Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tan Dun: The Map and Paper Concert in Singapore.

Tan Dun is a Performing creator, musical composer, orchestra director, and he is Chinese. Born in Hunan, and today inhabitant and distinguished member of the New York artistic community, Tan Dun is a contemporary musician, media explorer, a seeker and a “schematic/structural madman”).

During the nineties, even while having great commercial success (even producing opera or music for film) and, motivated by another famous oriental musician (Yo-yo Ma) he tried to recover as much as possible of the living musical sources that nourished him in his childhood.

He remembers hearing a “stone-man”, a folk musician who made music with stones, music that explained the universe and was a medium to communicate with it. When he returned to talk with him, the stone-man had passed away.

Then he started to walk alone and his steps took him to draw what he called “a map”; once more his hearing drove him through memory towards small and remote Chinese villages he knew were traditional music sources, places which, at that moment, were hidden behind the “new Chinese emerging power” screen. (1) He knew there were rivers and lakes, which, in combination with human work, could sing and could make music as well.

With an ordinary video camera he filmed precious scenes of performances by traditional musicians, dancers and singers in their usual surroundings; but he was a creator, and didn’t want to store that information in a museum or an archive, he knew those videos were living music and they could take part of his new musical piece, The Map.

Tan Dun’s memories brought back to life the stone-man music; with this musical background he wrote a musical piece in the usual way, and then he mixed everything in a sublime composition with those videos he took in his natal rural China.

The Map

I first watched on TV that marvelous documentary about the creation process of The Map and the special performance in Fenghuang when I was living in Lebanon. I was fascinated by the melodies and musical pieces Tan Dun explored. I thought he was looking for ghosts, souls who through singing and music offered secrets to anyone who wanted to listen, and he listened.

Some time after that experience I bought the video and had the chance to observe carefully every aspect of this “musical act”, enjoying it completely. I memorized how he achieved that moment (the performance in Fenghuang); how he united the highest technology with his most ancient China; I memorized how he brought that overpowering media technology where there wasn’t even electricity. Hundreds of special guests from the central government, bureaucrats, intellectuals, etc. came to Fenghuang and mixed with those unimportant people from Chinese minorities; Television broadcasted live united them with the world. I memorized also how those traditional musicians and singers, now spectators, watched themselves in those videos, at the concert, becoming part of Tan Dun’s piece.

When living in China and planning my trip to Singapore for the Singapore Arts Festival 2007, I saw The Map and Paper Concerto was among the special events and I was shocked: would I miss it?

Before that special concert I could see some others performances, like “Optical Identity” by T’ang Quartet and Theatre Cryptic and “Dreaming of Kuanyin Meeting Madonna” by Mark Chan and Arts Fission. Then on July the 3rd, Tan Dun and the Singapore Philharmonic Orchestra performed at the Esplanade.

The Esplanade Concert Hall is one of the most important theaters of the world, because of its superb architecture and the quality of anything performed there. Tan Dun did very little to change the usual stage: the orchestra, the orchestra director’s place and soloist’s place were at the usual area; two middle sized video screens hanging over the stage; two large paper strips, hanging at both sides of the stage; and part of the lateral box on the second floor had special seats for around 6 musicians. The Concert Hall was almost full to capacity with expectant spectators. It seemed that many of them knew about this famous composer. Applauses, silence, and then, music.

The Map’s premiere was in Boston in February 2003, but it had its first memorable performance in November of the same year in Fenghuang Ancient Village, Xiangxi, China (the video I talked about was made during that performance). This work, from my point of view, reached its highest value for being a concert performed in that place (the Chinese village), at that moment (2003) and for that people (the spectators of that evening); there, it was an event totally full of life and it was enormous. It was overpowering in all senses. But the same “musical piece” in that concert at the Esplanade in Singapore in June 2007, without those spectators, without the place itself, was only a “strange piece” of bits of traditional Chinese music mixed with Western music in an interesting balance, at moments nice, at moments alive. That evening, we, the spectators, were only that, some western educated people honoring a great Chinese composer and having fun with his famous and rare musical work. We were helping to rescue the Chinese tradition, as in a museum.

That evening at the Esplanade, technology didn’t go to an inhospitable village to create a media fantasy; this time, it was some data in video format, coming from remote China, performed in the middle of a technological kingdom. As spectators we were enthusiastic, as was expected from people who attended a great concert of a great figure in a great art festival. But that evening something was missing.

I firmly believe that the worth of The Map lies in its being a “contemporary performative musical piece”, which only achieves its highest value as a temporary “Performing Media Art” and with the support of its creative process: that concert in Fenghuang in 2003 was not a simple concert, it was a “performative act” including Tan Dun’s musical piece, but also using Tan Dun’s spatial and theatrical concept.

In Singapore I was seated listening to a musical concert; then, I decided to listen the music. I’m not a musical connoisseur, I only enjoy listening, and this work was enjoyable but nothing else.

Paper Concerto

The Paper Concerto came after several other explorations by Tan Dun with his Chinese sources (among others, traditional music in The Map, and music of the elements in the Water Concerto). Now, he literally made music with paper.

The concept of paper is linked to the relationship between China and the world; in China, paper is linked with the sound it has and its expressiveness; Chinese life has listened to its paper for centuries. Tan Dun, as a good Chinese artist, was open to listening to it, he assimilated that sound, he sublimated it and then he created a “western style” concert in 4 movements.

The Paper Concerto was written for that kind of stage where we listened to it (and where we saw it): a common concert hall stage; and it worked perfectly on it. It reached, from my point of view, the magnitude of epic music.

Where others would make (and have made) sounds manipulating paper or cardboard and just using rhythms and jugglery, Tan Dun makes a really high musical work, a well done concert, and a real act of movement. Tan Dun is a great musician but he is also an important performing artist, I have no doubts about it. (2)

Long white paper strips, Chinese paper, to touch, to beat, and bits of paper to crumple and whistle; paper which is seen and is heard; sound that makes us vibrate and then arrives to our hearing as sublime.

Tan Dun worked with the whole western musical background he has acquired, and then mixed it with that paper sound held in his memories; then, that western music (now old) was renovated and refreshed, it got life and power. That music was also visual. Those three percussionists danced, they were living a musical body action.

Tan Dun made moving music on the stage, however his western musicians didn’t move from their seats. (3)

The Paper Concerto in Singapore was a successful performance, it was a high value artistic act and was absolutely enjoyable. Its creator, Tan Dun, has now in me a respectful admirer.

There is no recorded material about this event. The Singapore Festival didn’t permit taking photographs inside or outside the concert hall. Even when Tan Dun was giving autographs security officers were stopping any attempts to take video or photos, even though it was in front of the cafeteria!

I found some links to Tan Dun’s official Web site and one video uploaded in Youtube.

Tan Dun’s Web site:

(1) Since the eighties China has lived an astounding transformation, as well as a massive destruction of its reservoirs of traditional customs. Those remote and forgotten villages now live surrounded by concrete, pollution and “progress”, some of them have been converted into tourist sights where life has been annihilated and only money leads. The Han people, the majority of Chinese but also those who manage China, see Chinese minorities only as a touristic interest, as conquerors visiting those places as part of their conquest, looking for a showcase-moment of different customs. The central government has catalogued every minority, every village, every custom, every costume, every traditional performing art, and put them on touristic sale; that has only served to draw them out of their natural context: people sang while working, now they sing because tourists pay for it; who performed a ritual theatre now has a permanent stage and a schedule of performances with little care about the traditional ritual schedule; ancient villages full of life are rebuilt (which is good, of course) and villagers relocated to the outskirts, some of them being employed as “traditional villagers” doing the “traditional works” they used to do before the relocation. Chinese from big cities love visiting theme parks that reproduce world architecture and customs, some with reproductions of Venice or Paris or of the Mexican pyramids, so, these remote villages are just one extension of those Chinese theme parks.
Tan Dun studied and worked as a Beijing Opera actor during the Cultural Revolution years.
Perhaps T’ang Quartet and Cryptic Theatre could understand more about his exploration if they watched carefully the work of this Chinese artist.

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