By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In a series of caves in northern China are some of the most fascinating and beautiful artworks related to Buddhism of any around the world. These Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, and their rich and informative paintings and sculptures, were an inspiration for composer Tan Dun, and are the uniting core of Seattle Symphony’s upcoming “The Musical World of Tan Dun,” from Nov. 3 to Nov. 13.
Known for the score of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Tan Dun is one of today’s most recognized and celebrated Chinese composers. He grew up in Hunan, China, and schooled in traditional Chinese musical arts such as erhu, funeral music, and Beijing (Peking) Opera. Early on, he had an idea of himself as a shaman—someone who would combine eastern and western, traditional and modern, forms of music. Tan Dun often takes nature and history as his launching points, and the suite of events presented this month by the Symphony are in this vein.
First, his “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds” will be part of “Nature Resounds” on Nov. 5. An interactive piece, Tan Dun’s “Secret” will be combined with the work of four other composers for the enjoyment of families and their children. Assistant conductor Sunny Xia will lead musicians in an exploration of “the great outdoors,” according to the Symphony, “inspiring creativity, excitement, and wonder.” A “passacaglia” is a form of music from 17th century Spain, and just one of several examples of Tan Dun’s incorporation of ancient forms, and of his studious and dedicated attention to the heritage of music in all of its exciting variation.
Next, on Nov. 10 and 12, “Buddha Passion,” part of the symphony’s “Masterworks Series,” will regale audiences with sounds perhaps not heard in centuries, as Tan Dun conducts a “passion” revolving not around Christianity but around Buddhism—the first of its kind. A “passion,” traditionally, corresponds to the life and death of Jesus Christ. However, in Tan Dun’s unique composition, the life and ascendancy of India’s Siddhartha Shakyamuni, or Gautama Buddha, is the subject. This historical figure is, of course, the founder of modern-day Buddhism.
“Buddha Passion” is as much a continuation of Tan Dun’s life’s work as it is a new creation. He has in the past drawn frequently from Chinese Buddhist and indigenous religion, as well as from Christianity. Previously, for instance, his “Water Passion” told a religious story using the qualities of water as a symbol for the three stages of Christian, and in a way, Buddhist, spiritual progress—baptism, renewal, and then resurrection. Tan Dun has also gone back to his home territory of Hunan to record for posterity the music of Dong, Miao, and Tujia villagers. His “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women” from 2013, for orchestra and solo harp, and including videos, helped to document and preserve the fading languages of this region of China.
For “Buddha Passion,” Tan Dun was inspired specifically by the Mogao Cave series in Dunhuang, even visiting in person to immerse himself in the cave experience. A treasure leftover from the days of the great Silk Road, the Dunhuang caves were long forgotten until it was rediscovered by a Daoist monk, Wang Yuanlu, who had set himself as the guardian of a complex stretching about a mile long along the Daquan River. In the time of the Silk Road, merchants and religious pilgrims alike would have stopped to give thanks at these caves, which contain elaborate and colorful images of the Buddha, his followers, as well as ancient Chinese and Hindu deities. Tan Dun used documents found in the caves, and containing musical scores from those days past, to compose “Buddha Passion,” which includes vocals and, according to the Symphony, “Buddha’s teachings and timeless concepts of love, forgiveness, sacrifice, and salvation.”
To accompany this rich tapestry of Tan Dun’s musical works, which also includes Tan Dun’s “Ghost Opera” on Nov. 11, a 360-degree exhibition, “The Mogao Caves: An Immersive Experience” will be held free of charge at Octave 9 from Nov. 3 to Nov. 13. Designed by Greg Downing of Hyperacuity and Eric Hanson of Blueplanet VR, the short film of about 12 minutes was supported in large part by Mimi Gates, who sits on the board of the Dunhuang Foundation, and who helped the creators compile incredible footage which the audience will enjoy in full surround sound and 3D. In this way, viewers will be able to see the beautiful art of the caves in a way that perhaps not even a visitor in person would be able to enjoy. At your leisure, and minus the intense journey to the caves, and any interrupting tourists, viewers will be enraptured by up-close and personal images of the interior of several major caves in the Mogao complex.
Finally, “Ghost Opera,” also at Octave 9, realizes Tan Dun’s ideal of becoming a shaman of both eastern and western art and spirituality. A quartet made up of Andy Liang and Mae Lin on violin, Olivia Chew on viola, and Eric Han on cello, the “Opera” calls to mind both Bach and Shakespeare, as well as Chinese Opera. Accompanying music will include Carrie Wang on pipa, and sound effects with stones, water, and paper, meant to create, according to the Symphony and Tan Dun, “a dialogue between past and future, nature and spirit.”
Taken altogether, “The Musical World of Tan Dun” offers as immersive an experience into the natural world and Buddhist theology as Tan Dun himself would have had composing each piece.
For information, visit seattlesymphony.org/concerttickets.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.