Born on August 18, 1957, in Si Mao, Hunan, China. Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees, Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, China; also studied at Columbia University, New York. Addresses: Record company--Sony Classical, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, (212) 833-8000. Website--Tan Dun at Sony Classical: http://www.tandun.com/index.html.
Chinese composer Tan Dun's ethnically diverse and innovative compositions have been performed in the major concert halls of the world and have earned prestigious awards. He has been called on to score music for some the major events of his time, including the reunification of Hong Kong with China and the world's celebration of the new millennium. Tan grew up planting rice during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, but his music has taken him to Manhattan, New York, and on tour around the globe. He came into the Hollywood spotlight in 2001 when his score for the soundtrack to Ang Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Academy Award. He has become one of most prominent composers in the "world classical" genre, but Tan insists that he is not an ambassador between East and West. His goal, rather, is to "create my own unity," he told Time.
Born on August 18, 1957, in Si Mao, in China's central Hunan province, Tan was raised by his grandmother. Recruited to "re-education," or forced labor, as a child, Tan planted rice during China's Cultural Revolution. He grew up among peasants in a shamanistic culture that bore a distinct linguistic and folk identity. Tan kept his ears open to the music of village folk songs, and then to occupy his mind, arranged fantastic compositions of the music with any instrument he could find. In addition to traditional folk instruments like the erhu, or one-string Chinese fiddle, he played on woks and agricultural implements. At 17, he was the village musician, playing at parties, weddings, and funerals. At 19, he heard his first piece of Western classical music, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, while playing violin in a Beijing opera company. In 1978, he was selected over thousands of applicants for a spot at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in composition.
At age 22, Tan was recognized as the leader of an emerging "New Wave" art movement when he wrote the symphony Li Sao, based on a fourth-century Hunan lament, to be played by a Western symphony orchestra. In 1983, Tan was the first Chinese composer to win an international prize since the start of the Communist Revolution in 1949. With his string quartet Feng Ya Song, Tan was awarded the Weber Prize from Dresden, Germany. Subsequently, performances and broadcasts of his work were banned by the Communist Party for six months as "spiritual pollution." The composer's orchestral work On Taoism was noted for its Chinese feel though written for a Western orchestra. Inspired by the death of his grandmother, the work was Tan's first international breakthrough in 1985.
Tan accepted a fellowship at Columbia University in 1986 to work on his doctorate in music. He studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards and made New York City his home. As a student, he wrote in an "international atonal style," according the All Classical Guide online. His truly innovative flair became apparent in Eight Colors for string quartet in 1988, and the next year in 9 Songs,which employed the sounds of 50 newly created ceramic instruments. In 1992, Tan became the youngest composer to win the Suntory Prize Commission, and in 1996, was the youngest to be awarded the Grawemeyer Prize for his opera Marco Polo.
Tan's first taste of mainstream Western success came with his Ghost Opera, which he wrote for the avant-garde Kronos Quartet in 1994. Tan wove a Bach prelude, a Chinese folk song, chanting monks, and the words of Shakespeare into the work. Marco Polo, which was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival and debuted at the Munich Biennale in 1996, was also voted Opera of the Year by the German magazine Oper. Among the composer's 14 film scores for American and Chinese films is a jazz-edged score for 1998's Fallen starring Denzel Washington. His score for director Ang Lee's 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon featured famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Asian pop star CoCo Lee. For the work, which was a blend of ethnic and symphonic music, Tan won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. To the delight of the audience, Tan's Oscar acceptance speech was fast-paced and spoken mostly in Chinese.
Tan has been called on to score music for some of the major events of his time. To celebrate the reunification of China and Hong Kong, Tan composed the 72-minute Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), which featured a bianzhong--a set of 65 ceremonial bronze chimes from China's Hubei province from 433 B.C. that had been unearthed by archaeologists. Tan conducted the Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestra in the key of D major--the same as Beethoven's Ode to Joy--to an African beat. Time critic Terry Teachout called the piece "both frankly romantic and immediately accessible--Beethoven's Ninth boldly recast for postmoderns," and a "seductively savory multi-cultural stew," which featured Ma on cello. Tan composed the symphony in 13 short movements instead of fewer, longer ones. Despite the cultural and political importance of the July 1 changeover ceremony, Teachout declared it "the classical-music event of the summer" of 1997. The minute the musicians had set down their instruments, a recording of the event was rushed into print by Tan's record company, Sony Classical, and debuted at number five on the Billboard classical chart.
2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium, was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Television, and Sony Classical to debut New Year's Day 2000. A "mosaic" symphony, 2000 Today was a sampling of Tan's ideas for music in the new millennium. The symphony was heard on 27 hours of New Year's coverage by more than 55 television networks worldwide as midnight reached each successive time zone.
Though his embrace of many cultures is reflected clearly in his work, Tan cringes whenever he is likened to a musical ambassador bringing together the East and the West. "No East anymore, no West anymore," he told Time. "My purpose is to be flexible and freely flying around among all kinds of experience. Not to be driven by the wave of culture--fashion, trends, isms, schools--but to create my own unity."
by Brenna Sanchez
Tan Dun's Career
Listened to village songs and played on folk instruments while working in rice fields as a boy; heard first piece of Western classical music at age 19, while playing violin in a Beijing opera company; entered Beijing's Central Conservatory, 1978; first Chinese composer since 1949 to win an international prize for Fen Ya Song, 1983; work was then banned in China; was recognized internationally for On Taoism, 1985; accepted fellowship at Columbia University, 1986; composed Heaven Earth Mankind for Chinese-Hong Kong reunification ceremony, 1997; 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium,accompanied New Year's celebrations worldwide, 1999; composer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film soundtrack, 2000.
Tan Dun's Awards
Weber Prize, Dresden, Germany, 1983; Suntory Prize Commission, 1992; Marco Polo named Opera of the Year by German opera magazine Oper, 1996; Grawemeyer Prize for Marco Polo, 1996; elected by Toru Takemitsu for City of Toronto-Glenn Gould Prize in Music and Communication, 1996; Classical Musician of the Year, New York Times, 1997; Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2001.
- Selected compositions
- Five Pieces in Human Accent , piano, 1978.
- Li Sao , symphony, 1979-80.
- Feng Ya Song , string quartet, 1982.
- Fu , for sopranos, bass, and ensemble, 1982.
- On Taoism , orchestral work, 1985.
- In Distance , for piccolo, harp, and bass drum, 1987.
- Out of Beijing , opera for violin and orchestra, 1987.
- Eight Colours , for string quartet, 1989.
- 9 Songs , ritual opera for 20 singers/performers, 1989.
- Silk Road , for soprano and percussion, 1989.
- Elegy: Snow in June , concerto for cello and four percussionists, 1992.
- Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee , for orchestra, 1993.
- Lament: Autumn Wind , for any six instruments, any voice, and conductor, 1993.
- CAGE , piano, 1993.
- Marco Polo , opera, 1994.
- Yi , cello concerto, 1994.
- Ghost Opera (written for Kronos Quartet), 1994.
- Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind ), 1997.
- 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium , 1999.
- Selected discography
- Snow in June , Composers Recordings Inc., 1993.
- Ghost Opera , Wea/Atlantic/Nonesuch, 1997.
- Marco Polo , Sony Classical, 1997.
- Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind) , Sony Classical, 1997.
- Death and Fire , Ondine, 1998.
- Bitter Love , Sony Classical, 1999.
- 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium , Sony Classical, 1999.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (soundtrack), Sony Classical, 2000.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians, Schirmer Books, 1997.
- Time, August 11, 1997, p. 76.
- "Tan Dun," All Classical Guide, http://www.allclassical.com (March 30, 2001).
- "Tan Dun," G. Schirmer, Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, http://www.schirmer.com/composers/tan_bio.html (March 30, 2001).