblog, "Talents and idiots from all over the world gather here. One day in New York is richer than three days all over the world. So exhilarating!"

Tan is close to film makers Chen Kaige from Beijing and Li An ("Crouching Tiger") from Taiwan, as well as artists; his friends included the late painter Chen Yifei from Shanghai.

In 1995, Tan wrote the score for the film "Nanjing Massacre" but after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," he decided to compose only for martial arts films telling tragic love stories. He composed the score for Zhang Yimou's "Hero" (2002) and Feng Xiaogang's "The Banquet" (2006). Together with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," they represent what Tan calls his own Martial Arts Trilogy.

Tan has also created multimedia works, including "The Map" for cello, video and orchestra. His two most famous works are "Water Passion After St Matthew" that uses bowls of water as percussion instruments and "Paper Concert" that, as its title suggests, uses sounds of rice paper.

Most recently, Tan's renovated Water Music Hall was selected by Architectural Digest magazine as the venue for its launch party in China. At the event, 54-year-old Tan spoke with Shanghai Daily.

Q: Tell us more about your Water Music Hall. What inspired you?

A: It was love at first sight. I worked with the Japanese design studio Arata Isozaki & Associates to turn the ancient building, a former barn, into a place where a river flows through to create a "floating" effect for musical performances. It's an experiment. We tried to integrate the Bauhaus approach with Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) architecture, or "Minghause" as we describe the concept behind it. We used a lot of iron and steel to consolidate the foundation.

Q: What is the relationship between music and architecture?

A: It is a relationship that goes much deeper than that between two lovers.

Q: Your innovations always surprise. Do you like breaking rules?

A: Whether you are a musician or an architect, you have to be creative to survive. If I followed the rules, you probably wouldn't be here today talking to me or writing about me. However, I'm not saying that I must do something different, or sensational to catch people's attention. Discovering new things is my career, and my belief.

Q: You are known for using non traditional and organic instruments, such as bowls of water and paper. Are these related to your childhood?

A: Yes. I grew up in a small village in Hunan Province. It was not like the shikumen houses and lanes in Shanghai, nor the siheyuan courtyards in Beijing. I ran around the vast farms with no shoes on. I played with objects such as rocks and water. I didn't know I'd become a musician. I enjoyed reading science books then and wanted to become a philosopher. That's why I'm putting my understanding of life and my philosophies into my music these days.

Q: When did you become interested in music?

A: The moment I was born. All of us are interested in music - without knowing it - before we are born. In the amniotic fluid, we listen to some kind of futuristic "electronic music." If you have ever listened to the ultrasound of a pregnant woman, you know what I'm talking about. The human body is as infinite as the universe.

Q: Define your "organic music."

A: To me, the human body itself is an instrument. A healthy heart plays beautiful, harmonious beats.

Q: What's your plan for the Water Music Hall?

A: I've rented this place for 30 years. It changes every day. I hope one day it can be built into the world's first "sound museum." Collecting a certain sound is exactly like collecting a painting. Right now I really hope I can get the historical 27-second dialogue between Mei Lanfang and Charlie Chaplin in New York. To me this kind of dialogue is as significant as a precious sculpture by Rodin.


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