Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Questions for Tan Dun

Questions for Tan Dun
Published: December 3, 2006

Q: As an experimental composer who has used crumpled paper, rocks and swishing water sounds in your music, how did you wind up at the staid Metropolitan Opera, where your new opera, “The First Emperor,” makes its debut this month? Do you see yourself as an avant-garde composer?

I see myself as a spiritual mathematician. What I do is kind of one plus one. I figure out that one plus one equals one.

That sounds very Buddhist. What does it mean?

It has many layers. I have conducted orchestras around the world, but my favorite instruments are still the ones you find in nature — water, stone, ceramics. I add my past one and my current one together on one stage.

You grew up in a remote village in the Hunan Province of China, without a television or a radio or any knowledge of Western music.

Before I ever saw a Western orchestra, I wanted to be a shaman. Only they understand the talk between the wind and the birds and the stones.

During the Cultural Revolution, you and your parents, who were both intellectuals, were forced to work in rice paddies on a government commune in order to be “re-educated” according to Mao’s plan.

I stayed two years cleaning the bathrooms and feeding pigs, and planting rice in the countryside. I have to tell you — those two years, I enjoyed them. I started to collect all those farmers’ folk songs during that two years.

And those were the songs that saved you when you applied to the Central onservatory in Beijing, which was reopened after Mao’s death.

It closed during the Cultural Revolution, and all the professors went to feed pigs. So when they called for students, thousands of composers showed up. They tested me. They said, “Can you play some Mozart?” I said: “What are you talking about. Who is Mozart?” Then they said, “What are you doing here?” I said: “I want to be a musician. I can do 500 folk songs.”

Later, you won a scholarship to Columbia University and played a violin on street corners to earn a living.

It was West Fourth Street. That time it was very good. In an hour I can make maybe $30. Amazing. I still see those people who used to share the spot with me. “Hey, Tan, where are you playing?” I say, “I play at Lincoln Center, but inside.”

Where do you live now?

I have a house in Chelsea. It has six floors, and the top floor is my writing studio. I always write in the morning. I work six hours at a time. I use a huge Ping-Pong table as my writing desk because I need the space to orchestrate my scores.

Your score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which you wrote in all of 10 days, won both a Grammy and an Oscar and presumably brought you great worldly riches.

It doesn’t make much difference if you have a lot of money or not. Of course, there’s a difference for the poor, but for people making $1 million a year or people making $100,000 a year, there’s not much difference. For artists, you are so busy you have no time to spend money anyway.

Western conductors and composers are typically described as temperamental and egomaniacal, but you seem pretty amiable.

I am very easygoing. I am not a person to be nervous at all. When you relax, you can make miracles. A lot of poetry and beautiful lines are said taking showers, and I hear a lot of beautiful melodies out of the bathroom.

Why do you think people sing in the shower?

A shower is very spiritual. I take at least two or three showers a day. I was always in the river when I was a kid in Hunan. I listened to women singing work songs and washing the laundry in the river.

Can that experience ever be recaptured?

Now I couldn’t do it in the Hudson River, so I do it in the shower.


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