Tan Dun's Martial Trilogy
Thought about making this it's own thread, but then figured the way this particular thread opens fits well.
Composer Tan Dun combines film scores to create ‘Martial Arts Trilogy’
By David Mermelstein, Published: July 29
Plenty of Americans may not recognize Tan Dun’s name, but they know his music. The Chinese-born composer won an Academy Award for writing the score to Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), which has to date grossed more than any other foreign-language film in the United States. And fans of martial-arts movies may also be familiar with his contributions to Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” (2002) — another foreign hit — and Feng Xiaogang’s “The Banquet” (2006).
Now Tan, who turns 54 on Aug. 15, has refashioned these scores into more or less traditional concertos for cello, violin and piano, respectively. Together they make up his “Martial Arts Trilogy,” which he is conducting at four venues this summer, including Aug. 5 at Wolf Trap, where he will lead the National Symphony Orchestra. Three NSO players — James Lee (cello), Heather Green (violin) and Lisa Emenheiser (piano) — are to perform the solo parts.
In the concerts, movie clips accompany his music. “We pretty much follow the order of the films but use smaller bits,” Tan said by phone from New York earlier this month. “We let the orchestra tell the story, with the solo lines like dialogue. The movie clips enhance it, but the music takes the major role.”
A cycle of martial-arts films has been something of an idee fixe for the composer, who says he turned down many offers to write music for movies after his Oscar win, simply because such projects were not what he calls “love tragedies with martial arts.” Although it took time to find directors who were planning the type of pictures Tan wanted to score, his patience was rewarded with music that he contends is more than the sum of its parts.
“The three soloists tell different kinds of stories,” Tan said. “After using the cello in ‘Crouching Tiger,’ I thought maybe I should continue this love-tragedy motif with the next instrument. Eventually, I thought I might even bring the three instruments together in something like a resurrection.”
Although combining all three solo instruments in a single score didn’t occur to Tan until his trilogy was underway, a tetralogy appears imminent thanks to a chance encounter with the director Jia Zhangke. “He’s shooting his first martial-arts film now,” the composer said. “So in the next few months I am going to finish my cycle and have four film scores as one. And after that, I will start to accept commissions for other films.”
But for now there is just the trilogy. “We will see if Washington, D.C., audiences like and accept it,” Tan said of the combined program, in which the concertos run 30 to 35 minutes apiece, slightly shorter than if they were each performed on a bill without the others.
A big reason the “Martial Arts Trilogy” was programmed at Wolf Trap is Tan’s presence on the podium, suggested Nigel Boon, the National Symphony’s director of artistic planning. “I love the idea of composers conducting,” he said. “We’ve had Oliver Knussen and John Adams, and we’re looking at others as well. It’s always interesting to hear a composer’s own view of his music.”
Yet performing does not particularly appeal to Tan. “After this run, I hope to hand over my duties to different conductors,” he said. “And I’m sure they will enjoy it, because this kind of new structure for conductor — with electronics and acoustics combined in a multimedia presentation — is very 21st century. Composers have embraced the future, and now conductors must also.”
Ben Hong, a cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has twice performed the solo part of the “Crouching Tiger” concerto — at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 and in revised form July 21 with the San Diego Symphony, the first stop of the series.
“I think audiences will find very honest emotion from this concerto,” Hong said. “They will also find very different aesthetics and sensibilities in the way the music is made, but because it’s very direct it won’t be difficult to understand or relate to.”
Hong describes Tan’s writing as “as absolutely brilliant and very creative,” lauding the composer’s use of unconventional instruments. The cellist singles out Tan’s use of rocks as percussion instruments. “It’s not just direct impact,” Hong said. “It could be grinding or sliding as well. He’s very interested in exploring those kinds of limits. His understanding and interest in breaking down the barriers of his traditional Chinese background with Western music to create a much broader spectrum of musical aesthetics — that’s the most obvious difference between him and other composers.”
Tan’s embrace of video is another. Even in his pieces for the concert hall, the composer will sometimes incorporate a visual component, as he did with “The Map,” a sprawling cello concerto from 2002. “I often tell my friends I’m interested in music for film and film for music,” Tan said. “If you go to the cinema, you will enjoy my work as a movie. But if you go to a concert, you will see a movie for music. It’s kind of symmetrical.”
Mermelstein is a freelance writer.
Tan Dun: Martial Arts Trilogy
8:30 p.m. Friday at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center. Tickets $20-$52. Information at wolftrap.org.