Sunday, May 04, 2008

i was going to post on the stereotype-laden marketing of kung fu panda, but

There is plenty to think about and for me not to comment on, though biting my tongue hurts a little, in the following article about a real life embodiment of the East, for which one does not even need to have a there and the hell away from again relationship to Asian American studies to have a reaction:

From the NYT:

A trim, close-cropped man who likes to dress fashionably in dark colors and black leather pants, Tan Dun is a kind of rock star of the modern music scene. He won an Oscar for the score of Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” His latest opera, “The First Emperor,” starring Plácido Domingo, had its premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2006 and will be revived there this week, with a few changes, mostly to the libretto. Hopping around the world, from Shanghai to Stockholm, from Tokyo to New York, he conducts and introduces his own music to a global audience of rapturous fans.

Tan is based in New York City, but I managed to catch him in Stockholm (between gigs in Shanghai and Rome), where he was attending part of a weeklong Tan Dun festival. We first met in a hotel coffee lounge. It was self-service. He chose to have tea: “Tea is from the inside,” he said. “Coffee is from the outside.” Tan tends to talk like that, less like a composer than like a mystic. “One plus one makes one” is another one of his sayings, meaning — I think — that his music is not so much a fusion of East and West as an individual expression emerging from the mixture of different traditions. Speaking of his birthplace, he once said, again rather typically: “Hunan is the home of philosophy, of yin and yang, of shamanistic culture. It has good feng shui.”

There is no question that Tan uses Chinese culture in his music. The question is which Chinese culture. It may not be a culture that most contemporary Chinese people would recognize. Like the fortune cookie, much of it feels as if it were invented in America. This is not necessarily a bad thing. James Joyce recreated his Ireland living in Trieste, Paris and other places abroad. Distance can sharpen the imagination. I decided to ask Tan about this after his return to New York, to attend a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of “The Gate,” his multicultural opera featuring three theatrical heroines who died for love: Shakespeare’s Juliet; Koharu, heroine in the Japanese puppet play “Double Suicide”; and Yu Ji, from “Farewell My Concubine,” a Beijing opera about a woman who commits suicide for her lord.

We spoke in his office in Chelsea. He served me a cup of superb green tea from Zhejiang province. “When I came to New York in 1986,” he said, “to study composition at Columbia University, I lived downtown. At first I didn’t know how to bridge the musical distance between uptown and downtown. At Columbia, you immediately got into the atonal system. But downtown is so diverse: jazz, rock, the Blue Note, the Village Gate, the La MaMa theater. So I got jet-lagged. But I found a way to fix the distance. At night, downtown, I would meet with Meredith Monk, John Cage and Philip Glass. My jet lag between uptown and downtown reminded me where I was from. I looked back to the Eastern music I played before moving to Beijing. It all came back to me through my fascination with experimental music in downtown New York. Greenwich Village taught me about Chineseness from a world point of view.”

I asked him what role John Cage played in his development. I had read somewhere that Tan felt an instinctive cultural affinity with Cage’s experiments with music made with water, paper and kitchenware. He said: “Before John Cage, I didn’t pay attention to Lao-tzu” — the Taoist sage — “or the I Ching. But every time I spoke to Cage, it was as if I were talking to Lao-tzu, not an American, not John. We had dialogues about music in a very philosophical way — everything is an unanswered question.”

Tan would not be the first Asian artist to have reimported, as it were, Asian traditions from Western sources. Many Japanese rediscovered Zen in the 1960s by reading the American beat poets. But Chineseness from a world point of view is precisely what many Chinese in China didn’t like about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” However slickly made and beautiful to look at, this kung-fu movie, with Tan’s score and Yo-Yo Ma’s sinuous cello, smacked to them of a fantasy tailored to Western taste. It could also be read the way I read it, as a nostalgic dream of overseas Chinese about a China that never was. But in fact Tan deals less in nostalgia than in juxtaposition, throwing elements from different cultures together.

Tan likes to say that he is like Marco Polo in the West. Or as he put it in an interview: “I’m a Marco Polo going backward from East to West.” What is perhaps his most famous opera is actually titled “Marco Polo” and features, apart from the Venetian explorer himself, Dante, Shakespeare and Mahler. The libretto is in English and Chinese, with smatterings of Italian and German. And the music ranges from Beijing opera to bits of Mahler. Completed in 1996, this work earned Tan the Grawemeyer Award for composition. Since its debut in Munich the same year, the opera has been performed all over the world.

Tan told me that when he writes his music, he has no specific audience in mind. But there is no question that the exoticism of his work is perfect for a globalized market hungry for new and unusual flavors. Tan expressed this perfectly in an interview with Hong Kong radio: “It’s not just listening to music. Also, the way we’re eating dinner, no more just French, Italian; we eat Mexican, Cantonese, Russian, Indonesian, Japanese. . . . ” In Stockholm, he told me how globalization offers new opportunities to artists, like himself, “not to standardize, or neutralize, but by giving people a chance to be seen.”

The danger of Tan’s huge commercial success is that it leads to a decorative, rather superficial kind of Chineseness. It is hard not to cringe a little when hearing such fortune cookie lyrics (in “Tea”) as: “In tea mind —/ woman makes life art,/man makes art life.” I asked Tan about the commercial constraints on his work, and he gave a very candid answer: “It is inescapable. You can’t avoid being commercialized. I don’t want to be, but I cannot resist it. I’m pushed that way. If my name is not a brand of Chinese culture in the avant-garde, Peter Gelb is not going to be behind me at the Metropolitan Opera.”

I asked Tan in Stockholm why he took on commissions that would obviously require a show of Chinese patriotism. Putting on “The First Emperor” for the Beijing Olympics would certainly have to be a patriotic gesture. He also wrote “Symphony 1997,” featuring Yo-Yo Ma as the soloist, for the official celebration of the handing over of Hong Kong. Peter Gelb claims responsibility for bringing the two stars together. Ma, he told me, “was interested, because he wanted to create music with ancient bells.” The first time I asked Tan about his relationship with the Chinese government, he gave the examples of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in the Soviet Union. He said: “A major commission from China is still focused on patriotic things. Like Shostakovich, sometimes we have no choice. But you can still express yourself. By doing ‘Symphony 1997,’ I could study bronze bells and introduce Yo-Yo Ma, as well as Western concepts, to China. There’s a way to educate the Communists without using their methods.” On the same occasion, Tan claimed that “The First Emperor” “reflects my own life, and that of Shostakovich.”

I found the comparison with Shostakovich odd, and told him so. After all, Tan was not confined to China but free to go and work anywhere he liked. Unlike Shostakovich, who had to contend with Joseph Stalin, Tan was not forced to do anything. We let the matter rest. Later, I asked him the same question at his office in New York. This time he gave a very different answer. “To me,” he said, with an impish smile, “it is the way for shamans to behave. I want to be playful, like a child, teasing the world, teasing the whole system. That is Taoism. It is not about political or cultural messages. It is a performance. Performance art.”

I suspect that this time he was telling the truth. Finding his stride, he continued: “I have no ego. The ego is to illustrate philosophical strangeness, to be a musical Taoist.” While I was mulling this over, he shifted in his chair and said: “And you know what? This strangeness helps my business. I have always worked with the best orchestras in the world. And never once did one of them fail to ask me back.” I can quite believe it. Whatever it is that is behind Tan’s extraordinary success, it surely isn’t innocence — or a lack of sophistication



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