By Kai Curry
Northwest Asia Weekly
In a series of caves in northern China are some of the most fascinating and beautiful works of art related to Buddhism in the whole world. These caves from Mogao to Dunhuang, and their rich and informative paintings and sculptures, inspired composer Tan Dun and form the unifying core of the Seattle Symphony’s upcoming “The Musical World of Tan Dun,” November 3-13.
Known for the score of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Tan Dun is one of the most recognized and celebrated Chinese composers today. He grew up in Hunan, China, and studied traditional Chinese musical arts such as the erhu, funeral music, and Peking (Beijing) opera. Early on, he had an idea of himself as a shaman – someone who would combine Eastern and Western, traditional and modern forms of music. Tan Dun often takes nature and history as starting points, and the suite of events presented this month by the Symphony Orchestra is in that vein.
First, his “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” will be part of “Nature Resounds” on November 5. An interactive piece, “Secret” by Tan Dun will be combined with the work of four other composers for the enjoyment of families and their children. Assistant conductor Sunny Xia will lead the musicians on an exploration of the “great outdoors”, according to the Symphony, “inspiring creativity, excitement and wonder”. A “passacaglia” is a form of 17th century Spanish music and is just one of many examples of Tan Dun’s incorporation of ancient forms and his studious and devoted attention to the heritage of music in all its exciting variations.
Then, on November 10 and 12, “Buddha Passion,” part of the symphony’s “Masterworks Series,” will regale audiences with sounds perhaps not heard in centuries, as Tan Dun conducts a “passion” which does not revolve around Christianity but Buddhism – the first of its kind. A “passion”, traditionally, corresponds to the life and death of Jesus Christ. However, in Tan Dun’s unique composition, the life and ancestry of India’s Siddhartha Shakyamuni, or Gautama Buddha, is the subject. This historical figure is of course the founder of modern Buddhism.
“Buddha Passion” is as much a continuation of Tan Dun’s life work as it is a new creation. In the past, he frequently drew inspiration from Buddhist and indigenous Chinese religion, as well as Christianity. Previously, for example, his “Passion of Water” told a religious story using the qualities of water as a symbol of the three stages of Christian spiritual progress, and in a certain Buddhist way, baptism, renewal, then resurrection. Tan Dun also returned to his homeland of Hunan to record the music of Dong, Miao and Tujia villagers for posterity. Her 2013 “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women,” for orchestra and solo harp, and including videos, helped document and preserve the declining languages of this region of China.
For “Buddha Passion”, Tan Dun drew inspiration specifically from the Mogao Cave series in Dunhuang, even visiting in person to immerse himself in the cave experience. A treasure inherited from the era of the Great Silk Road, the Dunhuang Grottoes were long forgotten until they were rediscovered by a Taoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, who established himself as the guardian of a complex stretching about a mile long along the Daquan River. During the Silk Road era, merchants and religious pilgrims are said to have stopped to give thanks at these caves, which contain elaborate and colorful images of the Buddha, his disciples, as well as ancient Chinese and Hindu deities. . Tan Dun used documents found in caves containing musical scores from those bygone days to compose “Buddha Passion”, which includes voices and, according to the Symphony, “Buddha’s teachings and timeless concepts of love, forgiveness, sacrifice and salvation”. .”
To accompany this rich tapestry of Tan Dun’s musical works, which also includes Tan Dun’s “Ghost Opera” on November 11, a 360-degree exhibition, “The Mogao Caves: An Immersive Experience” will be held free of charge at Octave 9 from from November 3 to November 13. Conceived by Greg Downing of Hyperacuity and Eric Hanson of Blueplanet VR, the roughly 12-minute short was supported in large part by Mimi Gates, who serves on the board of the Dunhuang Foundation, and who helped the creators compile incredible images that audiences will enjoy in full surround sound and 3D. This way viewers will be able to see the beautiful art of the caves in a way that even a visitor in person might not be able to appreciate. At your leisure, and minus the strenuous journey to the caves and interrupting tourists, viewers will be thrilled with up-close and personal footage from inside several major caves in the Mogao complex.
Finally, “Ghost Opera”, also at octave 9, realizes Tan Dun’s ideal of becoming a shaman of Eastern and Western art and spirituality. A quartet composed of Andy Liang and Mae Lin on the violin, Olivia Chew on the viola and Eric Han on the cello, the “Opera” evokes both Bach and Shakespeare, as well as Chinese opera. Accompanying music will include Carrie Wang on the pipa and sound effects with stones, water and paper, intended to create, according to the Symphony and Tan Dun, “a dialogue between the past and the future, nature and the spirit”.
Taken as a whole, “The Musical World of Tan Dun” offers as immersive an experience in the natural world and Buddhist theology as Tan Dun himself would have had while composing each piece.
For more information, visit seattlesymphony.org/concerttickets.
Kai can be reached at [email protected]