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Lindsay Kemp
Gramophone, May 2016


Ritualistic and vibrant, Tan Dun’s New York Philharmonic commission (1998) foregrounds a range of ‘water percussion’ techniques—water slapped, splashed, poured and acting upon traditional percussion—against a spare orchestral backdrop. Inspired by childhood experiences of a ‘clean water’ no longer to be found in the world, he creates a unique and intensely focused organic soundscape, reflecting on the ‘tears of nature’. © 2016 Gramophone

Sabrina Pullen
MusicWeb International, October 2009

Take four bowls, fill them with water, and proceed to use wooden bowls, beaters, plastic tubes, table tennis paddles and plastic cups to make musical sounds. A bizarre recipe, but Tan Dun’s Water Concerto puts all of the above to good use. Slapping the water, swirling, flicking, pulling hands out of the water slowly to create the maximum amount of drips—these are all techniques which create the Water Concerto.

This work makes the audience and the listener question the very nature of what makes a sound ‘musical’. Tan Dun answers this in a much more accessible way than some of John Cage’s similar experiments in the noise-versus-music argument. The water sounds are introduced in a fantastically theatrical manner, the stage and audience set in total darkness, the spotlight on the soloist, David Cossin. He makes his way to the stage to join his fellow percussionists standing on either side of the orchestra; Cossin takes his place next to Tan Dun (conducting), and begins making ‘drips’. The water-based sounds are juxtaposed with orchestral wails in the upper strings, and gradually these elements are integrated. One of the percussionists even makes a drum-roll effect with her hands hitting the bowl of water. Fragments of folk-song in the strings accompanied by the brass playing on their mouthpieces alone join the increasingly loud slaps of water. The woodwind play on their reeds and mouthpieces. This is a far cry from Tan Dun’s most famous score, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The first movement ends with a water cadenza, featuring gongs beaten and lowered into water, and Cossin whipping a stick through the air.

This could be interpreted as nonsense by the close-minded, but the sheer commitment of Cossin and the orchestra make for a completely convincing performance. The repertoire of water sounds employed expands with each movement. The second movement comes from a very similar sound-world to Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, incorporating whole-tone folk melodies with Chinese inflections, with falling slides in the woodwind at the end of phrases. The final movement takes on a minimalist approach, with fragments of the folk-song of the previous movement and the wailing of the first movement returning in cycles. Each repetition brings in a different gesture from the orchestra to provide a backdrop to the two percussionists beating hollow plastic tubes with table tennis beaters whilst pulling the tubes in and out of the water.

The special features enlighten the listener further, beginning with a mini-documentary called ‘Water: Tears of Nature’. Tan Dun talks of how water sounds are present in everyday life, and that he used to listen to the rhythms of the women washing clothes in the water of the riverside in his younger years. He talks of the dynamic nature of water, and that ‘water is the voice of re-birth’. Cossin introduces the random assortment of objects bought to create the different sounds in the concerto—flip-flops, strengthened ping-pong paddles, wooden bowls and even a spaghetti strainer. Tan Dun also presents a tutorial on how to achieve the best sounds and theatrical effects with the water instruments, such as the numerous possible sounds of a spaghetti strainer. The demonstrations show the amount of thought, care and research by the composer that has been put into the Water Concerto.

A fantastic performance of a piece of music that is as much about watching the physical gestures as absorbing the sounds.

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