Tuning into memories

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Composer Tan Dun has made a unique mark on the world's music scene with creative works bridging Eastern and Western traditions, as well as pushing the boundaries of classical music, traditional Chinese operas, and multimedia.

The composer released an album on June 10, titled Eight Memories in Watercolor, by leading classical music label Naxos. Featuring six piano works composed by Tan, the album is performed by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat.

"I am very proud of these piano works, which are like my diaries from the days that I started to learn to compose to the most recent one or two years," says Tan. "The album comes about the right time when we live amid the pandemic. These music pieces provide people with comfort."

The opening piece, which is also the titled piece, Eight Memories in Watercolor, was written by Tan in 1978, about the time when he left his hometown in Hunan province to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He was among the first group of students admitted to the music school when it reopened in 1978.

He was homesick, and wrote this piece as a diary to express his longing for his hometown while being immersed in studying Western classical and contemporary music.

"Now, when I listen to this music piece, I can still sense the freshness and feel touched. There are many portrayals of the actual scenery of my hometown, which are the best memories of my younger days," says Tan, 64, adding that he uses the word "watercolor" to imply visual inspiration of his hometown.

Traces, written by Tan in 1989 after he returned from his trip to Dayao Mountains, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, is also featured in this new album.

"I prefer to call the piece 'traces of the wind'. I can still recall the day I took a bus and the wind was blowing outside. The bus window was not fully shut so I could hear the sound of the wind, like la, do, re, re, do and la. Sometimes the sound would disappear, but it always returned. It was so interesting that I wrote them down right after I returned home," says Tan.

The composer moved to New York in 1986 to study on a scholarship at Columbia University, where he received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993.

He wrote a music piece, C-A-G-E, in memory of his teacher, avant-garde composer, John Cage, who died on August 12, 1992. Cage, from the United States, was influenced by Buddhism and I Ching (Book of Changes, a Chinese classic). As a young student, Tan listened to Cage's famous piece, 4'33" in Beijing in 1978 and in 1988, he watched pianist Margaret Leng Tan perform the piece at the Whitney Museum in New York.

The piece is actually a silent span of 273 seconds. Cage himself was among the audience then. Before the concert, he told the audience that he tried to let people hear the sound of silence.

"I was very excited because there's no such thing as silence, which is full of accidental sounds," says Tan.

When Tan learned about Cage's death in 1992, he was shocked, sad and couldn't believe it until he read the obituary on the New York Times the next morning. Then he composed a music piece by combining recurrent melodic and harmonic motifs of the notes C, A, G, and E.The technique of pizzicato made the piano sound like a different musical instrument.

Tan is also known for composing soundtracks for movies and one of his most famous works is his original score for director Ang Lee's film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which won both a Grammy and an Oscar.

In the new album, the composer adapted his score for the Chinese film The Banquet, which was directed by Feng Xiaogang in 2006, into a piano piece. It was the first time that the piano version was released to the public.

The vibrant music piece, Blue Orchid, commissioned by Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven in 2020, incorporates the opening motif of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

Asked about his friendship with Dutch pianist Van Raat, Tan says that they've toured together many times throughout the whole world and had great times together.

The Fire, written by Tan for Van Raat, contains some of the composer's most virtuosic and dramatic piano writing. It was featured in the new album as the music piece's world premiere.

"Since my teenage years, I have been a fan of Tan Dun's music, and I had performed his Eight Memories in Watercolor several times already in concerts," says Van Raat, who first met Tan about nine years ago when he performed Tan's Banquet Concerto with a Dutch orchestra under the baton of Tan. The pianist performed in China for the first time in 2010 during Expo Shanghai, where he played a recital featuring works by both Dutch composers and Tan. Since then, he has been invited to perform in China frequently.

In 2014, the pianist decided to perform the complete piano solo music of Tan. The idea grew to record a full CD with his piano solo works.

The album, Eight Memories in Watercolor, was recorded during the pandemic in August 2020 in the beautiful concert hall in Amsterdam. The pianist and the composer spent 15 months preparing for the album with online discussions and sending sound files now and then.

"I love all the pieces for very different reasons, also because the pieces are so diverse," the pianist says. He adds that perhaps the most striking one is C-A-G-E, since it really seems to transform the sound of the piano completely into the sound of a Chinese instrument.

"It is incredibly inventive, how Tan Dun has thought of special playing techniques directly inside the strings of the piano, as if you are playing for example a Chinese pipa. The result is a perfect blend between East and West-the modern Western grand piano which produces music which immediately evokes the sounds and silences of the East," he says.

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