Through his opera “Marco Polo,” composer Tan Dun takes his audience along for the explorer’s legendary travels from Italy to China.
He also takes the audience on a spiritual quest reflecting the three states of the human being — past, present and future — and the cycle of nature. And he takes the listener on a musical journey that combines Eastern and Western styles in two concurrent operas.
“Marco Polo,” with libretto by Paul Griffiths, was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival and premiered in May 1996 by the Munich Biennale. The work is described by Tan as “an opera within an opera,” and has been performed at the Holland and Hong Kong festivals. A compact disc of the work led to Tan’s selection by the German magazine Oper as its 1996 composer of the year.
A native of Hunan, China, Tan currently lives in New York City. Tan has grown from a string musician and conductor of local music celebrations in his Hunan village into one of contemporary music’s most influencial composers. The London Telegraph calls him “possibly the foremost contemporary composer to have emerged from China…in decades.”
Tan’s music has been performed in famed venues such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Lincoln Center in New York, Suntory Hall in Japan and the Bastille in Paris. Excerpts from his “Symphony 1997” were performed at ceremonies commemorating the historic transfer of Hong Kong to China in July 1997; the complete symphony received its world premiere in Hong Kong and was repeated in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.
The Toronto Symphony presented a weeklong celebration of his music in 1997. Also in 1997, two of his pieces, “Death and Fire” and “Red Forecast,” received their American premieres at Carnegie Hall.
About Tan Dun
Composer/conductor Tan Dun is hailed as one of the world’s stars in contemporary music. He has risen quickly from rather humble musical beginnings.
A native of Hunan, China, Tan Dun began his musical career as a violinist in his native village. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the mid 1970s, he was sent to a Huangjin commune to work in the rice paddies following Mao’s dictum that educated youth must be re-educated by the peasants. During his two-year stay in the village, he began collecting folk songs and music from the peasants and became an unofficial village conductor.
Tan feared he might never be able to leave the village. However, after many musicians died when a ship carrying the Peking opera troupe capsized, he was summoned to join the troupe for about a year and a half. In 1978, he was one of 30 students chosen from thousands of applicants for the newly reopened Central Conservatory. There, he was exposed to the works of many leading Eastern composers, including 1994 Grawemeyer Award winner Toru Takemitsu.
Tan wrote his first symphony, “Li Sao,” in 1980 and quickly established his name as an up-and-coming composer. In 1983, he became the first Chinese composer since 1949 to win an international prize, a Weber prize for his “String Quartet: Fen Ya Song.” In 1985, he wrote “On Taoism,” an orchestral work recognized as one of the most controversial and significant works ever written by a Chinese composer.
He came to New York in 1986 as a fellow at Columbia University and began a new phase of composing that combined Eastern and Western musical styles. He established himself in Europe in 1988 when his music was the highlight of a British Broadcasting Corp.-sponsored festival of Chinese work, which was held in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1992, he became the youngest composer to win the Suntory prize commission, for which he wrote “Orchestral Theatre II.”
Tan’s music has been performed at prestigious venues such as Lincoln Center in New York, Suntory Hall in Japan and Royal Festival Hall in London. Excerpts of his “Symphony 1997” were performed at ceremonies commemorating the historic transfer of Hong Kong to China in July 1997. The complete work received its world premiere July 4 in Hong Kong, and the concert was repeated the following night in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.
Tan often incorporates everyday objects, such as paper and stone, in his music, and he often collaborates with performance artists, choreographers, and theater and film directors. He composed the soundtrack for the 1998 film “Fallen,” which stars Denzel Washington, and has collaborated with stage director Peter Sellars on a theater piece, “Peony Pavilion,” which opened at the Vienna Festival in May 1998.