Oriental wisdom distilled into a trailblazing Dunhuang epic dedicated to humanity
Buddha Passion consists of six acts – Bodhi Tree, Nine-coloured Deer, Thousand-hand Guanyin, Zen Garden, Heart Sutra, and Nirvana – featuring a star-studded cast of top soloists who portray various characters from Buddhist legends. For this project, Tan Dun visited Dunhuang dozens of times over two years, studying murals in Mogao Caves and reconstructing musical instruments, such as the fantan pipa and xiqin depicted there. In this Asia premiere, he will lead a 200-strong cast from the International Choir Academy Lübeck and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus in his extraordinary quest to revive long-lost sounds from the Tang dynasty.
Meet-the-artist session after the 2 November performance
The Guangdong Full-Wisdom Education Group and the EU-Asia Centre proudly support the International Choir Academy Lübeck's participation
ICBC International’s 10th anniversary celebration proudly supports the HK Phil’s participation
Photo:Dunhuang Academy (Photographer: Wu Jian), Andy Lam, Cheung Wai-lok, Dario Acosta, Johannes Ifkovits, Oliver Killig, Musacchio & Ianniello
(Member of Taipei Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Taiwan Wind Ensemble)
The Buddha Passion, which premiered this May at the Dresden Music Festival in Germany, is the latest work of the renowned Chinese composer Tan Dun. Tan Dun, arguably the most famous Asian composer since the turn of the millennium because of his film soundtracks, won an award in 1983 for his string quartet Feng-Ya-Song. His soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from 2000, directed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, won an Academy Award, a Bafta and a Grammy. Later, he collaborated with directors Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang and wrote the soundtracks for Hero and Banquet. Together with the previous work, they form the “Martial Arts Trilogy”. In addition to his achievements in film music, Tan Dun is also very responsive to technology and the times. He not only works with Google, creating Internet Symphony: Eroica for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, but also incorporates multimedia into works such as The Map, as well as combining the visual and tactile with landscape and environment in Water Heavens. His multifaceted and rich creative energy propels Tan Dun’s oeuvre of amazing works, as well as revealing his unique thinking and insights. Those who seek to know this versatile composer through his creations will find that those creations and their sources are primitive, ancient, even ritualistic, creating a sense of conflict or beauty between “contemporary” and “traditional” in many of his works.
Tan Dun is from Changsha, Hunan, China. Growing up, he was exposed to and deeply affected by traditional funeral rituals. He manifested his talent in music under the guidance of his father Tan Xiang. After graduating from high school, he went through the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” where he lived in a rural community, thus gaining a greater understanding of local culture and customs. He finally had the opportunity to enter a Beijing opera troupe, where he could perform and be exposed to traditional opera. This accumulated experience provided depth and became the source of his music in the future. After completing his “send-down” in 1977, he brought his three stringed violin to the Central Conservatory of Music, where he was admitted to receive systematic music education. He studied under Zhao Xingdao and Li Yinghai and was exposed to music creation outside of China. After obtaining a master’s degree in 1986, he went on to study in Columbia University, where he met the American composer who influenced his life―John Cage.
Cage, the most controversial 20th century American composer, is known for works such as 4’33” and Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. The results which originated from philosophical reflection on music made Cage’s works quite pioneering―or destructive. After the performance of Water Walk on a TV programme in 1960, Cage’s breakthroughs in creative theory and the use of musical instruments were gradually accepted. After Tan Dun met Cage, he was influenced by the composer and developed the concept of “organic music”, where the everyday objects of stone, water, and paper became his creative sources and the heart of his works. He created works such as Water Concerto and Paper Concerto. This has become a trademark of Tan Dun’s musical creation, and he has slowly expanded his work to explore culture, customs, traditions and ideas. The liberal use of multimedia and video have also made the works gradually more ritualistic in nature.
This development and result can be traced through the works entitled “Passion”. Water Passion after St. Matthew was commissioned in 2000 by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, founded by renowned conductor Helmuth Rilling. The text describing Jesus’s suffering, which propels the plot of the Water Passion, mainly comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and was inherited from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. In his music, Tan Dun uses his iconic “water sound” throughout his work, lamenting Jesus’s suffering through the sound of water or using water as a visual symbol to make a huge cross on the stage, corresponding to the notation of the shape of the cross; even using the “Seven Last Words from the Cross” to complete the death of Jesus. The structure of signs and symbols makes this whole work thick with religious imagery, and leads all listeners through the music to witness the crucifixion of Jesus, who took on the burden of sin for all of humankind, and his abandoning the physical body. This combination of visual, musical, and symbolic “water” and “stone” sounds presents a reinterpretation of the Gospel of Matthew; it removes the mystery of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Bible, but adds another layer of truth.
His later composition Buddha Passion consists of six acts designed to be independent of each other. Although at first glance the acts do not appear directly connected to each other, they are all profound reflections on the process of “causality” to “reincarnation” in Buddhism. Tan Dun mixes and rewrites different Buddhist stories and history. For example, the first act “The Bodhi Tree” combines the parable of cutting off one’s flesh to feed the eagle, and the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. The fourth act, “The Buddhist Temple”, is a test by the Fifth Patriarch Hongren of his disciples, causing them to blaspheme. In Tan Dun’s version, Shenxiu’s verse “the body is the Bodhi tree/ the heart is like a mirror/ we must always strive to polish it/ and not let dust collect” is attributed to Hongren. Much of the rewriting and rearrangement of details humanises the characters, propelling the plot to the “Nirvana” beyond the cycles of cause and effect. This also reveals Tan Dun’s research into and insights gained from the history of Chinese Buddhism. In order to make the presentation more meaningful, Tan Dun searched through museums for ancient scriptures from the Mogao Caves, trying to discover the “original style” of the singers through recovering the ancient music in the ancient texts, interspersed with Sanskrit scriptures. Let all that is original, forgotten, and which needs to be recalled awake again in the present and coexist with modernity. In fact, Tan Dun is not the first composer to be inspired by Buddhist themes. But perhaps through Buddha Passion, Tan Dun hopes through the scriptures, the Dharma and the story to convey the universal values that run through the six acts―”Love and Peace”―and to spiritually enrich the audience through plot, self awareness and the epiphanies of his characters.
(Translated by Amy Ng)