About this Recording
8.570608 - TAN, Dun: Symphonic Poem of 3 Notes / Orchestral Theatre / Concerto for Orchestra (after Marco Polo) (Hong Kong Philharmonic, Tan Dun)

Tan Dun
Symphonic Poem on Three Notes • Orchestral Theatre • Concerto for Orchestra


When I was a child, growing up in the countryside of China’s Hunan province, the villagers, local band members and the village Shaman would always sing and play together. They combined their voices with the sounds of nature, such as water, stones and leaves. Their music was a blending of colours linking together ritual operatic performance and people chanting. The three pieces recorded here are all related to those distant musical memories of mine. In those memories, the sounds were never divided between the instruments and the sounds of nature—in my ear they were one. The pieces that you listen to here are firmly rooted in a traditional orchestral sound, but contain an interplay between experimental and ritualistic vocalizations and integrate the natural sounds of stones, air and leaves. This is where my experimental ideas meet the mystery of the rituals and village opera of my childhood, and where the industrial sounds of today meet my early countryside memories…I want to have avant-garde sonorities and outrageous music imageries meet my mystic philosophy and melt into the rice fields of my memory.

Symphonic Poem on Three Notes (2012)

One day I received a phone call from the Teatro Real Opera in Madrid. They were planning a surprise seventieth birthday celebration for Plácido Domingo and called to ask whether I could write a work for the occasion. Instantly I said yes! Since working with Plácido on my opera The First Emperor, he has truly become one of my dear friends. When first imagining the piece, I thought it very celebratory to use Plácido’s name as part of the music—when you rap his name “Plácido” it sounds like LA SI DO. I used the notes LA SI DO/A-B-C to form the musical theme of this symphonic poem. The beginning of the piece echoes the start of new life and, like a dream, it unfolds with the sounds of birds, incense, wind and rain—the tubular chimes start to sing and LA SI DO appears for the first time. This theme then unfolds in a variety of textures: symphonic rapping, instrumental and vocal hip-hop, blowing sounds and stones. Through the course of the piece, the industrial brake drums and car wheel sounds join in representing nature and life growing and evolving into cities and societies. The climax erupts with the rapping and shouting of PLA CI DO and subsides with chanting and foot stamping as these three notes return back to nature, back to the origin and back to the future. Fortunately in the end, I had help from the Audi Summer Festival in Shanghai to finish the piece and I called it Symphonic Poem on Three Notes in celebration of my friend Plá-ci-do.

Orchestral Theatre (1990)

Orchestral Theatre was originally commissioned by the BBC Scottish Symphony with a xun solo, however the version here is for orchestra only. The piece is centred on ritual and my memories of ritual from my childhood. In the Hunan countryside, the local ritual activities combined playing and vocalizing together—praying to the ancestors and creating a ritualistic drama. The drama is led by the village shaman; he teases life and becomes a bridge between the last life and the next. Shamans believe that everything in nature has its own life and that they can talk to nature just as nature talks to itself. For example, a stone can talk to water and birds can talk to leaves. This is the meaning of shamanistic culture in Hunan and Orchestral Theatre is written with these memories in mind. When I wrote this piece I was very interested in twelve-tone and atonal music, however I was not satisfied with its boundaries. I wanted to bring in folk-music styles, its rhythmic traditions and dramatic memories, which is the opposite of the twelve-tone tradition. At the beginning of Orchestral Theatre, you can immediately feel the atonal sounds in a very primitive space. The piccolo sounds like a thousand-year-old bone flute and as the orchestra gets louder, you hear the ancient war cries for life and love. Throughout the piece I have placed a “voice stamp” of mine—“Hei Zo Hei”. These words have no meaning, but the words are not empty. They represent my belief that music can be everything and anything—dream, ritual, life…

Concerto for Orchestra (2012)

An orchestra in a composer’s hands no longer remains a standard orchestra—it becomes the orchestra of that specific composer. The same instrumentation in the hands of Bartók or Stravinsky or Debussy becomes a completely different orchestra. I have always asked myself: what is my orchestra? What is the orchestra of the future? This piece, Concerto for Orchestra, is my answer. It evolved from a concerto of mine commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and was written with my opera Marco Polo in mind. Marco Polo took three different journeys: a geographical, musical and spiritual journey. In the first movement Light of Timespace, Marco Polo is making his spiritual journey through time and space. The brass and strings slide back and forth, much like the fading in and out of light or the dripping of ink on calligraphy paper. The sound stops, but the meaning of the notes still continues. The second movement, Scent of Bazaar, opens to the aroma of Eastern markets with the trumpets and brass representing the spicy flavours and powerful perfumes. With the third movement, The Raga of Desert, we hear Indian raga where every note is alive and has an infinite number of expressions. Here, I specifically focused on the blowing and bowing instruments and how they could sound like plucking instruments such as the sitar. For the final movement, Marco Polo makes his arrival in the Forbidden City and I was trying to imagine what kind of light, colour and sound he saw and heard there. The Forbidden City also has a lot of meaning for me: it is not “forbidden”, not an obstruction, but shows origin, change and mystery. Change is circular and we must always return.

Tan Dun

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