Tan Dun

the Maestro On Culture & Imagination


Recently, MAEKAN teamed with Hong Kong’s most renowned publication SCMP to produce a story on Tan Dun, a master composer and living Chinese national treasure.


Most familiar to international audiences for his work scoring Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he amassed a great body of work that combines Western and traditional Chinese theatrical conventions before finding more mainstream success with film scores and composing for China’s milestone events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


I sat down with him at Hong Kong’s Heritage Museum and got a chance to both meet someone I’d enthusiastically listened to as a child, but also gain insights on how the maestro has stayed spiritually inspired over the course of his 40-plus years as a rebel in the world of the high arts. As I learned, it wasn’t just about music but also about culture and how to preserve it through our work and in the hearts of audiences.

“I regret being a musician…When I was a child, I wanted to be a painter, a philosopher, a shaman.”

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.


Master Tan: I love golfing. You compete with yourself and it’s like when you’re scoring film music or an opera symphony. You never say ‘I want to do it better than Beethoven, I want to do it better than Mozart,’ but actually, you want to be better than last time.


Nate: You might not recognize the voice, but if you’ve seen the films Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee or Hero by Zhang Yimou, you might have found yourself drawn in to the rich Wuxia worlds created by the combination of costumes, movement and last but not least, his music. This is Tan Dun’s music. He’s master composer and living national treasure in his native China. His work famously combines Western and Chinese classical music with instruments from other world cultures or even nature itself. Outside of stage and film, his music has graced some of China’s great milestone events including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2016 opening of Shanghai Disneyland. I had the rare pleasure of sitting down with him at Hong Kong’s Heritage Museum in Sha Tin. I learned about his life and work, as well as his thoughts on the connection between spirituality, creativity and culture.


Master Tan: It’s a mission impossible to find something unrelated to music in my life, actually. I find it’s very funny. Maybe it’s kind of…fate.


Nate Kan: Tan Dun was born in a village in Changsha called Si Mao, which means Silk Hair. Named for the trees that were covered in flowing white strands, the traditionally morbid color meant that communities in Hunan designated the village as the final destination for the deceased. This meant that funeral rites and other folk rituals were a part of everyday life for Tan Dun, making spirituality a permanent influence on his future work.


Master Tan: I actually very much regret being a musician. When I was a child I always wanted to be a shaman because I was raised in Hunan. You probably know two crazy people from Hunan: one is Mao Zedong, the other is me! Just kidding! Hunan is a Taoist culture. So when I was young, I always wanted to be Taoist. Taoists always imagined that invisible roads that could reach invisible places, invisible cities.


Nate: Unable to take up formal musical training due to the Cultural Revolution, it goes without saying that Master Tan—or Tan laoshi as we came to refer to him—was able to create under circumstances many creatives could not imagine. Given the challenges he faced, I asked him if struggle and hardship were essential to creativity. He responded using an analogy, something he would do again over the course of our conversation.


Master Tan: I love to eat (Chinese ku gua, in Cantonese, fu gwaa) [bitter melon]. And also bitter vegetables, arugula. Because I find in real life, it’s the same thing. If you know how to appreciate the bitterness, then life is different. As an artist, if you struggled, if you’re being squeezed spiritually, then you will know yourself much more. And you will know how to make your art more interesting.


Nate: Tan learned to play traditional Chinese instruments with other commune residents and would eventually join and perform with a Peking opera troupe. After completing his studies at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, he moved to New York to attend Columbia University. Almost immediately, he set about creating new worlds that married his hybrid Western and Chinese musical arrangements to strong theatrical performances and visuals.


Master Tan: Do you know why I love cinema and opera? I always thought opera was the ancient cinema and I always believed cinema would be the future opera. Because we invented electricity, we had opera. It has literature, it has fine art, make-up, music. Before electricity (Chinese people call it dianying), dianying actually translates to “shadow of electricity”! Actually, these “electric shadows,” I love that word—it means film. As a person, I always believed—maybe too influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, these three major elements in Chinese culture, but actually I personally believed that the soul can be trained through opera. It’s very interesting. When you synchronize action and sound, picture and music, suddenly time is different. The timing, feeling is changing. So dealing with the synchronization between picture and sound. Wow.


Nate: His love for cinema would be reciprocated when he was called on to write scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet, which together comprise his infamous Martial Arts trilogy. For his efforts, he earned numerous accolades including an Academy Award, a Grammy and a BAFTA AWARD for Crouching Tiger.


Master Tan: I spent so much time in my last twenty years trying to figure out the philosophy of synchronizing pictures and sound. That’s why it was when I composed for Crouching Tiger, I was talking to Ang Lee. I was asking him, “tell me, how you learned for film. For making electric shadows.” He said, “there’s no way. No way to learn film. The only way to approach it is drama, theatre, literature; the sense and beauty sense of the arts.” As a director or filmmaker, you need to be the best and most sensitive of all those parts.


Nate: If you listen to Tan Dun’s work, you’ll notice that every detail behind his works has intent and reason. With his ability to effectively combine such multiple diverse influences, I asked a bit about his creative process and mindset.


Master Tan: 40 years ago when I was a composer and I went to—no, 30 years ago—to New York to study at Columbia University, I actually trained myself into a method to catch the shape of sound. So my imagination for symphony, for opera, always came from a single sound. You will hear certain chanting. Of course, this chanting was inspired mainly by Sanskrit, the ancient language of Buddhist chanting.


Nate: Throughout his career, Tan Laoshi has repeatedly experimented and worked with different languages including ancient ones like Classical Chinese and the aforementioned Sanskrit. The chanting he’s talking about is in reference to his latest project that will soon debut after several years in development.


Master Tan: My newest one is called Buddha Passion. I spent more than five years to create it. I went to Dunhuang, which is in the west part of the desert many times, inspired by the paintings, the thousand-year old paintings in the Dunhuang caves.


Nate: The Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are located in Dunhuang, a city in modern day Gansu province that was once a key stop on the ancient Silk Road. The walls of the caves are covered with elaborately painted murals covering nearly 50,000 square meters and depicting Buddhist figures and spiritual scenes.


Master Tan: Actually, in the caves, those paintings are sometimes trying to paint the sound. Trying to print the floating of the sound waves, trying to paint the colour of sound. My God, it’s so avant garde! I mean, thousands of years ago, those painters and who know’s who painted them—beautiful human beings—and that kind of painting made me crazy. Because painting can search sound waves, search speed, painting can search tempo and dynamics. Why not music? The music has already been painted—it just needs to transcribed and transformed into today’s format and stage.

Master Tan: Actually, in the caves, those paintings are sometimes trying to paint the sound. Trying to print the floating of the sound waves, trying to paint the colour of sound. My God, it’s so avant garde! I mean, thousands of years ago, those painters and who know’s who painted them—beautiful human beings—and that kind of painting made me crazy. Because painting can search sound waves, search speed, painting can search tempo and dynamics. Why not music? The music has already been painted—it just needs to transcribed and transformed into today’s format and stage.


Nate: For many of us working in big cities, we often find ourselves short on head space and struggling to stay inspired. This is something that artists and creators deal with constantly throughout their careers. I asked Tan Laoshi how he continues to find linggan, or inspiration, after so many years.


Master Tan: I always believed that the soul can be trained. I feel the soul is a biological animal, a psychological animal that can be trained. (linggan, we say) The soul, ‘inspiration’. Sometimes when you were young, you would say, “oh no, today I don’t have linggan. I don’t have inspiration. God, Buddha, Allah or whatever could be so unfair.” Today, you can write a whole chapter. Boom, finished! And tomorrow, maybe they only give you one note in eight hours. Do! Second day, Re! Only one note! It always happens. In that case, I always try to train my inspiration, train my soul, actually.


Nate: While there is a lot more discussion about how to nurture creativity now, there is still a pervading attitude that creativity is something you’re born with. You’ve either got it or you don’t. It’s a belief that goes back in time to even Master Tan’s master.


Master Tan: When I was a graduate at the Central Conservatory of Beijing, I said to my professor I want to write my thesis called “How to train my soul.” He said, “I’ve got to send you to a hospital to cure you!” How do your soul? Inspiration you need to nurture it, train it, find it. The way is to travel, to go somewhere you think it’s going to make you physically, spiritually make feel it. And that’s the place. And Dunhuang is one such place.


Nate: While we’re no strangers to the value of travel for escape or self-discovery, what about those who are unable to make similar pilgrimages? Can we still find inspiration even when we’re seemingly trapped in one place? When we asked this, Tan Laoshi was ready with an alternative.


Master Tan: If you don’t want to travel physically, then you’d rather travel spiritually. It’s very important. That’s why Buddhist people always pray. Anyways, I think training yourself is very practical. This kind of closing yourself or whatever, sometimes is difficult. Because we always have a lot of work to do, as a professional artist. And sometimes to me biguan is turning off your cellphone for a week. Without a cellphone for a week, life is so beautiful!


Nate: As my time Tan Dun came to a close, it became clear that he is so much more the music and performances that we know him for. He is a one-man cultural force, a preserver of tradition that transcribes seemingly forgotten spirituality to be understood and embraced by today’s audiences. Like the sounds he reproduced from the cave paintings of Dunhuang, he has become a medium for the world’s ancient culture, bringing it to life in new, authentic and powerful ways.


Master Tan: Buddha Passion is actually buried deep in my belief about timing, about life. We always want to believe there is a next life. Because we want to live in the future. Why kids want to play games is because they want to live in a kingdom that’s timeless. They want to live in a dream kingdom. They want to live in the future. That’s why cinema, games, opera can make them go to that place. Buddha Passion is this kind of piece actually. It can let you live in the future and in ancient times.


Nate: I left off by asking about when I could experience his latest work in person.


Master Tan: Actually the Asian premiere will be at the New Vision Festival on November 2nd and the 3rd. And one thing that is quite surprising is that there will be two beautiful girls re-incarnated from the paintings playing ancient instruments on the stage of Hong Kong. Meanwhile there are other surprises such as the German Lubeck International Choral Academy. It consists of 19 countries’ young singers speaking Russian, Italian, French. But they all are singing in Chinese and plus Sanskrit. So it’s very colorful experience for my audience in Hong Kong. I can’t wait.

“If you know how to appreciate the bitterness, life is different. As an artists, if you struggle. If you’re being squeezed spiritually, then you will know yourself much better and you will know how to make your art more interesting.”

This story was produced together with SCMP. For the text piece accompanying this story, check it out now over at the publication’s website.

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