Composer's music 'like the mosaic technique of an artist'

By William Dart

Opera provides two of the choicest offerings in this year's International Festival of the Arts and Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of the Soul is a genre-stretching and thought-provoking piece of musical theatre.

The bonus is that the composer himself will be conducting the performances. Tan Dun is no stranger to New Zealand. The NZSO brought him out for the 2004 Arts Festival and, on his first visit, back in 1988, we struck him as "a very diverse land".

"In just a couple of months in Wellington," he says, "I was studying Western music, giving lectures on Eastern music, visiting marae and studying the Indonesian gamelan."

Tan's music deals out a rich mix, too, "swinging and swimming freely among different cultures" as he once put it. To me he describes his blend of East and West as "a little like the mosaic technique of a visual artist".

Surviving Mao's Cultural Revolution, he is still struck that "30 years ago I was planting rice in the fields and now I conduct the Boston Symphony. It's very, very dramatic, almost unbelievable".

The influence of his homeland is ever present. "Early on I was inspired by the beautiful sounds and music of people washing everything from rice to their bodies in the local river.

These natural features will always return to your memory and impact [on] your writing."

In Tea you will hear how Tan's search for the organic water sounds creates sliding glissando effects in the strings.

Wellington will see the opera in its second Opera de Lyon production, whereas the Deutsche Grammphon DVD has the original Japanese staging.

Tan resists being drawn out on the difference between the two; ours is a "production that is very French and Chinese" and the all-Chinese cast is "very, very outstanding".

The NZSO will not be lost in a pit, but up front and visible.

"I wanted the orchestra to be very much a part of the drama. You can see it, and the players join the cast in shouting and vocalising."

The instrumentalists will also create soundscapes of water, paper and stone, including rustling the pages of their scores and exploring the sonorities of water bowls.

For Tan, opera is "the art of melody, the art of the aria" and there are some magnificent specimens in Tea. While one duet for hero and heroine is very much in the shadow of Puccini, elsewhere there are touches of Monteverdi.

"Monteverdi is my hero," he sighs. "I was very influenced by the haunting, yearning quality of his endless, floating song."

Another "M" in Tan Dun's vocabulary is Minimalism, the pulsating style behind the music of composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams.

"But Mozart is minimalist," Tan exclaims, giving a vocal approximation of a chugging left-hand pattern from a piano sonata. "And Eastern music, from the Indian sitar to Chinese monks singing is often just endless minimalist patterns. It's so very natural, it's like your heart is beating with the music."

Be prepared for the most delicate of cultural and philosophical allegories in Tea. There are many ironies to savour and don't be surprised when you are delivered a fire-and-brimstone Baroque aria, Tan Dun style.

Tan Dun is a major international composer. He regularly returns to China, conducting orchestras, eternally amazed that "a country which is very much a mixture of feudalism and communism can have a young generation so open to the most advanced of technologies and the most extreme avant-garde styles".

But home is Manhattan. He is a gallery aficionado, an admirer of contemporary digital sculpture in general, and American artist Bill Viola in particular. Significantly, Viola's video works share the same East/West blend as Tan's music.

When this composer is not on the art trail, he is a keen swimmer. And it is not just a matter of keeping fit. Back in the 1960s, as a child, he swam in his local river; now it's a New York pool - "but I still get to listen to all the water sounds". 

*  Tea: A Mirror of Soul at the International Festival of the Arts, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Sat Feb 25, Mon Feb 27, Wed March 1

* On disc: Tea: A Mirror of Soul (Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 0999)

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