You know, there’s a lot of music in the world. You don’t have to listen to mine. There’s Mozart, there’s the Beatles. Listen to something else. You have my blessings. Go out and listen to something else. I don’t care. Philip Glass
Glass is really a composer in the spirit of the Baroque, producing music on demand, tailoring each piece to the occasion. He is the determined antithesis of the Romantic artist, the one who writes in suffering secret for a posthumous public. Alex Ross
Early on in the documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (2007, dir. Scott Hicks), we visit Philip Glass’s summer home in Nova Scotia, on the east Canadian coast, where he’s making pizza for guests. Present is his wife Holly and his two children by her, his sister, the renowned conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a few other friends, and a mysterious Japanese woman the caption identifies as “Maki Namekawa, concert pianist.” The fleeting images of the latter helping out around this wealthy man’s homespun kitchen (a bottle of cheap Two Oceans wine sits on the counter, I guess, I hope, only for cooking use) and generally getting in the way initially pass unnoticed but seem incongruous in light of later revelations. Davies is off in another room perusing the score of Glass’s Eighth Symphony. Glass himself is chatting with Hicks in the kitchen. One senses Namekawa wouldn’t speak if invited to, given the typical modesty and low English proficiency of the Japanese, but she seems to like being where the action is. Later the camera swings to the living room and we catch sight of her there. Now her black sweater is off her shoulders, revealing a sexy low-cut sleeveless dress. We don’t know whom or what this luscious woman is staring at, as if at a loss for something to do. It’s an inadvertent erotic gaze, haplessly bearing the force of a femme fatale, threatening even when askew. Meanwhile Glass’s wife is busy with the kids in the living room as well (why is she always avoiding the camera?). Next to Holly’s hard, humorless mien, the exotic Oriental girl looks out of place. Or is it the wife who is out of place?
We soon learn that Glass’ marriage—his fourth—is on the way out. Holly is invited to elaborate on what’s going on in her relationship with the most famous living composer in the world. She gives the director a tour of their New York home and is interviewed. In all of this, she has nothing to say about her husband’s music—never admitting to so much as liking it—except as it interferes with her life. Evidently she didn’t marry him for his music; they met in a restaurant where she worked as a waitress and was pursued by Glass. I wonder if she even knew who he was at the time. This is what she does have to say: “I am a wife with a new, young family, and it’s hard to live with someone who’s writing three scores at the same time. Our paths have diverged… [holding back tears]. We have a lot of love for each other, but we are wanting different things in our lives at this point. So it worked for a while. I’m sure it’s a very lonely world, writing as much music as he does.”
I think Glass would beg to differ that the composer’s calling is necessarily a lonely one. In two hours of fascinating bonus interview footage as a DVD extra, he waxes almost banal on his career achievement of hundreds of works (including twenty-five operas) and counting: “I have no secrets. Actually I have one: you get up early in the morning and you work all day.” He enjoys composing so much he calls himself a “funaholic.”
Clearly, his wife lacked the art gene and failed to grasp the nature of the man she married. Anyone could have warned this bourgeois woman what she was getting into: Of course, it’s going to be hard to live with someone who’s writing three scores at the same time! His life revolves around his work, not you. Your role is that of the pre-modern wife, to lie low and stay out of the way until summoned for duty in the bedroom. You want more? Only a musical woman, an artistic woman, could ever find a way into his heart. You don’t appear to evince the slightest interest in his music. You say, “I see now more profoundly than ever before that music is his underlying passion for absolutely everything he does.” It took you this long to figure that out?
Anyone could have warned Philip Glass as well that there was no way such a mismatch could last. But when things fell apart, I don’t think he much cared, because deep down, Holly could never have been that important to him. I wish he had paid more attention to the opportunities in plain view, such as a Maki Namekawa, who was obviously at the dinner party because she admired his music. There this potential beautiful wife and soul mate was standing right next to him in the kitchen, while the albatross was off in another space tending to the kids (Holly appeared to be a good mother anyway).
Such is the scenario a viewer of the documentary otherwise unacquainted with the composer’s life might arrive at. The actual situation was somewhat different. Ms. Namekawa is an accomplished pianist based in Germany who often performs with Davies, the two having released several CDs of piano duos by Glass. Not privy to insider knowledge, we can assume no more about her motivations in being at the party other than Davies had invited her along (or she had asked him to bring her along). Glass and his wife divorced around the time the documentary was released. He then became or had already been “romantically involved” (according to Wikipedia) with the cellist Wendy Sutter, who had recorded his Songs and Poems for Solo Cello (2007) around the time the documentary came out.
Glass has been lambasted for his prolificacy, as if the ability to churn out a steady stream of compositions can only come at the expense of quality. His music is often described as decorative and thin, repetitive and ephemeral, falling somewhere in the “crossover” genre between contemporary classical and pop. Barbed comments like that of a critic back in the 1970s that Glass stands in the same relationship to serious music as “See. Spot. Run.” stands to literature, continue to be echoed today by sarcastic critics in the American classical world (he fares better in Europe), who refuse to take him seriously, like Justin Davidson: “He is a master of texture and pattern, and roaming through his output reminded me of browsing among the great rolls of fabric arranged on racks in a Lower East Side upholstery emporium: endless lengths of sumptuous brocades.”
The charge against prolificacy is misguided. The idea that an artist must engage in a tortured, drawn-out struggle with the muse to carve out a work of quality and greatness derives from Beethoven, the first major composer to compose wholly on his own terms, blithely dismissive of royal patronage. After Beethoven, we notice a significant drop in productivity among later Romantic and Modern composers, a typical lifetime oeuvre counting in the hundreds rather than the thousands of works of earlier composers. But in fact Beethoven was quite prolific by today’s standards, if Glass is any yardstick.
With 200 works over five decades, Glass composes at a rate of one work every three months. During his productive lifetime, Beethoven, the consummate perfectionist, composed an average of one work every two months. The Baroque composers 100 years earlier seem to have worked more quickly, Handel churning out a composition every month and Vivaldi every three weeks. In fact, there is no strict relationship between composers’ productivity and their era. Handel’s contemporary J. S. Bach wrote a work every two weeks on average, but so did Haydn, a classical composer writing in Beethoven’s time. Another Baroque composer, Telemann, dashed off a composition almost every week, but so did Beethoven’s contemporaries Mozart and Schubert. No one would question the quality or integrity of any of these composers’ works; they represent the summit of the High Baroque and Classical eras. Relative genius aside (Telemann fades before Bach), one might argue that the more productive a composer is, the higher quality his works are likely to be, given that productivity generates experimentation, discovery and self-development.
Besides his prolificacy, the other criticism frequently leveled at Glass is the repetitive nature of his music. Indeed, rejecting the oft-ascribed term “minimalism,” he himself prefers the term “music with repetitive structures.” This criticism is also misguided. Repetition is integral to almost all music; listen to the repeats of any popular song. One only notices repetition when there is relatively more of it. The key difference here is that his music is not strictly repetitious, as if latching onto a good idea without knowing how to let go, substituting sheer regurgitation for a paucity of musical depth. Glass’s early period—roughly his first decade of composition up through the landmark opera Einstein on the Beach—does contain much that sounds repetitious, especially on first encounter. There is also the extraordinary length of many of his early works, going on for three or four hours or more (and which had to be much abridged for the commercial recordings), along with their open-ended structure and enthusiastic relentlessness. The patient listener begins to notice, however, that almost nothing is exactly repeated; the patterns are endlessly evolving—ultimately into something quite different from the start.
Glass’s early compositions could be described as a revisiting and refashioning of the old classical genre known as “variations on a theme.” The late Baroque composers (who were especially fond of this genre) made frequent use of repetitive themes as well, not just in variation form but as the constitutive tissue of much of their work. One realizes that the oft-repeated tropes and mannerisms of Bach’s cantatas or Vivaldi’s concertos (so similar sounding on first acquaintance) is not musical thinness but a kind of invention in its own right, an endlessly productive context or foil for the strategic insertion of brilliant, jewel-like ideas.
Adulatory fans have described Glass as the Wagner of our age. As Wagner used to, no other composer dominates the serious music scene today in terms of extent of performances worldwide and body of recordings. Nor does any other composer of our time polarize opinion as Glass does. I can add a third parallel with Wagner, which seems to come with the territory in the lives of so many famous artists: the romantic intrigues surrounding his life (this will have to wait until his passing for the potentially juicy details). There are further parallels, but here we need to go into more specifics on Glass’s place in the classical music world. This requires laying out some criteria for evaluating modern and contemporary classical music, a hopelessly complex endeavor, but I will take a stab at it.
1. Radical conception. Of the great revolutionary composers, those who introduced radical changes that altered the course of music history, Wagner is one. So are Monteverdi, Beethoven and Philip Glass. Monteverdi and then Beethoven two centuries later overhauled conventional musical formats, loosening their rules, expanding the parameters of orchestral and chamber works, and opening up much greater room for play, complexity and depth of expression. Wagner pushed these trends further, exploding tradition in all directions at once, from the way operas and opera houses were constructed down to the unstitching of tonality at the micro level, initiating a leveling process of Western musical grammar that the Modernists (Schoenberg, etc.) were to finish off by the first half of the twentieth century.
The enabling factor of all the revolutionary composers was a conceptual break or leap. Philip Glass has forced a comparable conceptual jump. For many, it takes a while to adjust to his musical world. As he himself put it, “I had the ability to write music that was so radical that I could be mistaken for an idiot.” Before Glass, one might have assumed the possibilities of Western art music (as distinct from jazz and popular music) were essentially exhausted. The arid sonic landscapes of late Modernist composers like Cage, Stockhausen and Boulez, while interesting or even compelling in their own alienating way, metaphorically expressed the endgame of serious music. Glass bypassed this despair by thinking outside of the box, by turning Western music inside out. He used the same basic diatonic (i.e. recognizably melodic) materials but freed them up in unheard of ways and combined them with other non-Western traditions to become a one-man alchemical laboratory of musical invention.
The early Glass was associated with another minimalist composer of the time doing similar things, Steve Reich, whose music also plays out the infinite possibilities of slowly repeating themes or cells with minute variations that ripple outward in complexity. But something happened to Glass’s music in 1974, when he composed Music in Twelve Parts, which marked his divergence from Reich and other minimalists. In the final, twelfth movement of the work, he seems to grow bored with the purer style of early minimalism and throws a monkey wrench into the work, a tone row (from early twentieth-century serialism), creating a jarring and startling sense of drama. From there on, Glass has leapt from major work to major work, showing a conceptual plasticity and inventiveness way beyond anything Reich ever dreamed of, evolving Picasso-like every decade and commanding the attention of a whole generation of international composers in the process. Reich for his part has wisely stuck to mining the same narrow but rich territory of pure minimalism.
2. Theatrical conception. The ideal domain for testing a composer’s mettle is the theater, whether the opera, ballet, the musical, or to stretch the definition, the film soundtrack. Here the composer no longer reigns supreme in his private world but must contend with not only the attending public but a host of artistic partners with much at stake: directors, designers, choreographers, singers, dancers, chorus, management and a prickly board of directors, not to mention the orchestra and a conductor with an ego. In the face of unforeseen obstacles—reality—getting in the way, the composer is forced to compromise and modify or overhaul his ideas. In finding solutions he often ends up creating something more original than ever before. In other words, the sheer problems and challenges of working on the largest of canvasses forces the composer to rise to the occasion and pull everything off with great effect, or not at all.
The reputation of most of the great composers in the Western tradition rests on the opera or major innovations in opera (and ballet as well): Monteverdi, Lully, Handel, Rameau, Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Berlioz, Wagner, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Prokofiev, Britten, Tippett, Bernstein, Glass, and Tan. Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande (1902), Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1905), Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring (1913), Berg’s opera Woyzeck (1925), and Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron (1932) are defining events of Modernism, with shock and even riots occurring at their premieres (Schoenberg’s opera was too radical to see performance in his lifetime). Shostakovich’s incendiary Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932) almost cost him his life when an uncomprehending Stalin walked out, traumatizing the composer for the rest of his career, and turning him inward like the later Beethoven to become a great composer of the string quartet.
Composers not known for the opera excelled at analogous, sacred forms. J. S. Bach has given us a taste of what a comic opera by him might have sounded like with his rustic, down-to-earth secular cantatas, but the expansive Passions and the Mass in B Minor are his true “operas”—and invite staging as such in what is after all the grandest of traditional theaters, the cathedral. Haydn, Schubert and Schumann tried out the opera but found their most public conceptions better suited, like Bach’s, to the mass or the oratorio, as did Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler (the latter creating hybrids like the “cantata symphony”). There are few important composers who did not aspire to or define themselves by either the opera or its choral equivalent.
Philip Glass has himself claimed that the greatest innovations in Western music have originated in the theater. It is a claim he can back up by an extraordinary and diverse body of operatic works (I will not deal with the mixed achievement of his extensive film scores), each as innovative as the next. Einstein on the Beach (1976) struck out of the blue as unprecedented, a defining event of postmodernism, more Dada than surrealist in its extreme and unclassifiable radicalism, yet convincing enough to enjoy an initial run of performances in Europe and then the Met in New York. Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983) are more conventional and approachable in format yet odd at the time in their Eastern (as opposed to Orientalist) subject matter; both are major operatic statements and have repeatedly been performed around Europe and the U.S. the CIVIL warS (1983) is theatrically bizarre in the manner of Einstein but musically coherent and powerful, structured like a symphony in four movements. Here we see Glass characteristically blurring conventional genres. Conversely, the Symphony No. 5 (1999) for voices and chorus, with its echoes of Haydn’s The Creation, is more oratorio than symphony.
The Voyage (1992) was novel for an opera again in all aspects, the new swirling orchestra with its dramatic cadences, the mechanically complex staging recalling baroque opera, the irreverent treatment of the commissioned subject matter on the year 1492, with Glass and librettist David Henry Hwang setting the scene at once in a spaceship in the future and 50,000 years in the past and inserting the physicist Stephen Hawking as a chorus figure, a “Columbus” of our time. Each of Glass’ chamber operas is an experiment in the form. The scoring of Les Enfants Terribles (1996), for two pianos instead of orchestra, is so beguiling that Davies and Namekawa recorded the piano accompaniment as a stand-alone piano duo suite. In the Penal Colony (2000), based on Kafka’s unlikely story and scored for string quartet, double bass and torture machine, is so finely wrought that it reminds one of a Renaissance madrigal setting. Modernist-era operas also played with in-your-face surrealism—Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges, Shostakovich’s The Nose—but no composers then or since have carried operatic innovation as far as Philip Glass.
3. Popular appeal. One measure of success if you’re a contemporary composer is getting your opera performed at or commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is the classical music equivalent of winning the Nobel Prize. A handful of composers have attained this over the past few decades since the Met has taken an interest in American composers—e.g. John Corigliano, John Harbison, William Bolcom, Tobias Picker, and Tan Dun. Only two American composers have had more than one opera performed at the Met. John Adams has had two: Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic. Philip Glass has had three: Einstein, Satyagraha and The Voyage.
The European equivalent of the Met and Lincoln Center in New York is the Barbican in London, where Glass was prominently featured with numerous performances of his works for his seventy-fifth birthday. He is regularly commissioned by orchestras across Europe and America to write new works. As of 2017 he had 185 CD recordings to his name (on the Sony/CBS, Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Naxos and other labels, including his own Orange Mountain Music), along with seventy-five pages of recordings listed in the Amazon website. The only post-WWII composers who top this are dead masters, with Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten and Barber leading the list, respectively. Glass is, without doubt, the most popular “classical” composer alive today. No one else comes close.
Due precisely to this overwhelming popularity, he is disliked or ignored by certain sectors of the classical world which cannot square such success with idealized notions of genius. Some classical radio stations in the U.S. refuse to play his music to avoid enraging the Glassophobes among their audiences. There is also the suspicion that all of these commissions and recordings are bottom-line affairs, a cynical exploitation of a composer reliably known to sell out most performances at a time when classical music is struggling, and in effect subsidizing the industry for composers of purported greater substance and merit.
Again, this is wrong. Philip Glass is a great composer, with a solid body of extraordinary compositions of the highest caliber. This is self-evident to anyone with musical discernment and an open mind. A useful perspective might be garnered from one who is generally regarded as America’s preeminent composer after Glass: John Adams (though some prefer Adams). I saw Adams conduct a concert he arranged of his own and other American works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra around fifteen years ago. One of the works on the program was Glass’s “Facades.” He would not have cheapened the program with a piece he felt was not at least as worthy of his own. Another telling instance of Glass’s reach was a Russian man I met on a trip to Moscow in 1996 who had been introduced to me by a friend. I asked him about the Bolshoi theater. He said he spent much of his time listening to Philip Glass.
Why do people listen to Philip Glass? People like beautiful music, and he writes a lot of it. But with a difference: whenever modern European or Anglo-American composers have attempted to write in “melodic” mode, they revert to Romanticism, relying on nineteenth-century diatonic mannerisms and clichés. Glass has pulled off the feat of creating his own brand of tonality that is at once intensely melodic and remarkably free of Romanticism and its attendant sentimentality. Throughout his long and productive career and his numerous mutations, he has been true to himself and his musical vision.
The only way to expand tradition is to use it for your own creation. To play with it, and to let it burn our spirits again. Let tradition become the most powerful engine for our inspirations….I learned the past from this way, and I am trying to build the future the same way. Tan Dun
I just wanted to find a way to compose something outrageous. Then we found Marco Polo. Tan Dun
Béla Bartók’s research into the diverse musical traditions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia led him to the realization that the most vibrant music springs from the collision of foreign cultures. The entire Western tradition is itself the product of such a clash, the pincer-like effect of Byzantine music from the East and Arabic music from the West (Muslim Spain) impacting European music a thousand years ago. As a consequence, Western music began to come into its own and in a manner unrecognizable from either influence. After a long period of complacent calcification, we are witnessing another major clash today in a burgeoning ferment of new sounds permeating Western music. Here Philip Glass is to be compared not with Wagner but with the other major composer of our time to have successfully bridged the musical gulf between the East and the West: Tan Dun.
It might seem odd to yoke Glass and Tan together, so dissimilar in temperament and style, yet they have another outstanding feature in common besides their endeavor to straddle the seemingly incompatible. Their music is no mere blending or pastiche of clashing traditions, as with the plethora of contemporary crossover fusions involving “world music” (or at its blandest—New Age music) in the popular, jazz and classical fields, but is the unique result of this clash. Their music not only sits comfortably in the interface between two contrary musical cultures but is engendered in this interface, the product of a transformation of such uniqueness as to bear little resemblance to its sources, hailing from nowhere and truly beyond the pale.
Glass accomplished this with his intensive study of the Indian classical tradition. He freed up and reformulated Western rhythm along Indian lines. Tan has done something equally unusual and original, also at the level of deep structure. A lesser composer might simply graft Chinese melodies onto Western forms, continuing a long tradition of Western composers fashionably Orientalizing their music with the flavors of the East or Near East (a la Mozart’s “Turkish” period); or conversely, import Western musical forms or instrumentation into Chinese music, as the Chinese have been doing for over sixty years (first under Soviet influence). Tan does all of this and much more, approaching each composition as a new experiment, and in the process unleashing an endless procession of new possibilities and sounds never imagined before.
While Tan Dun can claim China as his own, China cannot claim Tan Dun as her own. His musical roots are the rustic melodies of his native Hunan countryside, particularly the ethnic Miao (related to the Hmong). During the Cultural Revolution, he imbibed the sounds of Peking opera channeled through Soviet-tinged Chinese revolutionary music. In the 1980s at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, he fell under the influence of visiting international composers, notably the Japanese Toru Takemitsu and Chinese-American Chou Wen-chung (both forerunners of Tan’s East-West synthesis).
The PRC can be a toxic environment for serious artists and Tan got out as soon as he could, heading at the age of twenty-nine for New York City and composition study under Chou at Columbia University. There key composers of the Western avant-garde such as Edgard Varèse and John Cage further impacted his musical development. Since gaining widespread recognition for his film scores, beginning with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the Chinese elite took an interest in him and commissioned Tan to compose music for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, along with numerous other ongoing projects frequently bringing him back to China, though he continues to be based in the US, where it is assumed he will remain.
Tan has found fertile ground in the opportunities opening up for him back in China. Out of native pride as well, he seems reluctant to admit the paradox of his situation, in which a Chinese composer needs to spend years abroad to find his element and stride. But it is clear from the eclecticism of all his major compositions since the early nineties that he can with as much justification call himself an American as a Chinese composer. One of his most extraordinary works, his setting of the traditional Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion, was inspired by his discovery of Kunqu opera, as if for the first time, on one of his visits back to the Mainland after years in the U.S. The result, incorporating Gregorian chant and synthesizers, might be considered a travesty by traditionalists but strikes one as the most brilliant interpretation—or reinterpretation, since no one knows how the opera was originally scored—of Chinese music ever (I refer to Tan’s 1998 version staged by Peter Sellars and excerpted on the CD Bitter Love; the scoring of his later version at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012 is much stripped down and less satisfying to my mind).
His four other operas—Nine Songs (1989), Marco Polo (1995), Tea (2002), and The First Emperor (commissioned by the Met in 2006)—like Glass’s operas, are experimental launching pads for his evolving theatrical and musical ideas. And like Glass, Tan is a composer who refuses to be pinned down—an American characteristic. Marco Polo is one of the most bewildering operas to succeed on the stage (if it indeed succeeds). In brash postmodern mode, it is about the idea of Marco Polo rather than the historical figure, treating its subject matter with an abstruse irony and symbolism calculated to amuse or enrage conventional opera-goers (the main character, for instance, is split into two roles, a female “Marco” and a male “Polo”). The music seems to incorporate the entire history of Chinese music and instrumentation, along with Indian classical music and instruments and Western idioms and orchestra. Though the plot is incomprehensible, the overall impact is lush to cosmopolitan listeners.
With the exception of his Hollywood film soundtracks, the average classical music audience will, initially at least, encounter Tan Dun’s music as astringent and difficult and pigeonhole it in the dreaded “dissonant” category. As a music lover of wide tastes, I do not have a problem with hard music, because I recognize such challenging contemporary composers as Thomas Ades, Aribert Reimann, Kaija Saariaho, Krzystof Penderecki, Poul Ruders, the late Luciano Berio, and many more, to be searching investigators into new sound worlds in the ever-receding post-Schoenbergian horizon. But the atonal idiom, no matter how intense and “beautiful” in its own way, is admittedly an acquired taste, cultivated by a minority of dedicatees.
Tan has found a partial way out of this trap by absorbing and subsuming atonality as one among an array of tools under his command. He moves seamlessly from atonality to tonality and back, or to Eastern scales and modes, weighing and selecting choice means of expression from the entirety of Western and Eastern music. An astute judge of audience psychology, he is able to do all this with great rhetorical and captivating effect. His music regularly startles and disturbs on first encounter but begins to seduce on subsequent listening, as one figures out what he is doing and discerns the longer arcs and arguments. If it sometimes seems like he’s picking up scraps from an aleatoric junk heap, using what works and tossing back what doesn’t, these junk heaps sound more and more organized on repeating hearing.
He is able to create new sounds altogether from the simplest of materials—paper, water, stones, metals—and animates them with an infinite repertoire of textures and rhythms drawn from non-Western traditions. Like the music of two other leading contemporaries, the American John Adams and the Englishman Michael Nyman, both among the most popular classical composers today (and both, like Glass and Tan, creators of highly original operas), Tan’s music is rhythm-driven. Adam’s rhythms twitch in intricate patterns; Nyman’s pulsate in rock-like grooves. Tan has a more plastic approach to rhythm. Like a quirky wind-up toy, his phrases frequently halt or expire in whoops or wails reminiscent of Chinese opera, only to start up again in a riveting new direction.
His Water Passion on St. Matthew (commissioned for the International Bach Academy’s “Passion 2000” project along with Passions by Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Osvaldo Golijov), a large-scale work scored for fiddle, overtone singing (by solo voices and chorus), water, paper and other materials, exemplifies this rhythmic complexity in the way it expands and contracts within its spacious parameters. It is breathtaking and moving—or maddening, depending on your tolerance for the acoustically novel. Many other composers have employed wildly inventive objects as instruments—e.g. John Cage of course, Lou Harrison, Moondog, even Michael Tippett (I think of the solo part in the latter’s Symphony No. 4 for vacuum cleaner), but I have never heard unconventional objects rendered as sensuously as Tan Dun’s.
Although endlessly experimental, Tan is at home in traditional Western forms and genres and makes a strong mark on each. In addition to concertos for water and paper, he has written concertos for piano, violin, cello, organ, guitar and the Chinese pipa and zheng. Each new concerto is an event. His Concerto for Orchestra (2012) is a tour de force of suspense and surprise that makes Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra sound like Mozart. I find his Guitar Concerto (1996), in which the guitar is played like a pipa (with flashes of flamenco), to be the most interesting and affecting concerto for the instrument yet written. His sweeping Cello Concerto (2002), originally presented as a multimedia event known as The Map and performed with simultaneous videos of ethnic minority Chinese music for a huge outdoor audience (available on DVD), begs to be heard in conventional format for cello and orchestra in a concert hall.
Tan’s music above all conveys a sense of open-endedness and possibility. In this he bears comparison to such quintessentially American composers as Charles Ives, Ferde Grofe, Aaron Copland, and Alan Hovhaness: the music of the land, of the people, of landscapes and nature, of the outdoors. He writes Chinese music with an American sensibility and American music with a Chinese sensibility. As with Philip Glass and John Adams, it conveys not only spaciousness and vistas but motion as well. It is motoric; it moves, rocks. Space without motion is static and European. Propulsive music, on the other hand, is music of the road, classical road music. If Glass’s music conveys a relentless procession of rolling landscapes and mountain ranges from the perspective of a car, remarkably alike in their revolving shapes and colors but no two the same, Tan’s music is the intimate experience of nature on foot, negotiating perilous mountain ridges, flying across meadows and down valleys, jumping through rivers and streams, and encountering animals and people along the way. It is the landscape of China but also of anywhere in the world and of all eras, an unsentimental, primeval China of shifting borders and peoples who identify themselves only by their locale.
It is difficult to sum up Tan Dun. He thinks in strange dream images and symbols, which people will process variously according to what they want to see, and he would encourage such multiplicity of reactions:
“Find a field of your memory, and try to collect the most beautiful memories. Then, soak it, and smash it, and press it, and dry it, fire it, then this memory becomes so beautiful. Also it’s very organic to digest your musical ideas….Organic music, on one hand, is very playful. On the other hand, it’s like a ritual, like praying, like a mirror. You look at yourself, you only see tears.”
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On harpsichords and multicolored pianos: The challenge of music in China (my problem with musicians like Lang Lang)
John Dowland the lost English Consort School of chamber music