Tan Dun – Composer as Visual Artist
Source:Artintern Author:John Tancock Date: 2008-07-18 Size:
Few Composers of international renown have come from an area as remote as Tan Dun who was born in Simao, Hunan Province in 1957.


Few Composers of international renown have come from an area as remote as Tan Dun who was born in Simao, Hunan Province in 1957. This was only eight years after the creation of the People’s Republic of China on October 20, 1949 and life in the country side had not changed that much. If he had been born in one of China’s great cities his earliest memories would have been quite different. There might have been memories he needed to suppress. As he reminiscences today, however, it is his closeness to nature that he chooses to emphasize. The passing of the seasons, of course, but equally the rushing waters of the streams and jagged rocks of the mountains that he learned to regard as more than mere geological phenomena. Animistic beliefs enriched the lives of the villagers to whom the shaman and shamanism in general were still important. He was fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies conducted by the shaman utilizing natural materials such as rocks and water that had still not been outlawed by the Communist government. Tan Dun has noted that “as a child, the music that influenced me most was this orally transmitted shamanistic culture: the ritual vocal music, the Taoist fire dances in which they eat fire and dance in the fire while doing powerful wordless chanting.” (1)

Life in the country did not preclude the relentless upheavals that disrupted the lives of countless millions during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). As professionals Tan Dun’s parents were sent away for re-education while Tan Dun himself worked as a rice planter, not the rude awakening it might have been for an urban youth, perhaps, but rather a prolonging of the rural atmosphere that had shaped his earliest years. He describes himself as a kind of “wild child,” not neglected but enjoying his freedom as he bounded up mountains barefoot in youthful high spirits. It is at this time also that he first began to show the kind of charismatic leadership that still characterizes his activities in the world of art and music. Since all ceremonies require music or at least noise of some kind – weddings or processions cannot take place in silence – Tan Dun became the leader of peasants groups who used instruments made from agricultural instruments, pots and pans and anything else with noise-making potential. In return he learned form them how to play traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu, a one-string Chinese fiddle. Still in his teens and ignorant of Western classical music, Tan Dun was to all intents and purposes a village musician. A further dimension to his musical education came as the result of an accident that killed a number of Peking Opera performers who were traveling locally. Tan Dun joined the group after this tragedy and was soon playing violin in the orchestra, developing deep admiration for the vocal and acrobatic skills of these traditional performing artists. Before he was twenty, then, Tan Dun had become thoroughly conversant with many different kinds of Chinese music, ranging from folk music to Peking Opera.

Bach, Beethoven and Cage

In a famous short lecture on Eric Satie given at Black Mountain College in 1948 John Cage denounced the music of Beethoven as a fundamental mistake (2) but Tan Dun did not think so when he first heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the occasion of the visit of the Philadelphia Orchestra to Beijing in 1977. For many Western teenagers also it is this majestic and dramatic work that first creates awareness of the expressive power of great music. It is particularly touching to think of the epiphany that Tan Dun, ambitious and talented but desperately limited in his knowledge of the world outside China, experienced on this fateful day.

The other composer of fundamental importance to Tan Dun at this stage in his development was Bach. Although during the Cultural Revolution the practice of religion had been forbidden, Tan Dun has noted how “in 1977, after I had arrived in Beijing, I went to a church a few hundred yards from Tiananmen Square and heard a concert of selections from the St. Matthew Passion. I knew nothing about the Bible or Jesus Christ. During the Cultural Revolution, no one dared to talk about such things, because you would be asked where you heard about it and the person who told you would be killed. When I heard the St. Matthew Passion, I realized that music is not just about fire dances and old traditional singing, but also that music could tell a story of deep belief, passionate stories about renewal, creation and resurrection. At that time, the St. Mathew Passion became like a medicine for me on the ruins of China. It gave me hope.” (3)

In the context of this brief introduction to Tan Dun’s visual works, it is not possible to follow the rapid widening of his horizons that occurred in the next decade, first as a student at the Chinese Conservatory of Music in Beijing (1977-1986) and subsequently as a graduate student at Columbia University, New York City. Beethoven and as important, Bach showed the musical and moral greatness to which he could aspire as a composer but more important for his immediate development was exposure to the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and strong personal relationships with several noteworthy contemporary composers, especially Toru Takemitsu and John Cage. (Fig. 1) While Tan Dun did not feel comfortable with some of Cage’s more extreme positions, he has admitted that “John Cage’s ideas from the I Ching are a second engine for my imagination… hearing the music surrounding you in your life – I also learned that from John Cage.”(4) Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk and other downtown musicians were also a liberating influence. The international atonal style that characterized his earliest compositions gradually gave way to a stylistic polymorphism that soon embraced the world of sounds that Tan Dun terms “organic” and visual aspects in the performance of his works that led with seeming inevitability to his emergence as a full-fledged visual artist.

Organic Music

Tan Dun is anything but a purist. Speaking recently, he has said that “For me, there are no boundaries between the visual and the audio in art creation itself. They constitute a unified yet circular realm for my thinking.” This was apparent in one of his most important early performances in New York, Soundshape, commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York in 1989. It was also the first in the ongoing series of works that he classifies as “Organic,” distinguished from the Orchestral Theatre Series and Multimedia and Orchestral works by the use of sounds and instruments from the natural world including water, wind, ceramics, rocks and paper. (Fig.2) Working in collaboration with the New York potter Ragnar Naess, Tan Dun created a series of seventy ceramic instruments, remarkable not only for the sounds they emitted but also for their distinctive sculptural forms, biomorphic derivations of traditional instruments or pure inventions.

Reacting against the strenuous discipline required by the compositional techniques of the second Viennese school, many twentieth century composers have turned to Nature as a way of softening its asperities. Most extreme in his rejection of formal methods of composition was John Cage who was greatly influenced by the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, particularly The Transformation of Nature in Art. He was later to summarize many of his aesthetic tenets in a phrase drawn from Coomaraswamy’s book – “Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation.” (5) He wrote his own Water Music in 1952, the score of which consisted of a page of musical and textual instructions for prepared piano, whistles, playing cards and bowls of water.

Late in life Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) turned to bird song for inspiration in a series of deeply felt, monumental works. “In my hours of gloom,” he wrote, “when I am suddenly aware of my own futility…what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music, somewhere off in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds.” (6) For Toru Takemitsu the natural world was also important as a source of inspiration. “I wish,” he wrote, “to free sounds from the trite rules of music, rules that are in turn stifled by formulas and calculations. I want to give sounds the freedom to breathe. Rather than on the ideology of self-expression, music should be based on a profound relationship to nature – sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. When sounds are possessed by ideas instead of having their own identity, music suffers. This would be my basic rule, but it is only an idea and naturally I must develop a practical method. One way might be through an ethnological approach. There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. Folk music in a “contemporary style” is nothing but a deception.” (7)

Recent composers have gone even further in the exploration of sounds from the natural world. Hildegard Westerkamp’s Beneath the Forest Floor is composed from sounds recorded in old-growth forests on British Columbia’s western coast while David Rothenberg worked with the field recordings of Douglas Quin in Toothwalking, inspired by walrus vocalization and acoustic display at Round Island in Alaska. (8)

Tan Dun does not share in the nature mysticism that inspires many of the composers just mentioned yet it is clear that in the Organic series traditional instrumentation and abstract musical values are frequently secondary in importance to visual and sonic elements from the natural world. Not surprisingly, it is from the major works associated with this musical category of Tan Dun’s oeuvre that his career as a visual artist may be said to have commenced. After his debut at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1990 with Soundshape, Work & Process, over a decade passed before Tan Dun’s next foray into installation in a gallery context and this was in the form of a tribute at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris to his friend Chen Zhen who had died in 2000. In Body Drumming/Jue Chang the more than 100 drums created by Chen Zhen were used as the focus of an improvisatory performance and installation. (Fig.3) In 2004 the encouragement of another artist – Cai Guo-Qiang – led Tan Dun to conceive his most ambitious installation to date, Tan Dun: Visual Music, one of eighteen one-person exhibitions in the Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art, Kinmen, Taiwan. (Fig 4) After developing these ideas further in Tan Dun’s Visual Music 2005 at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, Three on the Bund in 2005, Tan Dun has turned to Water Passion after St. Matthew (2000) and Paper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra (2003) for his current exhibition.

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[Editor] Mark Lee