May 4, 2008


Of Musical Import (IAN BURUMA, 5/04/08, NY Times Magazine)

Tan was born in 1957. Although his earliest memories, as he relates them in public, are full of Taoists, shamans and village sorcerers, his parents were professionals in Changsha, the provincial capital. His mother was a medical doctor, and his father worked at a food research institute. But he was partly raised by his grandmother, a vegetable farmer, who told him ghost stories, which he adored. Since traditional music of any kind, folk or opera, was banned during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted more or less until 1976, Tan’s main introduction to music consisted of a few permitted revolutionary works.

Like all children of “intellectuals” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was forced to work in the countryside as part of the nationwide “re-education” campaign. “Imagine,” he said, “you were told to report to an office and made to swear to leave your family, to feed pigs, to plant rice, for your entire life. I cried. How could I do this for my entire life? In fact, the required length of time depended on the purity of your thoughts.” Tan was relatively lucky. Mao died two years after he was sent to a collective farm, and the Cultural Revolution came to an end.

“Everyone experienced bitterness,” he recalls now, “but I had fun. The farmers, who were experts in ghost operas, couldn’t let anyone hear their songs. But I found a way around this by setting Maoist texts to their folk melodies. Everybody understood the ruse, and they loved it. Since then I became an avant-gardist, not from New York, but from that village in Hunan.”

He explained the nature of ghost operas, whose form he has loosely adopted in some of his own works. “The traditional ghost opera,” he said, “has three acts: you welcome the ghost, you entertain the ghost, then leave with the ghost.” In Buddhist terms, it is about “the last life, our present life and the next life.” Religion in rural China, where Tan grew up, is an eclectic mix of Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs, mostly to do with nature worship, mediated by people in touch with the spiritual world. That is what he means by shamans.

While composing folk songs, Tan became the village musician, playing on anything he could find: a fiddle, a wok to use as a drum, even agricultural tools. His gift for improvisation, for making music out of anything at hand, is still evident in much of his work. Bowls of water, sheets of rice paper, rocks, stones, anything, can be used to express Tan’s musical imagination. Writing about “Inventions for Paper Instruments and Orchestra,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote that “Tan’s contribution is to make everything about the concert experience, even holding a program on your lap, part of the heightened sensations.”

After Mao’s death in 1976, a freakish accident changed Tan’s life. A touring Beijing Opera troupe was in a shipwreck, and several members drowned. Tan was sent back to Changsha by the Communist Party to join the opera company as a violinist. Since the traditional operas had been banned for 10 years, their revival was hugely popular. Then, a revelation: Tan heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the radio. Western classical music had also been banned during the Cultural Revolution. It was a spur for him to apply for a place at the just-reopened Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The competition was fierce, thousands of applicants, a handful of places. He was accepted. But the professors, who had themselves spent years feeding pigs in remote villages as part of their political “re-education,” were still stuck in old Soviet models of revolutionary music education.

Then, a second revelation: the British composer Alexander Goehr, married to an Israeli professor of Chinese literature, visited China in the early 1980s and gave a lecture about Schoenberg and Debussy. Goehr, whose father, Walter, a famous conductor, was a pupil of Schoenberg’s, is a highly respected composer in the Schoenbergian tradition. The hall was packed with at least a thousand students. One of them was Tan. “People were so hungry,” he recalls. “Professor Goehr completely reopened the door for us. It was like hearing the stories of 1001 Nights. We were so fascinated. It was so new to us. Because our beloved professor influenced me so much, I spent years trying to catch up with Schoenberg’s atonal music. But it’s too easy to lose yourself in a system like that, and I caught cultural jet lag. I remember Professor Goehr telling us to avoid ethnic content, to be neutral and independent. But right after he left, I tried to use Beijing opera and folk music. If you want to be a Chinese avant-garde artist, the safest way is to stick to your grandmother’s tone. The most dangerous way is to follow Western music from the Romantics to 12-tone. This period is poison. I could only use the techniques as a recipe for my fusion cooking.”

I called Alexander Goehr at his home in Cambridge, England, where he was a professor of music for many years. Goehr remembers the lecture vividly, but not Tan, who was just one face in a thousand. “Actually,” he said, “what I warned them against was to do a Chinese version of Western music. Unfortunately my warning had little effect. They have become Western composers with a few temple bells.”

It's a pretty easy choice: ethnic music is a novelty act; Western is universal.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2008 9:10 AM

Are you saying novelty acts aren't universal? What about Star Trekkin'?

Posted by: Bryan at May 4, 2008 10:14 AM

Sounds like it would appeal to AV Clubs everywhere....

Posted by: oj at May 4, 2008 1:56 PM