Notes and Editorial Reviews
Tan Dun: The Map
The conceptual and multifaceted composer/conductor Tan Dun, brought for the first time Western Symphonic music to the rural countryside of China. On November 21 last year – “The Map: Saving Disappearing Music Traditions” was held and filmed in Western Hunan, Tan Dun’s home province at the historical site of Fenghuang Ancient Town.
Based on a series of filmed field recordings by Tan Dun, capturing the musical life of the Tuija, Miao and Dong living mainly in Western Hunan (three of 55 ethnic groups comprising China’s non-Han minority population), Tan Dun composed The Map: Concerto for Cello, Video & Orchestra, a ten-movement concerto, commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony
Orchestra with Yo Yo Ma in Boston Symphony Hall (Feb 2003) and in Carnegie Hall (March 2003).
On the evening of November 21, 2003, at the Northern Gate of Fenghuang Ancient Town, Tan Dun (conductor), Anssi Karttunen (cello), and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra brought The Map home, - a free concert to thousands of indigenous villagers in the area who had never heard the sound of Western symphonic music in their life. The concert was a “Thanksgiving” celebration – a tribute to the villagers whose music and lives has been the source of Tan Dun’s inspiration.
This concert will now be available on DVD-Video in surround sound with a 25-minutes documentary as a bonus to tie in with the following tour dates in US and China.
R E V I E W S:
This video disc presents a charming, colorful, and thought-provoking concert that took place in the Hunan province of China on November 21, 2003. In the helpful 27-minute documentary that accompanies the concert film, composer Tan Dun explains how in 1981 he journeyed from Beijing, where he was studying at the conservatory, to the province of his birth in order to collect folk songs. There, he met an elderly musician who drummed upon stones in accordance with ancient symbolic, shamanistic traditions. This deeply impressed Tan, who over the course of his career has adopted many different Chinese musical, historical, and cultural influences into his compositions; however, it wasn’t until 1999, when he returned to that same village and learned that the “stone man” had died, that he decided to incorporate this experience into a larger, more conceptually complex work. A commission from the Boston Symphony and Yo-Yo Ma gave him the vehicle with which to explore what he called “the counterpoint between different media, different time-spaces, and different cultures.” The subsequent composition, for solo cellist and symphony orchestra (and no “exotic” instruments except for an expanded percussion section), also included computerized projections of filmed Chinese singers, dancers, and musicians along with the live music—thus involving the “different media,” allowing pre-recorded performers not at the concert to participate despite “different time-spaces,” and mixing the cultural influences that identify his music.
The Map is thus literal and symbolic—it represents the map (score) that the musicians use in order to create a musical journey for the listener to follow, as well as the emotional and spiritual journey Tan underwent in discovering, understanding, and (in his view) preserving aspects of his native culture that are in danger of disappearing through neglect. The accompanying documentary shows us Tan travelling through the countryside meeting local musicians, preparing the score, finding the site for the outdoor concert, and overcoming whatever artistic, logistical, or technological problems stood in the way. We are given a kind of video postcard—snippets of beautiful landscapes, colorfully costumed villagers, happy exchanges between visiting artists and the local population. What’s interesting here too, however, is what is not shown in the film. There’s no sign of poverty anywhere, no sense that China may be anything other than a happy, free, cultural Oz, no indication that the invasion of klieg lights, huge amplifiers, and the no-doubt considerable noise of building from scratch a large stage on the waterfront of an otherwise unspoiled, out-of-the-way village in Hunan may have disrupted the previously quiet, primarily rural lives of its inhabitants.
Perhaps these thoughts are irrelevant to the experience of the music. Nevertheless, they occurred to me as I watched the film, in part because of the geographical and cultural differences that Tan’s composition illuminates. The score is not a hybrid of East and West theories and sounds but, to my Western ears—only minimally experienced with Eastern musics—a transposition of Chinese rhythms, melodies, and timbres for a symphony orchestra, thus requiring some unusual instrumental techniques. One of the striking musical differences on display is the extremely nasal tonalities borrowed from many of the singers and folk instruments—a nuanced, microtonal timbre that may seem annoyingly shrill or “impure” to audiences of Western classical music, but is considered attractive and communicates various degrees of emotional expression not only in the East (China, Japan, Korea, India), but in the musical cultures of parts of Africa, the Balkans, and Sardinia, to name only a few. In adapting these and other unfamiliar tonalities into The Map, Tan inevitably distances us from their point of origin and offers a new time/place meaning, and they resonate now, in this rather more familiar context, as an abstract musical experience, distorting and perhaps diluting their significance.
In any case, this video disc of the concert is currently the only way to experience The Map (it has not yet been released on CD), and seeing how many of the unusual sounds are made—watching the horn players tap their disconnected mouthpieces, or seeing how stones are stuck by the percussionists—certainly is an advantage. Obviously, the visual component of Tan’s score—the images projected on screens in performance—is crucial, not only those episodes where a pre-recorded vocalist or group of singers duets with the live performers (as in the symbolic example of “Feige,” or antiphonal voices over long distances), but in the Ghost Dance segment of the first movement, “Nuo,” where we can see how the cellist’s rhythmic accents have been adopted from the movements of the on-screen dancer. We also see how the traditional Chinese instruments, such as the elaborate bamboo mouth organ and the straight, double-reed horns found also in neighboring India and Mongolia, or even the practice of leaf-blowing, are mimicked by the oboes, clarinets, and string harmonics. I must say, the “Stone Drums” movements, an elegy featuring the struck and rubbed stones, gave me goosebumps.
Most listeners, I suspect, will be seduced by the vibrant folk rhythms and mournful, melismatic melodies that Tan Dun has adapted and devised. (I wonder, though, what the symbolic meaning of the work’s final major chord is, it being so harmonically distinct from everything else.) Some may feel, as I did in a few isolated moments, that Tan has created an inflated and artificial equivalent of his sources. Nevertheless, there’s a lot here to tickle the ear, and eye, and though much of the original significance of the sounds and symbolism may be lost, at least some of its indelible spirit remains.
Art Lange, FANFARE
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