TAN DUN Back in Melbourne with the MSO

During February, Melbourne welcomed for the third year in a row, the supremely talented and prodigious composer/conductor who has fused the best of East and West into his ethereal symphonic music.

Tan Dun starred in MSO’s thrilling 2017 East Meets West program which included Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo, Guan Xia’s 100 Birds Flying towards the Phoenix for suona and orchestra featuring Liu WenWen (suona), Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919) and Tan Dun’s own Concerto for Piano and Peking Opera Soprano Farewell My Concubine featuring Xiao Di (Peking Opera soprano) and Ralph van Raat (piano).

For Tan Dun, his joy in returning to Australia was self-apparent. “I have always been attracted to Australia because it seems like one big giant instrument – you have the beautiful sounds of nature, the vibrations of old and new and, of course – Melbourne’s great facilities.”

Born in Changsha, Hunan in 1957, Tan Dun joyfully recounts the early influences of nature in his native village on the joy of sounds all around him. The daily slapping of washing clothes against worn rocks and the local shaman with his clever use of percussion instruments to create sound effects that were simply out of this world. He is proud of his musical heritage and delights in sharing his boyhood memories of those wonderful moments.

The crossover from a regional Chinese upbringing to international composer /conductor extraordinaire is poignant. A child of the cultural revolution his first love, music, was brutally denied him with fingers suddenly and chronically coarsened by a life as a present planting rice.

Musical fellowship beckoned through fellow commune musicians where his quick intelligence and acute hearing found mastery of Chinese string instruments. Tan Dun’s own dramatic music mirrors real life where in a freak accident, traveling members of the Peking opera troupe die and Tan Dun is at hand to cover as violist and music arranger. His talent becomes noticed which leads to an offer to study at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music where he graduated in 1977.

By the mid-eighties, his compositional skills lead to an invitation to complete doctoral studies at Columbia University in the City of New York. The complexity of his compositional works becomes evident with short but brilliant symphonic dissertation entitled Death and Fire: Dialogue with Paul Klee (1993).

By 2000, Tan Dun received mainstream international recognition as the composer of music for the Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). At the 73rd Academy Awards, Tan Dun received an Oscar for Best Original Score and a nomination for Best Original Song. Tan Dun recalls his feelings about winning a coveted Oscar. “I felt glorious for the Chinese film industry, for Chinese culture and its history.” For Tan Dun, he felt that his music had made a vital connection between two divergent cultures. “For me, in that year, the world changed and I think my music became a cultural bridge.”


Readers will also recall Tan Dun’s enthralling Logo Music and Award Ceremony Music from the magnificent 2008 Beijing Olympic Games of whom the challenge of composition was indeed considerable. By his calculation, his music would be heard at each of the 6,000 occasions when medals were presented. “What I learned from Chinese philosophy when you are facing a big task you have to begin by thinking small. Taoist philosophy teaches us about the importance of nothingness.” By reducing the scale to manageable pieces, Tan Dun created music that touched the soul.

One of many memorable musical highlights for Tan Dun was his collaboration with China’s most famous pianist, Lang Lang in 2008 to perform Tan Dun’s vitriolic The Fire with the New York Philharmonic. Tan Dun and Lang Lang worked together as “brothers” for this work that Lang Lang described as “very melodic, very rhythmic and very dramatic.” Tan Dun’s working relationship with Lang Lang was instinctual, intensely emotional and allembracing. “We actually sang, laughed and challenged each other to bring out the best out of my composition. The outcome was very liberating for me. It was such a great privilege working with my little brother, Lang Lang.”

For Tan Dun’s prolific career to date, the interview barely scraped the surface of his extraordinary achievements. For Tan Dun, music is life and life is music. “I don’t have an academic or philosophical view of music. I believe music should be driven by life and passion for living.”