Making Time

A column by Don Mager

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Tan Dun. Ghost Opera for String Quartet and Pipa. Kronos Quartet with Wu Man. New York: Nonesuch 79445-2, 1997.

Tan Dun's musical compositions sorely test my premise that individualized listening, not communal concerts, define much of the music composed in the era of electronic reproduction. Indeed, he treats us to a feast for the privacy of our ears, and his exquisite sensitivity to sound and timbres make everything he composes immediately engaging and often intensely and repeatedly pleasurable. However, many of his works are conceived as performances, involving spatial placements of musicians, and the visual handling of sound sources (bowls of water, stones, paper, or running sand) such that the distinction between theater and concert is almost totally collapsed--works such as Orchestral Theatre I (1990) and Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience (1992). Each of these works, no matter how ravishing they may be for the private audiophile is at best a partial experience.

Ghost Opera for String Quartet and Pipa (1994; CD released 1997) is a logical development in this direction. Tan Dun's hybridizing of classical Chinese musical techniques with Western methods, both eclectic references to earlier styles such as Bach and a rigorous training in post-serial atonality, is so wonderfully convincing that one rarely feels a need to school oneself in order to enter this music. Doubtless his constant attention to the momentary detail, how it is realized aurally, and how it is spaced temporally, assures our gratification at taking up his invitation to focused and engaged listenability--including his own multiple performer roles in almost every work released on CD to date.

Doubtless also the urgencies he brings to his music because of his particular history, first as a child (b.1957) during the Cultural Revolution in China when his professional parents were banished to be farm laborers, later his success at the Beijing Opera where he rose through the ranks of the orchestra and eventually received training at the exclusive Central Conservatory bringing to his formal compositions "the mysterious sounds of his childhood" through borrowings from rural peasant music and becoming the leading composer of China's "New Wave" (Humphrey 4). In 1986 he journeyed to Columbia University where he received a fellowship and has worked both in the USA, England and China ever since.

The liner notes for Ghost Opera are surprisingly helpful; most liner notes strike me as irrelevant to the listening experience.

The tradition of "ghost opera" is thousands of years old. The performer of "ghost opera" has a dialogue with his past and future life--a dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature. (Tan Dun 1)

Unlike western theater's habit of locating a protagonist in the persona of a single actor or singer, like No Drama in Japan, the ghost opera's protagonist and his dialogic voices are passed around among performers either singly or in groups; thus, the ensemble collectively becomes the protagonist of this opera. Tan Dun uses the resources of the string quartet and the pipa to produce an astonishing variety of sounds; furthermore, rippled water, metal and paper, plus the performers speaking, breathing and singing add to the range of sounds. Five performers produce as rich a pallet of aural excitement as many composers summon from a full orchestra. The work, of course, was conceived for the resources of the Kronos Quartet which has mastered an experimental repertory and inspired a number of current composers to produce new works for it. The Kronos Quartet's strengths are perfectly exploited by Tan Dun's imagination.

The sound palette is organized into distinct timbre clusters, which form the components of a syntax which narrate a highly condensed "libretto" which in turn carries the musical ideas dialogically through Five "Acts" returning through a vast circle to the exact point of origin. To design a temporal work as a circle seems at first to be an impossible contradiction, but as one's listening is repeated, the circularity becomes more and more convincing. The listener feels that the return of original material at the end is not a sonata-style referential coda but a return emotionally, philosophically, spiritually to the exact place at which the ghost dialogue began. At the same time it is a return which incorporates new knowledge, new acceptance, new wisdom.

The timbre clusters which form the work's syntax are (1) a nostalgic echo of a Bach adagio, (2) the water, paper, and gongs, (3) an untrained voice singing a peasant folk song, (4) the deep aspirated breathing of Buddhist mediation, (5) the traumatizing aggression of percussive effects, and (6) fragmented spoken lines from Shakespeare. The work lasts about 35 minutes, and is divided into five "Acts" ranging from 3 minutes (Act III) to 10 minutes (Act IV). They move the listener through a dialogic meditation of life's past and future, its memories and dreams, its nostalgias and traumas; and in a way quite surprising for a contemporary work, Tan Dun assumes a merging of listener with the protagonist-performers, such that the circular ghost story enacted in the concert is simultaneously the story of the members of the audience, be they actually at a live concert or at home with their CD players.

I cannot speak for other auditors, but for me, this "romantic" assumption about the listener's place in the musical narrative, works, and continues to work on repeated listenings. And I believe it does so for two reasons: the unflinching conviction and mastery that Tan Dun has regarding his musical ideas and their accomplishment (he never seems to be trying things out, experimenting, or exemplifying a musical manifesto), and the unflinching mastery of the performers who play out the multiple demands on them with total conviction and absorption. Although my rather extensive musical world only occasionally takes me to live performances, Ghost Opera is a work I would travel some distance to see as well as to hear.

My one objection to this CD is that Nonesuch did not see fit to couple Ghost Opera with something else. A 35 minute CD at full price seems unfair; but Nonesuch has done this with other Kronos disks. Perhaps the company believes Kronos's prominence and avid cult of followers assures sales despite the marketers' niggardly offering.

Works Cited

Humphrey, Mary Lou. Liner notes. Snow In June. Arditti String Quartet, the Nieuw Ensemble, and Talujon. New York: CRI (Composers Recordings, Inc.) CD 655, 1993.

Tan Dun. Liner notes. Ghost Opera for String Quartet and Pipa. Kronos Quartet and Wu Man. New York: Nonesuch 79445-2, 1997.

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