Chinese artists are shaking up music too

If you enjoyed the music in movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, then you’ve been the beneficiary of the creative energies of Tan Dun. Tan Dun is a composer of avant-garde/classical music and uses his Chinese cultural heritage to add and alter the musical experience in surprising and refreshing ways. He has written an opera, with Placido Domingo in the title role, about China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin dynasty. He also wrote a work, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, to commemorate the Hong Kong handover back to China in 1997.

His journey to the world’s biggest musical stages and global acclaim is a fascinating one. Tan Dun was born in a village near Changsha, Hunan Province in China (the same province where Mao Tse-Tung was born). He was born in 1957 and this ensured that many of his formative years were spent in peasant villages. He learned to play traditional Chinese music from peasants and when a government Peking Opera tour found itself lacking members due to a ferry accident, Tan Dun signed up with the troupe. He later went to the China Conservatory of Music and then Columbia University in New York. While in New York, he fell under the influence of experimental musicians such as Phillip Glass and John Cage. His time spent in the villages of China was not wasted, however, as he learned to use his knowledge of traditional Chinese music to infuse his contemporary compositions with a Chinese heritage.

To learn more, here is a recent article on Tan Dun from the New York times. The article is not entirely positive but does provide more background to understanding Tan Dun’s music.