By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Witnessing Tan Dun’s “Buddha Passion” is like being in a Tibetan Buddhist temple, being in a Christian house of worship, and being in the church of Nature, all at the same time. Performed by Seattle Symphony on Nov. 10 and 12, and conducted by Tan, this “Passion” in six acts adroitly combined Buddhist jata
ka tales and ancient Sanskrit song and sutra in a message of compassion. It was at once extravagant and humble, not unlike Tan himself.
A screen above the stage transmitted the script to the audience in English and Chinese. A convention used in opera houses from time to time, it’s not something one expects when visiting the symphony. However, the Seattle Symphony is nothing if not an institution that regularly pushes boundaries and introduces new and exciting types of performance. “Buddha Passion” indeed is one part opera, in both Western and Chinese style. Several impressive vocalists joined the musicians, including baritone Elliot Madore, soprano Lei Xu, tenor Yi Li, and mezzo-soprano Megan Moore.
Present also in the second half was Batubagen, a virtuoso in khoomei overtone, the Mongolian throat singing rapidly gaining popularity around the world.
This was only the beginning of everything that goes on during “Buddha Passion.” Behind the symphony stood the Seattle Symphony Chorale, and flanking them for part of the production, the Northwest Boychoir. In Act III, subtitled “Flying Pipa Dance,” Chen Yining floated across the stage in a glittering costume, a representation of an apsara, a celestial singer and dancer. Chen deftly played the pipa—sometimes behind her neck—while curving her body into stunning poses as the music and script told a tale of a royal family. During Act IV, called “Zen Garden,” Tan recreated the origin of Zen Buddhism in Songshan Mountain, complete with koans, or Zen riddles, while two symphony members played upon large, transparent bowls of water, mimicking rain drops, a waterfall, or a trickling stream.
Musicians and vocalists alike were pushed to the limit by Tan’s creative manipulation of sound. The Weekly spoke to Olivia Chew, who plays viola for the symphony, and Carrie Wang, a pipa musician and educator, about what it was like to play Tan’s music.
“Tan Dun’s music is definitely very special, one of a kind,” Wang said, referring to Tan’s willingness to combine modern and traditional Chinese and Western musical forms, something not looked upon in a positive light in Tan’s native China at first, but which has gained acceptance now, especially after Tan’s success with the music for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Tan’s use of multiple types of sound, particularly percussion, is part of what makes him unique, explained Wang. In both “Buddha Passion” and “Ghost Opera,” another of Tan’s pieces, played by a quartet, in which Chew and Wang performed together on Nov. 11, Tan implemented multiple instruments from Nature, such as rocks, paper, and water. Wang and others were expected to play not only their own instruments in new ways, but to multi-task.
“I will say that in a lot of ways, ‘Ghost Opera’ is probably one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever had to put together,” Chew admitted. “There are so many things that I’m just not used to.” In particular, Chew related how she learned to play upon a stone.
“You hold a flat stone up to your mouth, you change the shape of your mouth to adjust the pitch of it. I’ve never had to do that before.”
For Chew, Tan has a personal importance due to her introduction to his work via the movies. In a family that did not often go to the cinema, in part due to lack of representation on the screen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” as a mainstream movie with Chinese heritage, was “kind of a big deal.” Chew recalled also being struck by the music from “Hero,” which Tan Dun composed, along with Itzhak Perlman and KODO.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard Chinese sound, but being played by Western instruments…There’s no one really like [Tan Dun].”
In Wang’s view, Tan’s use of natural objects to create sound will call to mind ancient Chinese ceremony and ritual for older members of the audience, who will feel connected to home, while Western and young Chinese listeners will receive an education; although even a young person whose ancestry hearkens to China will recognize the music, Wang believes, because it’s “in our roots, in our blood.”
Many of the sounds in “Buddha Passion” evoked familiar and yet unfamiliar spaces—be it beneath a canopy of evergreens next to a rippling river, in the incense-filled rooms of a Tibetan monastery, or within the stained glass-lit stone interior of a European cathedral. It was the way that Tan combined these that was at times dizzying, at times confusing, and at times transporting, all of which encouraged the listener to enter into a meditative state.
The lessons embraced by “Buddha Passion” are full of compassion and self-sacrifice. The texts, in Sanskrit and Chinese, originated largely from documents that were long forgotten inside the Mogao caves of Dunhuang, China, that labyrinthine Buddhist complex along the Silk Road. The stories they tell are part of the Buddhist canon, such as the many lives of Buddha transmitted through jataka tales. In one, Buddha is the nine-colored deer who sacrifices herself to save a drowning man, knowing he will betray her, but that karma will catch up to him. In another, Buddha is a lovely princess who gives her life for a woman dying in childbirth. Everyone on stage played a part in these stories, from the vocalists acting out the dialogue, all the way to the stabbing of the deer, played by Lei Xu, in a gorgeous, feathery, white dress; to the choir representing monks or a royal audience cheering for the capture and death of this rare creature.
In the center was Tan, leading the way with expressive hand gestures, his entire body infused with the joy, it seemed, of telling a story—that of Buddha and Buddhism—that was lost not only in the Dunhuang caves, but was also cast aside by secular China, and yet which has persisted as one of the world’s most practiced religions. Every movement, every sound of “Buddha Passion” was choreographed with incredible precision. Violin bows rose and fell in perfect time with the rise and fall of the choir’s voices. At times, the composition was strikingly modern, and a bit bewildering. At other times, the Buddhist chanting or Western classical rhythms and harmonies were reassuring. At the end, Tan gave thanks to the participants, himself ducking behind the musicians, until he was called to the front for a lengthy standing ovation in a fully packed house.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.