updated 24 March 2016

Tan Dun

Chinese composer born 18 August 1957 in Changsha.

Tan Dun was born on 18 August 1957 in a village in Changsha in the Hunan Province of China. His first musical experiences were with local shamans practicing rituals in his village, but the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, turned him away from music; he was sent to work as a rice planter for two years. During this time he learned to play various traditional stringed instruments. When several members of a Peking opera troupe were killed in a ferry accident, Tan was called in as a replacement violist and arranger. In 1977, after passing a highly competitive entrance exam, he entered the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. His early influences included Tōru Takemitsu, George Crumb, Alexander Goehr, Hans Werner Henze, Isang Yun, and Chou Wen-Chung. Later, he would be (somewhat hastily) grouped into the “1978 Generation” which included fellow composers Qigang Chen, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Xu Quiasong, Guo Wenjing, and Mo Wuping.

His quartet Feng Ya Song (1982) won second place in the Dresden International Weber Chamber Music Competition in 1983. Three years later, Tan Dun emigrated to the United States to study as a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he worked with Chou Wen-Chung, a former student of Edgard Varèse. In New York, Tan encountered the music of John Cage as well as that of American minimalists and post-minimalists, such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Meredith Monk. His dissertation, titled Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee (which includes a text and a short symphony by the same name) already showed his growing interest in cross-disciplinary work and the visual arts.

While completing his doctoral studies, he composed scores for several films, mostly documentaries, which were not widely distributed, as well as concert pieces for the New York underground art scene, including an experimental, non-narrative opera titled Nine Songs (1989), which was a setting of poems by Qu Yan that included fifty ceramic instruments (percussion, stringed, and wind instruments) created for the performance by the potter Ragnar Naess. This marked the beginning of Tan’s “music rituals,” which continued in 1990 with Orchestral Theater I (three others followed), composed in the tradition of interactive American performance art.

His career reached a turning point with a second opera, Marco Polo (1995), with a libretto by Paul Griffiths, that mixed the dramatic styles of Peking opera and the west. In it, dreamlike, transhistorical scenes in the style of Peking opera featured apparitions by Dante, Scheherazade, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and John Cage. Weaving in and out of these scenes was a narrative of Marco Polo’s famous voyage. This eclectic work received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1998, catapulting Tan Dun to global fame. Another opera The Peony Pavillion, directed by Peter Sellars, premiered that same year.

The watershed year of 1998 was also the year Tan Dun composed Water Concerto, a highpoint of his “organic music.” These compositions are written for ensembles of percussion, wind, and string instruments made from ceramics, paper, or water. These new instruments have for many years appeared occasionally in his compositions for chamber ensemble, orchestra, and stage, culminating in Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002), an opera in which these organic elements are woven into the very structure, with an act devoted to each “element.”

In 2000, his original score for the celebrated film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon garnered him an Oscar and even greater global renown. His popularity grew with other scores for timeless Chinese films with martial artists as their protagonists, such as Hero (2002) and The Banquet (2006). Each of these films was accompanied by its own concerto (as ballets were once accompanied by their own concert suites), performed by a renowned artist (cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and pianist Lang Lang, respectively).

Tan Dun’s most recent opera, The First Emperor (2006) was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and was directed by Zhang Yimou (the director of Hero), with Plácido Domingo premiering the title role.

Tan continues to receive excptional, high-profile international commissions, such as in 2008, when Youtube and Google commissioned him to compose an inaugural symphony for the YouTube Symphony orchestra (with musicians from more than 30 countries). Tan Dun became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador 2013.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2016

By Jacques Amblard

Tan Dun’s compositions manifest a new kind of eclecticism. His work expresses the ruptures — or meetings, depending on the perspective — between Orient and Occident, between music and visual arts. It also holds contradictory aesthetic values. From about 1993 onward, Tan no longer seems to make a distinction between film music and so-called serious composition; in interviews, he has described this indistinction with the mantra “1 + 1 = 1.” But unifying these projects has paradoxically led to a collapse of artistic aesthetics. As discussed at the end of this essay, this collapse has links to postmodernity, globalization, and commodification. As a pioneer who no longer differentiates between his original compositions and the derivative pieces they inspire, Tan has become a rare musical counterpart to the numerous entrepreneurial visual artists, among whom Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami are at the forefront.

From his early works, Tan has attempted to unite East and West. Sunrain (1978), an extract from Eight Memories in Watercolors for piano, showcases his use of the pentatonic scale, a mode emblematic of the Far East in general. The piece also highlights his use of the open fifth. An interval with universal consonance, the open fifth evokes Zen Buddhism, and, with its absence of the inner third, which would indicate major or minor, it avoids overt association with the Western tonal tradition. Neither tonal nor atonal, it is fusional and geographically unifying. After 1995, at which point Tan softened his earlier John Cage-inspired radicality, his music became, if not strictly modal, at least “polar,” hovering “between abstract and concrete.”1

Sunrain vibrates with the obsessive, hyperactive dynamism that has become synonymous with Tan. Its quick ostinato continues Béla Bartók’s use of the piano, and other instruments, as percussive forces. On this theme, Eric Hung describes Tan, as portrayed in the documentary Broken Silence, as a “madman” musician, “banging on everything he finds: doors, bells, drums, and so on.”2 The image recalls Cage, another musician who tested the resonance of whatever objects he could.

Everything Is Percussion

Across Tan’s work, the driving energy of Bartók, Cage, and Edgard Varèse is radical, a stylistic Ariadne’s thread that weaves through his aesthetically diverse pieces. In Orchestral Theatre I: O, the violins are struck more than played. In Seven Desires (2002), the body of the guitar is used as a drum, and similar techniques appear in the Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and Ten Instruments (1995). Similarly, his Piano Concerto: The Fire (2008) directs the pianist to strike the piano with martial arts-inspired movements, with the wrists and forearms. It must be noted that Tan’s celebrated and Cage-inspired “organic” concertos (for water, stones, ceramics, and paper) are, above all else, percussive works.

Though Varèse wrote the piece Ionisation (1928) exclusively for percussion, neither he nor Bartók composed percussion concertos. For the most part, this is what Tan’s “organic” concertos are, as well as The Tears of Nature (2012), in which the soloist tries out the orchestra’s library of percussion instruments, from a pair of stones, to timpani and other sonic armaments, before finishing the piece on the xylorimba.

Percussion instruments are Tan’s ambassadors. They allow him to affirm his Chinese origins within Western ensembles without having to deal with the problem of melody, which is necessarily linked to a decision to compose tonally or not. This is his approach in his organic music for stones, and, for example, in his use of Chinese cymbals (such as in the daliuzi music of the Tujia people, to the west of his native Hunan province). These are heard in Soundshapes (1990) and The Map (2002).

Other Organological Hijacks: When Westerners Play à la Chinese

Another fruitful way to bridge East and West is to use the instruments of Western art music in ways that evoke their Far-Eastern cousins. Tan’s point of reference is sometimes Hunan, or China in general, and other times Tibet, Japan, or, more rarely, India.

As early as 1987, in the trio In Distance, the piccolo uses breath sounds and slides to imitate the Chinese bamboo flute, the harp imitates the Japanese koto, and the bass drum, beaten with the hands or fingers, recalls “Indian percussion,” according to Tan. Emptiness and silence are treated as elements of music in their own right. Tan thus cautiously invokes Zen, following in the footsteps of Tōru Takemitsu, Morton Feldman, and even Cage (who practiced transcendental meditation from the 1940s onward).

The harp went on to become Tan’s favorite envoy. When played quickly, it can resemble both the koto and the pipa, a Chinese lute-like instrument. This reference appears in all five of his operas and in orchestral extracts, such as Four Secret Roads of Marco Polo (2004), the Internet Symphony: Eroica (2009), and The Tears of Nature. Harp also features in Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women (2013) for video, solo harp, and orchestra. Similarly, the cimbalom evokes a vast, vague East, from Central Europe to China: it recreates the sound produced by plucked zithers, such as the guzheng, used in his fourth opera, The First Emperor (2006).

In his piano pieces from the early 1990s, Tan was still seeking a balance point between Occident and Orient. This period brought the first culmination of his underground style, exemplified by Memorial 19 Fucks: A Memorial to Injustice, to All People Who Have Been Fucked Over (1993), written before he turned toward more mainstream classical music with his opera Marco Polo (1995). In several of his piano pieces, such as CAGE (1994) and Dew Fall Drops (2000), the performer strokes the triple strings inside the piano (similar to how Cage and later visual artists in the Fluxus movement “prepared,” destroyed, or, in this case, hijacked pianos). He restricted his library of notes to E F G B C, which create a nontraditional pentatonic scale; he thus departed from “penta-truism,” though he would return to it in his most successful film scores, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), and in their derivative concertos.

Another feature of Tan’s music is glissandos, particularly in the strings. Once again, he channels Bartók, who with this technique began to build a bridge between art music and popular music, which frequently employs slides. This bridge was completed in a particularly visible way by American musicians, including Tan, in the 1990s. The glissando also recalls the playing of Chinese bowed instruments, such as the huqin — a two-stringed viol. Tan uses glissandos fluently from the 1980s right up to his contrabass concerto The Wolf (2015), a piece that demonstrates another characteristic in his music: the use of the orchestra as a percussion instrument. In this piece, the orchestra fires repeated warning shots, as in Luciano Berio’s 1987 masterpiece Formazioni. Each of the spaced-out thumps triggers a descending glissando from the soloist. The contrabass – this deeper, more expansive huqin, this Chinese “wolf” — thus creates atonal gestures, reminiscent of the work of György Ligeti. Each fall is heard and witnessed. With their popular appeal and hints of Eastern influence, glissandos epitomize continuity and facilitate palatability for a broad audience. In slow, nostalgic passages of film music, glissandos are performed by Yo-Yo Ma’s cello (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or Itzhak Perlman’s violin (Hero, 2002), or by the bawu, a relative of the clarinet. They heighten the effects of tempo rubato and the impression of Sehnsucht, as in late nineteenth-century Hungarian rhapsodies, such as Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (1878). Here they are purified (zen) and simplified (postmodern).3

More so than the harp, Yo-Yo Ma’s cello quickly became Tan’s mouthpiece as he matured and outgrew his Cage-inspired hyperactivity. Beyond simply imitating the huqin in the lower register, with the glissando, the cello also emulates the range and sensuality of the human voice (which is what interested Pascal Dusapin in his “intonation” phase, around the same time). The cello often plays alone, concertante. Examples of this are in Yi1: Intercourse of Fire and Water (1994); the 1997 symphony Heaven Earth Mankind for bianzhong, cello, children’s choir, and orchestra; Crouching Tiger Concerto (2000) for cello, video, and chamber orchestra; and Four Secret Roads of Marco Polo (2004) for twelve cellos and orchestra, premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic. The last piece was originally called Secret Land, a title readopted for a performance by twelve cellists, without orchestra, in Berlin in 2006. The Map (2002) is a multimedia cello concerto that presents socially engaged documentary footage on the Tujia, Miao, and Dong ethnic minorities. With it, Tan became a veritable ethnomusicologist and thus truly a descendant of Bartók, as remarked by Hoi-Yan Wong.4 Other notable pieces for cello include Elegy: Snow in June (1991), for cello and percussion ensemble, and, more recently, Chiacone (2010) for solo cello.

Performative or Interactive Multimedia Works: Cage’s Lingering Influence

Nine Songs (1989), subtitled a “ritual opera,” is a series of works begun at the end of Tan’s first, or “radical,” period. These pieces verge on music performance rituals, possibly involving the audience members themselves in the performance. The series title of Orchestral Theatre I: O (1990) is a reference to the first musical happening, the Theatre Piece No. 1 that Cage organized in 1952 at the Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. In O, the orchestral musicians yell, murmur, and sing. In Orchestral Theatre II: Re (1992), a second conductor breaks the fourth wall and directs the audience to hum the note D. Orchestral Theatre III: Red Forecast (1996) incorporates video, a medium that is used again in Orchestral Theatre IV: The Gate (1999), in which the performers, including Western opera singers, traditional Beijing opera singers, and a Japanese puppeteer, perform in front of a projection screen and incorporate the images into their action.

As early as the 1960s, the American composer Harry Partch had also tried to infuse shamanic divinity, life, and action into the ceremony of a concert, albeit in a more sensual and corporal manner. Theatrical music had existed in the United States for many years, known through the work of Robert Ashley’s troupe as well as Mauricio Kagel’s performances in Europe starting with Sur scène (1959). The rallying around theatrical music was particularly American. Tan’s experiments in performance crept into other of his pieces — such as Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience (1992) and his famous Ghost Opera (1994) for pipa and string quartet with additional parts for water, metal, stones, and paper. Eventually, performance aspects were infiltrating almost all of his works. Videos, CD players, audiences, and, later on, internet users became his co-performers, all in accordance with his enthusiastic and perhaps naïve democratic and globalist ideology.

While Cage’s influence pervaded the early American performative tradition, by the 1990s another movement had emerged, influenced by the visual arts: the era of installations. Adding to his eclecticism, Tan tapped into his identity as a self-styled visual artist. For the Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art on Kinmen Island in Taiwan, he transformed his collection of wrecked pianos into Piano Installation (2004). Another echo of Cage is Tan’s collaboration on Dancing Body – Drumming Mind (2000), which invites the public to drum on cowhide skins stretched across chairs and beds; this installation was exhibited in the Palais de Tokyo, a visual arts gallery in Paris. Following in the footsteps of Varèse and Cage, Tan has been an active force in the arts’ gradual evolution into a singular, shape-shifting entity.

As a natural extension, his operas fit within Wagner’s conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Each piece after the experimental Nine Songs, including Marco Polo (1995), Peony Pavilion (1998), Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2002), and The First Emperor, was a major event built to the height of an increasingly larger budget. These works are world-encompassing, like the symphonies of Mahler, which Tan admires almost as much as those of Beethoven. Each also inspired him to write derivative orchestral pieces, as if opening a new era in his oeuvre. Marco Polo brought him international recognition, much as Einstein on the Beach (1976) had done for Philip Glass. The First Emperor was a massive attempt to reconcile culture, cinema and the general public, and to create a global form of opera. The fact that Zhang Yimou, the director of the film Hero, agreed to step aside from his normal role in cinema to stage the piece, and with great success, gives some hint of the work’s importance and scale.

The Culmination of Organic Musics

Tan’s most personal work might be found in his pieces for ceramics (Nine Songs, Soundshapes [1990], Peony Pavilion, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, and Concerto for Earth [2009]), paper (in Tea, Elegy: Snow in June, The Pink: A Paper Ritual in Sound and Dance [1993], and Paper Concerto [2003]), and water (Tea, Ghost Opera, Water Concerto [1998], Water Passion after Saint Matthew [2000], and The First Emperor). He uses these organic elements to catalyze four operas and unites them in Tea. Each also culminates in a concerto — by far his favorite genre.5 These materials are linked to his youth, when he made music with what was available to him in his rural setting.6 His approach reveals the influence of Taoism (not Confucianism, which had been used by the Maoists), as it incorporates three of the five Taoist elements: water, earth (for ceramics), and wood (for paper).7

By the time Tan composed the above works, Cage had long since written his own “plant music” (starting with Branches, 1976) and “mineral music” (when he used shells filled with water in Inlets, 1977). These pieces joined in the land art hippy movement, following Cage’s statement that “music is ecology.”8 Despite Jean-François Lyotard’s belief that the ecology movement had ended in 1979, ecology would become a major narrative in the 1990s.9 Extending far beyond Cage’s isolated experiments, the movement led Tan to turn organic materials into instruments, and even to demand virtuosity from their performers. He directed the performers to use various techniques: hand percussion on the surface of water in bowls; blowing across sheets of paper, shaking paper-tassel whips, or beating large sheets of paper hung above the orchestra; striking clay, or playing clay flutes or stone percussive instruments. His creativity is most on display in rapid percussive passages. Cage’s Water Music (1952) was simply an introduction to an undeveloped manifesto. Forty years later, Tan’s own water music became the cornerstone of a new music theory.

His aquatic sound-world was made possible by David Cossin, a committed virtuoso percussionist and specialist in water who worked with Tan for over fifteen years. Together they used water as a supplemental sounding box for various instruments. The droplets falling from a sieve plunged into water then lifted out could generate a decrescendo, smorzando, captured by contact microphones. The waterphone produced long, resonant sounds, reminiscent of whale calls. This music became an echo of romanticism, reinvented in the “Water Concerto” (1998), just as Takemitsu perceived a new romanticism in contemporary music at the end of the century, perhaps linked to the cosmic era of the approaching year 2000.10 In her 2006 biography, Joanna C. Lee recognized this same theme in Tan’s music with her title “Romantic Gesture.”11

Tan is yet to find a center for his organic music, a discrete yet elegant midpoint between East and West. As scalar pitches carry connotations on either side of the globe, practitioners of noise music simply forgo them. In adapting nearly pitch-less natural elements as instruments, they invent a sound shamanism, an evocation of planetary ecology or even of minorities in the Hunan province.12 There was no better decision in Tan’s life than to combine Cage’s philosophy with that of his village shaman.

World Music and the World of Music

By 2010, at 53 years old, Tan had received commissions from prestigious institutions such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, YouTube/Google, and the Edinburgh Festival. His work had been recorded on Deutsche Grammophon, and he had collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Lang Lang. He had won the Suntory Music Award, the Grawemeyer Award, a Grammy, and an Oscar for the score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His music was played during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and he was cultural ambassador for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.

Tan has without a doubt been wrapped up in another narrative of his era: globalization. For example, YouTube commissioned him, and only him, to produce the Internet Symphony: Eroica (2009) for the inauguration of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.13 Makis Solomos has wondered whether the hidden paradigm of postmodernism has not been, more precisely, a “march towards globalization.” Earlier, in 1991, Fredric Jameson published a work called Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.14

Tan understands Western audiences, who see in him a window to the greater world: they are Marco Polos, keen to experience the last remaining vestiges of exoticism available in our globalized world. It is no surprise then that his opera Marco Polo brought him his first large-scale fame. Taking it as a lesson, for his original productions of his next four operas, he used traditional Chinese costumes, setting up these works as timeless mandarins. This is what people were hoping for from his hopelessly approximative attempt at a global enterprise. According to Nicolas Bourriaud, “what postmodernism calls hybridization consists of grafting often caricatural ‘specificities’ onto a uniform popular culture, like adjusting synthetic flavors with industrial sweeteners.”15

Perhaps no other composer has ever had a website as visually attractive as Tan’s; it even put Glass’s site out of the running, which had been a point of reference in composing. It is strange, and interesting, that Tan’s site is perhaps definitively inaccessible, having gone offline in March 2016. Its disappearance seems to signal a problem, or a limit — as if he had signed a Faustian pact, which he then had to burn. On the site, Tan’s works appeared with sumptuous imagery, like luxury goods. The visual aspect was the most noticeable. Each work was also accompanied by a simple caption, such as The Fire, The Wolf, The Map. For the Violin Concerto (2009), the caption was The Love.

Tan’s much-celebrated film scores, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and The Banquet, have inspired classical music pieces: meaning that the consumer good came first and the artistic work followed, and not vice versa as happened with classical music in the past. The paradigm has been inverted since the pre-war period, when Theodor Adorno castigated the nascent “culture industry.” Tan’s film-inspired concertos are now performed by global superstar soloists. According to Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Nietzsche “made thought into a machine of war”16; if we transpose this idea onto Tan, whom Hung identified as a “versatile” composer,17 he is equally capable of composing a piece such as the Water Concerto and Internet Symphony: Eroica, and of being incredibly effective in spreading his works, as he does through the late capitalism referenced by Jameson. He is, in a word, fluent in the world’s most effective sales cultures: Made in China and Made in the USA.

Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds (2016) is a curious fusion experiment, between the diverse styles of Tan and something beyond. It has rudimentary tonal passages like his film scores, followed by passages of organic sounds celebrating wind, as if the piece is meant to be a Concerto for Air. The piece recalls the impressionists’ experiments with wind, particularly Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1912), until suddenly, an aggregate is chopped up into an ostinato, in what is almost a pastiche of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913). The work juxtaposes film music, Tan’s personal avant-gardism, and Stravinsky’s polytonality, all while the audience and orchestra members play recorded birdsong from their smartphones.

Hung has noted that Tan works in a streamlined and efficient economic model in which he reproduces, or recycles, certain melodies. As an example, he used the same modal line in the score for the documentary Don’t Cry! Nanjing 1937 (1995), then in Heaven Earth Mankind (1997), and finally in the score for Fallen (1998) with actor Denzel Washington. Like Glass before him, he reproduces music, assembly-line fashion. It is a legitimate way of working when an element is so rich that its possibilities cannot be exhaustively explored over the span of a single work. But according to Hung, from one “nostalgically tinged melody” to another, Tan’s writing remains similar, whether for the orchestral works of the 2000s or the film scores.18 He simply recognized that he struck gold. In the same spirit, Jeff Koons, who is perhaps the most famous living artist today, sculpted his first Balloon Dog, which led to a series produced between 1994 and 2000, and then a series of miniature versions, design objects, and accessories.

These remarks are not so much critiques; rather, they reveal an indistinction, of which Tan appears to be a pioneer. In 1999, the same year that he, by then an emblem of globalization, wrote his BBC Orchestra-commissioned piece 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium, John Seabrook released his book Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture.19 In Tan’s case, the indistinction is between the music of image and the image of music. One must strip off his music’s economic war garb, and remove its golden shield, to discover its true value, which is stunningly diverse from one work to the next, though Tan seems not to concern himself too much, as if he assumes that art has dispensed with aesthetics. Does this mean that art’s primary concern is now simply survival, in a world that is too vast, too hard, too competitive? Art seems to have become its own public relations agency, its own subterfuge. In our society of the spectacle, already rusty a half-century after the work of Guy Debord (1967), subterfuge is now ubiquitous. It seems even essential in our online planetary supermarket. So should we consider it an integral part of the work, as Tan, as musician and artist, seems to suggest? He generally conducts his own compositions — on CD, on DVD, in concert — adding to the spectacle by bringing his own artistic body to the performance. The visual composer. The composer of the image, or the image of the composer.

1. These labels are from Christian UTZ in his articles “Kunstmusik und reflexive Globalisierung: Alterität und Narrativität in chinesischer Musik des 20. und 21. Jahrunderts,” Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, LXVII/2 (2010), p. 81; and “Komponieren zwischen Abstraktion und Konkretion: Die Tradition des chinesischen Musiktheaters als Folie heutiger chinesischer Musik,” Österreichische Musikzeitschrift, LIII/5 (1998), p. 35-45. 
2. Eric HUNG discussing Tan’s portrayal in the documentary Broken Silence (1995): “Tan Dun Through the Lens of Western Media I,” Notes, LXVII/3 (2011), p. 605. 
3. Tan Dun’s lush string accompaniments may be described as romantic, but he uses harmonic structures rarely, in keeping with Zen simplicity. 
4. See Hoi-Yan WONG, “Bartók’s Influence on Chinese New Music in the Post–Cultural Revolution Era,” Studia Musicologica: An International Journal of Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, XLVIII/1-2 (2007), p. 237-243. 
5. The genre fits in well with the star system, where the solo virtuoso is the star. We direct the surprised reader to the final section of this text. 
6. This dimension was central for Tan Dun, according to his lengthy conversations with Laurent Feneyrou, 1995. 
7. Ibid. 
8. John CAGE, For the Birds (interview with Daniel Charles) (Boston/London, Marion Boyars, 1981), p. 229. 
9. In La Condition postmoderne (Paris, Minuit, 1979), p. 8, Jean-François Lyotard notices signs of the beginning of a new era, called “postmodern,” in the end of political and religious “grand narratives.” 
10. “If I compare the various new musical tendencies that are currently appearing [during the 1990s] with those of the fifties and sixties, it appears to me that a different romantic sentiment is being born that is different to that of the fifties and sixties (not necessarily something like neo-romanticism).” Tōru TAKEMITSU, Chosakushu, vol. V (Tokyo, Shinchosha, 2000), p. 162. 
11. See Joanna Hing-yun LEE, “Romantic Gesture,” Opera News, LXXI/6 (2006), p. 16-20. 
12. It is worth noting that some traditional Chinese instruments, such as the bianqing, are made of stone. 
13. In a rare case, the resulting four minutes of music did not figure in the catalog on Tan Dun’s website (which disappeared several years ago). 
14. Frederic JAMESON, Le Postmodernisme ou la logique culturelle du capitalisme (Paris, Éditions des Beaux-Arts, 2007); Makis SOLOMOS, “Le ‘savant’ et le ‘populaire,’ le postmodernisme et la mondialisation,” Musurgia, IX/1 (2002), p. 80-81. 
15. Nicolas BOURRIAUD, Radicant: Pour une esthétique de la globalisation (Paris: Denoël, 2009), p. 22. 
16. Gilles DELEUZE, Mille Plateaux (Paris: Minuit, 1980) p. 467. 
17. Eric HUNG, “Tan Dun through the Lens of Western Media II,” Notes, LXVIII/3 (2012), p. 661. 
18. Ibid., p. 662. 
19. John SEABROOK, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture (New York: Knopf, 2000). 

Parcours écrit en 2016, revu en 2022.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2016

Bibliographie sélective

  • Jeff BOND, « Crouching Composer, Hidden Cellist », in Film Score Monthly, V/9-10 (2000), p. 45-48.
  • Tan, DUN, « Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee. An analysis. », thèse sous la direction de George Edwards, Columbia University, 1993.
  • Eric HUNG, « Tan Dun through the Lens of Western Media », in Notes, LXVII/3 (2011), p. 601-618 ; et LXVIII/3 (2012), p. 659-666.
  • Joanna Ching-Yun LEE, « Tan Dun », Grove Music Online.
  • Joanna Ching-Yun LEE, « Romantic Gesture », in Opera News, LXXI/6 (2006), p. 16-20.
  • Anthony W. SHEPPARD, « Blurring the Boundaries: Tan Dun’s Tinte and The First Emperor », in Journal of Musicology, XXVI/3 (2009), p. 285-326.
  • Catherine, SWATEK, « Boundary Crossing’s: Peter Sellars’s Production of Peony Pavilion », in Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 19/1, 2002, p. 147-158.
  • Christian UTZ, « Komponieren zwischen Abstraktion und Konkretion: Die Tradition des chinesischen Musiktheaters als Folie heutiger chinesischer Musik », in Österreichische Musikzeitschrift, LIII/5 (1998), p. 35-45.
  • Christian UTZ, Neue Musik und Interkulturalität: von John Cage bis Tan Dun, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 2002, (en particulier p. 323-501).
  • Christian UTZ, « Kunstmusik und reflexive Globalisierung: Alterität und Narrativität in chinesischer Musik des 20. und 21 Jahrunderts », in Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, LXVII/2 (2010), p. 81-103.
  • Hoi-Yan WONG, « Bartók’s Influence on Chinese New Music in the Post–Cultural Revolution Era », in Studia Musicologica: An International Journal of Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, XLVIII/1-2 (2007), p. 237-243.
  • Samson YOUNG, « The Voicing of the Voiceless in Tan Dun’s The Map: Horizon and Rhetoric of National Style », in Asian Music, XL/1 (2009), p. 83-99.
  • Siu Wah YU, « Two Practices Confused in one Composition: Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997: Heaven, Earth, Man », in Locating East Asia in Western Art Music, sous la direction de Yayoi Uno Everett et de Frederick Lau, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 2004, p. 57-71.

Discographie sélective

  • On Taoism/Orchestral Theatre I/Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Koch Schwann, 1994.
  • Ghost Opera, Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, Nonesuch Records, 1997.
  • Marco Polo: An Opera in a Opera, Netherlands Radio Kamerorkest, Cappella Amsterdam, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Sony Classical Records, 1997.
  • 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the New Millenium, BBC Concert Orchestra, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Sony Classical Records, 1999.
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (bande originale), Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai National Orchestra, Shanghai Percussion Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma, Coco Lee, Sony Classical Records, 2001.
  • Water Passion after Saint Matthew, Maya Beiser, Mark O’Connor, Elizabeth Keusch, Stephen Bryant, RIAS Kammerchor, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Sony Classical Records, 2002.
  • Martial Arts Trilogy, Yo-Yo Ma (violoncelle), Lang Lang (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violon), Sony Classical Records, 2011.
  • Concerto for Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Naxos, 2012.


  • The Map, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Anssi Karttunen, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Deutsche Grammophon, 2004.
  • Tea: A Mirror of Soul, NHK Symphony Orchestra, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Deutsche Grammophon, 2005.
  • The First Emperor, Metropolitan Opera, sous la direction de Tan Dun, EMI, 2008.
  • Water Concerto, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, David Cossin, sous la direction de Tan Dun, Opus Arte, 2009.
  • Paper Concerto, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Haruka Fujii, sous la direction de Tan Dun,  Opus Arte, 2009.

Site internet