Composer Tan Dun Scores Oscar with CROUCHING TIGER
From operas to symphonies to film scores,
by Wade Major
Tan Dun isn't just another film composer. Film scores, in fact, are something of a sideline for the internationally renowned composer who has studied in both his native China and at Columbia University in New York. To fans of classical music, Tan Dun may be best known for his opera "Marco Polo" or his "Symphony 1997," composed to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to China.
On the rare occasion when Tan Dun has turned to film scores, however, they have been challenging, eclectic and utterly original. Previously best known for his avant-garde approach to the music for Gregory Hoblit's supernatural thriller "Fallen," Tan Dun now finds himself scaling new heights, receiving a Golden Globe nomination for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that many say is but the precursor to a sure Oscar nod.
Ironically, Tan Dun is reluctant to accept too much credit for the success of his latest score, instead crediting the strength of a collaboration that also included director Ang Lee and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It is, in Tan Dun's view, a collaboration that ultimately combined the best of both East and West, yielding a product of which the entire world can, indeed, be proud.
Q: It seems that in just the past decade or so, Asian filmmakers, Asian musicians, Asian artists are taking the world by storm. Could you specifically talk about the importance that music plays in Asian culture?
A: I think this is a phenomenon of the world -- not just the West or the East. What's happening is that music, whether it's pop or anything else, no one is asking for it to sound pure. Australian pop musicians, for example, combine the aboriginal accent with hard rock beats. To me, from a classical contemporary point of view and from a film music point of view, film music especially needs this kind of fusion because that's what characterizes our lives today. I was trained in both styles of music, East and West. Before I was 19 my only experience was with non-Western music. After I turned 19 my training was almost totally Western. Now I'm sort of coming back and using both experiences, composing so that I combine those two worlds.
Q: Some years ago I spoke with "Raise the Red Lantern" composer Zhao Jiping, and his comments were much like yours, about fusing the musical styles of both East and West. Yet the two of you implement that philosophy in such different and unique ways. In "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," you successfully combine both romantic and action themes. How did you and Ang work to create a musical style to fit the film's style?
A: Basically, Ang Lee approached me for this film four years ago. We were already friends from New York, and he'd just finished "The Ice Storm." And together with Yo-Yo Ma, the three of us really had similar backgrounds: Chinese roots but much time spent living in the United States. So our view has been of the world as one homeland. In the beginning we spoke about three contrasting themes. One was the martial arts -- power, rhythmic. The second was romantic -- between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman. The third is a mysterious "crouching tiger" kind of theme. Basically we wanted to make these three themes contrast, especially the romantic theme. Although the orchestration is very western romantic, the fingering is from eastern instruments, like the erhu (a two-string Chinese instrument). So the harmonies are unique. That gave the film a sort of human passion which has no boundaries. On the other hand, this romance came from a very decent, authentic passion, which was part of the story.
Q: It's also striking how the film both pays homage to a classic genre, but reinvents that genre. How did you decide whether or not to employ traditional music in accompanying certain scenes?
A: You know, it's very interesting. For example, the martial arts scenes. People have questioned why we had to choose drums for the martial arts. You see big fighting scenes and they have these huge drum ensembles. From a Western point of view, this is a normal sort of thing for a Hong Kong-style martial arts film where the fighting is fun and fast. But, actually, this movie is trying to show that it is much more, a human story with philosophical and cultural things behind it. So the martial arts, like the fighting on the roof between the two women -- that's not really a mortal combat. It's something else, something between two women, between two sisters. You'll find that in Chinese theater, in Peking Opera, for example, when that kind of humorous, philosophical, passion-touch contact kind of martial arts thing happens, it's always accompanied by drums. That type Peking Opera thing was a big influence on us.
Q: The nice thing about listening to this score on CD is that it's easy to find something new every time, some nuance that takes you back to the characters. It's almost as if the music is not there to tell you how to feel, as is the case in American films, but rather how the characters are feeling. There's something more interior about that.
A: Yes. Absolutely. And it's because in the very beginning, the three of us had a conceptual talk about how to use different traditions for different purposes. We all wanted to try to avoid using those recipes, the big, hallowed film scores. These past few years, people have gotten more and more into testing the boundaries of high and low, mixing East and West. In scoring this film, we established a goal to try to honestly adhere to our own experience. For me it was the Peking Opera point of view. Ang Lee grew up with Taiwanese puppet theater which uses a very percussive kind of music. And Yo-Yo, besides cello, he also plays erhu and Mongolian fiddle -- all kinds of string instruments. All those experiences helped conceptualized the soundtrack, which in turn reflects our three backgrounds.
Q: It's fascinating that you made Yo-Yo Ma a part of the process of conceptualizing the score rather than simply bringing him on as a soloist late in the process. Could you talk about the collaboration between the three of you?
A: After Ang Lee finished "The Ice Storm," one day he said to me, "Do you want to do something together?" I said, "What?" He said, "It's very Chinese." I said, "What is it?" He said, "It's going to approach martial arts from a different point of view -- to reevaluate martial arts." Okay, that's interesting. He said, "There's something we need to sort out. We need to find a bridge between high art and low art, between East and West." And then he said, "That bridge is Yo-Yo Ma." From there, we called Yo-Yo and said, "You must get involved," and he said, "I'd love to get involved." And we told him, "Your cello is no longer a cello. It will be erhu, it will be Mongolian fiddle, it will be Turkish sliding instruments." So in the very beginning he got excited and he would call us back asking, "Is that melody finished? Is that fingering decided?" So that's why, in the beginning, we got Yo-Yo involved, conceptually, as a bridge.
Q: Was this kind of collaboration difficult?
A: Actually, a film soundtrack should be created like this. Today, of course, time is short and budgets are short. So after the film's been shot and a rough cut finished, people throw on a temp track, and the director and the composer just follow this script, this recipe to make things very effective but fast. But if you look back at the films of Tarkovsky or Kurosawa, there's something interesting there, the way they permanently touch people, how we associate the sound and the picture so strongly as one. That's why, in the very beginning, the three of us tried to find a concept, to work out new things. It should be like that.
Q: Let's step back a moment to your score for "Fallen," which is more or less a conventional Hollywood film. How do you approach that as opposed to something like "Crouching Tiger"? Or are they too different to compare?
A: Totally different. Because "Fallen," first of all, is also a story which is surreal, a story about the soul, about ghosts and demons. But none of that is really on the screen. It's something spiritual. So in that sense, I did a lot of interesting things. For example, using original Australian didgeridoo instruments to help represent the spirit's existence, using a lot of acoustic instruments that aren't played as acoustic instruments. We'd use a string quartet and play it as electronic sounds. Then we'd play electronic music as acoustic instruments. It's like casting against type. When I presented this idea to Gregory Hoblit, he loved it. Of course, in the future, my real interest is drama -- stories about characters, human contact. I love music that has a quality that is honest and haunting. I wish I could work on more of those kinds of subjects.
Q: You mentioned the short schedules and small budgets with which composer work now. Hans Zimmer and others have complained about this, too, saying that there's no longer any time left to compose a proper score, which forces many composers to just pillage their old scores.
A: I absolutely agree with that. First of all, I treat working on a film the same as working on an opera or a symphony. I'm not willing to take a purely business job because I'm very, very busy. Anything I do, there must be a reason for me to do it from a creative point of view. Every single piece to me is a new creation. You can see from my scoring, from "Fallen" to "Crouching Tiger," that it's a totally different method. It's of a completely different mind and concept. I'm sure that with the next one, I'll have to sort out a new concept for the new story to go along with a new bunch of musicians and director. I think this is important because I love the idea of artists working together as a real creative force, to sort out the concept on top of the creation. And directors need to realize that if the music concept can be set up in the beginning, by the composer and the director together, this will benefit his shooting as well. It will benefit his rhythm and the way he defines his characters. That we see very clearly in Ang Lee's case.
Q: So you had written music before they began shooting?
A: Some of the things had been written. Like the folk tunes used in the desert scenes. But mainly it was the concept that had been composed. Ang Lee knew exactly where will be what kind of character, what kind of music would accompany the fighting, where it would overlap, and so forth. So when he's shooting the picture, actually he's already thinking of music. And then the music comes back later to support him and make the film even deeper.
Q: What's next, then? And what do you want to do next as far as film is concerned?
A: Basically, for the next five years I'm pretty much booked. That's for opera, symphony and some conducting things. But I always leave a few months every year for an emergency project. That's for when I run into good subject matter, a good director, a good artist and want to work with them immediately. For those emergency periods, I always look for some interesting, human stories. That's why I don't have to grab every motion picture that is offered me. To me it's not a business. It's process of creation and every new project I treat as a piece of art.
Q: Any films on the horizon that meet that criteria?
A: Zhang Yimou has been talking to me in the last few weeks and we're going to meet in Shanghai and discuss it. It should be an interesting project.
About Wade Major:
Wade Major is an entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He is a frequent contributor to KungfuQigong.