The great Chinese composer, Tan Dun, speaks to ClassicMelbourne of his work The Triple Resurrection for violin, cello, piano, and orchestra. It completes the Martial Arts Trilogy cycle, although in fact it is a fourth work that brings together the solo instruments and the themes from the Trilogy concertos.
“When the piece starts you will be surprised because you will hear how the three film scores will come together, Tan Dun says. Each concerto is identified with a film, the best-known being Tan Dun’s 2001 Academy Award-winning score for Ang Lee’s celebrated action-romance film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And each is identified with a heroine who makes a sacrifice for love, and who is represented by a solo instrument.
The composer says: “I had a dream … If we had [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma, [pianist] Lang Lang and [violinist] Itzhak Perlman is there any way I could bring them to play together? So I thought maybe I should create a dream, a triple resurrection for three beautiful ladies [from the films], who come back to life and love once more”.
Unlike the Martial Arts Trilogy, the new work is music for a possible new film, as yet not conceived: “a mosaic, a montage from the previous works,” Tan Dun explains. Audiences will be surprised to recognise themes from the previous concertos playing together in The Triple Resurrection, “the three melodies lining up as one” he adds. It’s a concept he had ten years ago, but only later did he choose the right instrument for each “line”. In this way, he says, it’s a tribute to Richard Wagner and his Ring Cycle, with all four operas being inter-related. “By the end, everything works as one”.
It’s a brave composer who compares his work to that of Wagner but Tan Dun does this simply as a matter of fact, and appears almost entirely free of egotism. His manner in interview is very similar to his conducting style: intent on the issue at hand, with quiet restraint punctuated by sudden enthusiasm and expansive waving of his arms, expressive use of hand gestures, warm engagement.
I suggest that his concept for The Triple Resurrection, in drawing on three previous works, goes beyond the Beethoven Triple Concerto for the same instruments. Tan Dun smiles. “I am not Beethoven … but I have wanted to be a Chinese Beethoven for a long time”.
He plays with the idea a little: “The only way to be a Beethoven today is to be more than Beethoven’, he ventures. “Actually music creation has to go beyond the Beethoven phenomenon … working with the internet, film …
“And I find opera is a kind of primitive cinema”, Tan Dun continues. “Films have every element … literature, music, dance, costumes, lighting, sets”. He compares operatic arias to dialogue in films and is drawn to Wagner’s understanding of “orchestral drama”.
“The music tells a story, it doesn’t necessarily need words,” says Tan Dun. In response to my half-joking suggestion that this time maybe a film will come out of the music, he says that there may indeed be an international competition through the Cologne Film Festival and the Shanghai Film Festival to make a film based on The Triple Resurrection.
Heritage, dreams, hope: these are all concepts that Tan Dun says inform his vision of “resurrection”. In China, there has been a renaissance after the long years of the Cultural Revolution, when “the dream was lost, hope was lost,” he says. More than that, the hope is a “struggling, bumping around”, in today’s world with its problems such as pollution and natural disasters, the “terrible” hunting of animals.
“I thought this resurrection is about the people of today,” he says. “If we talk about resurrection, or passion, we automatically think about Jesus … but I think the celebration of a new life, that’s the meaning of the Resurrection.” As to whether this idea is better understood by Chinese or Westerners, the composer thinks possibly Westerners.
“But then, if you don’t understand music, I think you must be … you know … disturbed”, says Tan Dun, immediately bursting into laughter, and then as quickly building on his perception of the Cultural Revolution; “Belief was stopped, education was stopped, tradition was stopped, and the Chinese took a nap for fifty years”.
“Sometimes I think Im a world citizen,” Tan Dun muses. “Today the world has become one home of ours. And if we have that kind of sense, the heritage of nature will be much better preserved … the world culture, I feel much more at home with that”.
It’s reflected in his music, isn’t it?
“Absolutely”, says the composer, adding that he was inspired by Aboriginal “dream lines”, making it clear he is specifically talking about Australian Aboriginals. (Yo-Yo Ma taught him the difference between that and the wider term “indigenous”, he says).
“Yo-Yo Ma is a cultural ambassador”, Tan Dun says, as we exchange stories about the great cellist. When in Hong Kong ten years ago, Ma was asked by a group of school children: “What is good music?” His answer was simple: “Good music is music that sings”, a response that delighted Tan Dun when I told him.
“What a great answer!” he exclaimed. “Very touching, and very true.”
“Nature always sings”, he went on. “You hear the sound of the wind, and you feel part of it. Mahler knew the truth of it, that’s why he wrote The Song of the Earth from a poem by an ancient Chinese poet, Li Po.
“I understand so much better after reading that poetry why Mahler wrote such beautiful music”, Tan Dun said.
As for his own music, Tan Dun enthused about his return to the MSO. “They are world citizens, talking to me; they are demanding, disciplined in rehearsal. I also find the passion for music throughout the world, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is one of the best symphony orchestras in the world … completely soulful and supportive”.
Invited to sum up, Tan Dun says: “My music is my life and my life is my music, so come to my concert and share our life and experiences … so direct and so bumping and dramatic!”
I took the composer at his word and several days later enjoyed a thrilling performance of The Triple Resurrection, and four other works with Tan Dun conducting the MSO. But that’s another story!