- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

At the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889, the French were dazzled by "exotic" arts from Asia. The gamelans of Indonesia and the watercolors of Japan excited the imaginations of Claude Debussy and his artist and composer colleagues, and they borrowed the colors and rhythms of the Orient for their own compositions.

Later, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, and Karol Szymanowski investigated the musical traditions of Central and Eastern Europe, finding scales and rhythms that echo in their compositions.

However, these were still European composers, writing European music in the tradition stemming from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; the instruments, notations, and performers were still limited to the tonal world that stabilized around the Baroque era and persisted until very recently.

That world, with its political, economic and cultural structures, has changed greatly since, and momentous shifts continue to take place at Internet pace. Music is incorporating these technologies and traditions as the peoples of the world move and mingle.

Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project is one of the most thoroughly constructed programs yet attempting to bring together East and West. A living symbol of cultural merging born in France to Chinese parents and educated in the United States, where he now resides this cellist of international stature has mobilized, as probably no other musician could, composers and performers of widely divergent traditions, to exchange ideas, musical traditions, even each other's instruments. The concerts that the Silk Road Project began last August will spread over a few years. The project is co-sponsoring the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall, which begins June 26.

About 20 composers or composer-performers were chosen to prepare ensemble works for the Silk Road Project. A project spokeswoman said last week that a decision is still being made about which ones will be showcased at the Folklife Festival.

The newly created compositions are performed in concert by the Silk Road Ensemble (sometimes including the composers themselves), alongside music from indigenous traditions and music by Western classical composers inspired by the "exotic." Some of these commissioned works are close to the Western concert tradition; most, however, reflect indigenous techniques and aesthetics, with a radically fresh input.

National musical traditions represented by musicians in the commissioning include Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Some elements seem to flow across borders: Stringed instruments, winds (especially flutes) and percussion show family resemblances. The great differences, though, emerge in the approaches the composers take, especially the younger ones.

Even within a single nation there are strong contrasts between composers. Many older ones in China and former Soviet republics, trained in the 1940s and '50s in communist-dominated conservatories, absorbed a conservative musical aesthetic, an extension of 19-century European Romanticism. Their large symphonies, suites, ballets and film scores might include folk instruments for "color," but the greater ensemble is still basically European.

An example of this generation of composers who received a Silk Road Project commission is Zhu Jian-er, who was born in 1922, studied with conservatively classical composers in the Soviet Union, and for many years has been a lecturer at the Shanghai Conservatory. His commission, "Silk Road Reverie," combines cello and piano with a number of traditional Chinese instruments.

Younger composers, most of whom have moved to Europe and the United States, bring a more innovative and revolutionary approach to all facets of composing. Silk Road Project examples of this younger generation include Jia Daqun (born in 1955), Turkish composer Hasan Ucarsu (born in 1965), and South Korean-born Jeeyoung "Jacqueline" Kim (born 1968).

China represents the dominant Asian culture for the past two millenniums, and its importance is reflected in the choice of nine Chinese composers for the commissioning project, far more than from any other country.


The career and music of Tan Dun, one of the best-known native Chinese composers, will serve to illustrate some of the major challenges and goals of the Silk Road Project and its examination and combination of Eastern and Western musical traditions.

Mr. Tan, presently living in the United States, has established a global reputation as a composer who has forged not only a new music but a new approach to music from Chinese and Western materials. His life illuminates the problems faced by artists working in difficult political climates and the creative possibilities that these conditions can foster.

Mr. Tan was born in rural China in 1957, in central Hunan Province, an area more known for agriculture, mining and strong nationalism than for sophistication.

His grandmother raised him in a farming village where shamanism and folk religious customs and ceremonies were dominant. Caught in the political upheaval of Mao's Cultural Revolution in his late teens, he was sent to work in a peasant commune and engaged in hard labor as a rice farmer there for two years.

Thinking he would be forced to spend the rest of his life there, he took up music as a hobby and collected folk songs from his peasant neighbors. At age 17 he took on a kind of "town musician" role, leading celebrations and rituals connected with farm life. It was an improvised music-making, using not only instruments but pots and pans and whatever was available.

Mr. Tan might well have remained there if a boat carrying a traditional Peking opera ensemble had not sunk nearby, drowning many of the musicians. Mr. Tan had some skill as a string player and was drafted into the troupe as musician and arranger for 1½ years. In 1978, the Central Conservatory in Beijing reopened, in the heady atmosphere of new artistic freedom after Mao's death in 1976. Mr. Tan applied and was accepted into the first composition class at age 21.

He would spend eight years there, emerging as a sort of rebel leader. In an adventurous move, the school brought in such composers as George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu and Chou Wen-chung, suddenly exposing students to the most advanced Western musical styles.

China was allowing a new cultural expansiveness in music and all the arts. Needless to say, there was intense debate, aesthetic and political, about these innovations. Mr. Tan assumed a leadership role, organizing concerts that attracted an unusually wide range of listeners, from industrial workers and farmers to professors and artists from other disciplines. Audiences came knowing they would be challenged, not merely entertained, and responded actively even violently to the music.

In 1979 Mr. Tan completed "Li Sao," his first major orchestral work, based on a story from the part of Hunan where he had grown up. Although written for a Western-style orchestra, it experimented with different sound effects in an assured style and established Mr. Tan's reputation. Submitted to a composition competition, it caused puzzled debate; the jury compromised by awarding Mr. Tan a special "incentive" prize.

In 1983, still at the Central Conservatory, he submitted a string quartet to a competition in Germany and became the first Chinese composer to win an international prize since the 1949 revolution. The outside world began to become aware of the new generation of young composers in the country. Two years later, Mr. Tan wrote "On Taoism," an expansive work for large orchestra. It dips between climactic percussion rolls and clashes and silence in unpredictable, dramatic ways. The importance of "On Taoism" was immediately recognized in China, and it attracted significant international attention.

A year later, Chou Wen-chung, Mr. Tan's teacher in Beijing, arranged a fellowship for him at Columbia University. At age 29, Mr. Tan was initially swamped by the sheer energy and diversity of New York but turned to composing with renewed vigor. Avoiding traditional Western forms of harmony and rhythm, he turned to atonality and serial techniques, but remained determined to make use of the sounds and techniques he had grown up with in China.

In 1989 he wrote "Nine Songs," a "ritual opera" that uses a large ensemble of ceramic instruments jars and bowls of many shapes and sizes. The almost violent percussive writing alternates with whispering, shouting and sliding vocalizations. Soon he began to experiment with the idea of ritual, breaking up the orchestra and spreading musicians around the stage and among the audience.

He was trying to break down traditional Western barriers in ways similar to Bertolt Brecht's rejection of the invisible "fourth wall" in theater, which separates actors and audience.

A 1992 commission from Suntory Hall in Japan gave Mr. Tan the chance to experiment with methods of distancing himself from the Western orchestral tradition while still using conventional instruments, in ways that came directly from his formative years in China. The commission brought forth the first of a series of what the composer calls orchestral theater works.

In practical terms, this means distributing the musicians around the concert hall to envelop listeners in what Mr. Tan calls a "ritual of sound, space, and silence." For him, this ritual is not a religious ceremony but the atmosphere of spiritual concentration that the performers and audience share. There are soloists and singers sometimes the orchestra is drafted into service for vocal effects but the intention is to re-create something like the village rituals of Mr. Tan's childhood. Sometimes the musicians themselves move around, like actors in a drama; more and more elements come into play, including synthesized sound and images projected around the audience.


Like many other composers in the Silk Road Project, Mr. Tan has been intrigued by the transferral of Asian instrumental techniques onto Western instruments. This has led to the creation of a series of Yi concertos for various instruments. (The "Yi" is from the "Yi-Ching," China's "Book of Changes," in which balance as a philosophical concept is discussed.) In the first of these concertos, "Intercourse of Fire and Water" (1995) for cello and orchestra, the solo part borrows from the techniques of the Chinese erhu (bowed lute) and Mongolian horse-head fiddle. The second Yi concerto, for guitar, combines techniques of the flamenco guitar and the Chinese pipa (plucked lute). The third Yi concerto makes use of cello and a set of tuned bronze bells whose prototype was created in China in the fifth century B.C.

Tan's smaller ensemble works integrate the same innovativeness rooted in tradition into a new context. The "Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and Ten Instruments" (1995) has a solo part played entirely by plucking inside the piano; the strings are manipulated in ways similar to those of the pipa and altered with a plate and bottle. Mr. Tan consciously evokes his childhood memories by having the players gather in a circle around the piano "like ritual dancers in a village ceremony." The work can be performed with a pipa soloist or by piano alone.

Vocal works, too, borrow from Chinese models: "A Sinking Love" (1995), celebrating Henry Purcell's tercentenary, is based on a single phrase from Purcell, the pitches of which match the spoken tonal inflections from a Chinese text by the eighth-century poet Li Po. Characteristic Eastern vocal techniques, including microtonal bending and sliding, are written for the soloist.

One of the most ambitious "small" works is "Ghost Opera" (1995) for pipa and string quartet, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. As a child, Mr. Tan witnessed China's 4,000-year-old "ghost opera" tradition, in which village shamans would communicate with spirits of the past and future. His own piece includes music from different periods and cultures, from Bach to Chinese folk song, as well as theatrical lighting and puppets.

"Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind)" was commissioned to mark the transfer of Hong Kong back to China. A 70-minute montage with symphonic orchestra, solo cello and adult and children's choirs, it was performed, with Mr. Ma as cello soloist, at the official reunification ceremony and broadcast around the world. A remarkable feature was the inclusion of the Bianzhong bells, a set of 65 gold-inlaid bronze bells discovered in 1978 in a Chinese tomb dating back more than 2,400 years. The ancient bells, in almost perfect condition, were found to be tuned chromatically in almost equal temperament (a tuning system, now dominant in the West, that was long thought to have originated in Europe around the time of Bach). The five-octave set of bells therefore can play both Chinese and Western music, a fact well utilized by Mr. Tan for his eclectic score.

Mr. Tan's most ambitious work to date is "Peony Pavilion" (1998), an enlarged reworking of a 16th-century Ming dynasty theater work. Mr. Tan weaves together Western instruments, electronics, a digital sampler, improvisation and traditional Chinese operatic techniques.

The most widely known of the composers who meld Eastern and Western idioms, Mr. Tan became the voice of a new era when he was commissioned by the BBC, PBS Television and Sony Classical to write "2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium." Consisting of a signature theme and an elaborate suite reflecting regions of the world, this "mosaic" symphony was broadcast on television in each successive time zone as it welcomed New Year's Day 2000.

Mr. Tan's music is being represented in the Silk Road Project concerts by selections from his score to Ang Lee's film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," originally recorded by Mr. Ma. This score, designed for a commercial mass-market product, is lushly romantic, somewhat atypical of Mr. Tan's output, but still characterized by masterful integration of Chinese instruments into a Western framework. It was honored with an Academy Award.

Tom Pniewski, the director of cultural affairs for the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, is a musicologist who has traveled to a number of Silk Road countries and studied their indigenous music. The World & I is a sister publication of The Washington Times.

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