The martial plan: an interview with composer Tan Dun

by gabeatkinson / 31 January, 2013
As a salute to Wagner, the trilogy for which Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun is conducting the NZSO could soon be a quartet.
Tan Dun
Tan Dun, photo/Getty Images


It takes confidence to compare your work to Wagner’s. Composer Tan Dun immediately makes the connection, however, with his Martial Arts Trilogy, which he’ll conduct with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra this month to mark Chinese New Year. “It’s a salute to a cycle idea – like the Ring. In the music, there are a lot of things relating to the idea of a cycle like Wagner’s: the use of motifs – a love motif, a water motif, a healing motif. You can hear in the three pieces that certain motifs are very, very close to each other.”

Tan sprang to international fame in 2001 when awarded an Oscar for his soaring, evocative score for director Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’d never seen a martial arts film before and was entranced at the time by the balletic beauty of the movement, the exoticism of the settings and the romantic power of the music.

Tan’s visit to New Zealand is by no mean his first – that was in 1988 when the then 30-year-old, already something of a star in New York, held a short residency at Victoria University of Wellington. Since then, he’s returned to dazzle us with his Concerto for Water Percussion and his opera Tea: A Mirror of Soul.

Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution began in China in 1966 when Tan was eight. His parents were sent away for re-education. “My childhood was in the countryside with my grandmother,” he says, “listening organically, eating organically, finding instruments organically. Every day we went to the river – that’s where I found my water concerto.”

When he was 17, Tan was banished for two years to plant rice with the peasants, and  as well as enduring long hot days of labour, he encountered peasant opera and learnt to play traditional folk instruments. He joined a Peking Opera troupe as a musician, absorbing the vocal styles and theatrical gestures of this traditional art form.

A “leap into the Western music sea” came in 1977, as one of five people selected from 1500 applicants for a composition course at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He has talked about “standing on the ruins” and hearing Bach’s music as a healing balm after the destruction of families and culture of the Cultural Revolution.

Tan composed at first in a Western style, but a trip into remote mountain villages of China led to what he called his “combined style” integrating Chinese and Western approaches, including the traditions of Peking Opera.

A scholarship to Columbia University in New York in 1986 brought him into contact with the work of the urban avant-garde. Now he has homes in New York and Shanghai and his busy international career brings commissions and conducting assignments from top orchestras around the world.

Scene from Hero


On the phone from Shanghai, he brushes aside ideas of cultural integration. “Musically,” he says, “I don’t have to think about East and West – I am ‘Eastern’, but I am working with Western instruments, a Western orchestra – so the percussion writing is mine, the melodic language is that of Chinese theatre, the Chinese influence is there automatically, because that is my background.”

From the beginning, when scoring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tan had the concept of a trilogy in mind. With Ang Lee, he agreed that cellist Yo-Yo Ma should be involved. “The music I wrote for Yo-Yo was very romantically composed, technically challenging but also experimental. I used the cultures of the Silk Road, Indian music, Mongolian music – many, many cultures influenced my cello writing.”After the film’s release, the music became the “Crouching Tiger” Concerto, and in some performances (including the NZSO’s) the cello part is transposed for the two-stringed Chinese erhu. “My favourite instruments – the cello is the male voice, the erhu the soprano.”

After the success of Crouching Tiger, Tan received many requests to write film scores. He laughs about his response. “With the trilogy in mind, I always asked, ‘Is it a love-tragedy? Is it a martial arts film? Can I write for solo violin or piano?’ Everyone always said, ‘No, no, no!’, so I didn’t do any of those films.” Five years went by. When Zhang Yimou, director of Hero, approached him, Tan asked his three questions and was told, “Yes, it’s a love-tragedy; yes, it’s a martial arts film.”

“When I asked about the violin or piano, Zhang Yimou said, ‘Why?’, so I told him about the trilogy idea and he liked it and I tried it out with Itzhak Perlman. Hero was also very successful and so again I received many requests and asked my three questions – and waited another three years.

“Mr Fengxiao Gong, director of The Banquet, he’s a Woody Allen kind of filmmaker, No 1 at the box office. I said, ‘I’m not so good at writing for comedy’, but he said, ‘It’s a love-tragic story and a martial arts film.’ ‘Can I write for piano?’ I asked. ‘Why?’ he replied. I told him and said I’d love to write for Lang Lang. So that’s how it came about that there were three films and three concertos.”

In March, the legendary Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man will perform Tan’s Ghost Opera in the Auckland Arts Festival. Talking about this work, the composer returns to childhood influences. He was a “wild child”, running barefoot after funeral processions, absorbing the ancient Taoist rituals where paper, water and stones became instruments. “Ghost,” he says, “is not used in its literal meaning. Sound is contacting sound rather than a fictional or story line. There is dialogue between Shakespeare and Tibetan monks, between string quartet and pipa. Everything has a spirit and these spirits are talking to each other – stone can talk to violin, water to cello.”

Tan Dun at the 2010 Krakow Film Music Festival


Paper, shadows and water-gong basins are installed around the concert hall. The spirit of Bach is there, too, with Kronos playing ghostly counterpoint from a keyboard composition. “There’s a soul, a spirit, a voice in everything,” Tan says. “It’s about communication between the spirits of the future, the past and nature.”

Conversation with Tan has an otherworldly quality. I feel lost, as if engaged in some kind of sparring match in the clouds. His boundless imagination soars almost out of my reach. Where to next? Wagner and his Valkyries may need to step aside.

“There needs to be a fourth concerto to complete the Martial Arts cycle, a triple concerto using all three solo instruments. I may work on it this year, as a salute to Wagner’s 200th birthday; a martial arts film, probably digital animation, related to resurrection. In my trilogy, all three women died for love, the first of dreams, the second patriotic love, the third revenge. In the fourth, I will bring them back to life, to love once more.

“‘Martial arts’ in Chinese is ‘wuxia’, though this is not an exact translation. Wuxia is a philosophical term about eagle fighting, being in perfect balance, water and fire, stillness, walking on a cloud, a map of the spirit. Spiritually, the art of the eagle. Maybe I could call it the Wuxia Cycle.”

MARTIAL ARTS TRILOGY, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tan Dun, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, February 14; the Civic, Auckland, February 15; GHOST OPERA, by Tan Dun, Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, the Civic, March 9, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.
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