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Monday, October 22, 2001

Leaping From Screen, 'Tiger' Runs Free
Tan Dun's reconceived movie music and his Water Percussion Concerto defy borders, linking sounds of East and West, classic and modern.

By MARK SWED, Times Music Critic

     The cliché that music is a universal language, a language of unity, always rings hollow, and never more than in wartime.
     There is, in fact, no language more divisive, and not just between cultures. It separates parents and children. Neighbors and colleagues often cannot communicate through it. Symphony audiences fight over what language their orchestra should speak. CD mega-stores are islands of genres. This newspaper, like others, separates pop and classical music into separate departments. Our enemy, the Taliban, bans music; at the other extreme, the peace-loving Dalai Lama mistrusts its seductive power.
     Occasionally, however, a translator comes along who can bridge a gap or two, as Aaron Copland did between Populist and Modernist, as the Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar, has done between India and the West, as Philip Glass does between high and low. Tan Dun is such a translator, and an exceptional one who easily spans all three divides.
     Saturday night, Tan addressed the audience before the world premiere of his "Crouching Tiger" Concerto for erhu, a bowed Chinese string instrument, and Western symphony orchestra at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. He mentioned that the music, which was adapted from the score he wrote to a very popular movie, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," spanned East/West, old/new, high/low dichotomies.
     That it does, in this new concerto, and also in his Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra, which opened the program. There is plenty of ferrying different kinds of music back and forth. But having grown up in highly restricted Maoist China, Tan composes music with a sense that all borders should be eradicated.
     At this concert, in which Tan conducted the Pacific Symphony as a presentation of the Eclectic Orange Festival, I sat among an audience that included many who were Chinese and many who were not, among people interested in new music and those who apparently knew little about it. And yet I think we all responded with the same sense of ownership—that the music performed was our own music.
     For instance, in the Water Percussion Concerto, there was an instrument Tan had devised from recycled cardboard and cheap electronics. It is a tube with a microphone that can be tapped or swung in front of a loudspeaker to produce what Tan called a spiritual noise and what we know as feedback. These are materials and devices familiar to everyone everywhere, and when it was played with a virtuoso flare by the percussion soloist, David Cossin, to produce rhythm and melody, the delight was universal.
     In Tan's music, there is always a theatrical and usually a ritualistic element that helps create an immediate effect. The Water Percussion Concerto, which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic two years ago, begins with the soloist walking down the aisle waving a Waterphone, a resonating bowl filled with water with protruding rods that can be bowed.
     Its wah-wah sonorities are mysterious and hard to locate in space, and the hall filled with them as two percussionists on stage answered the soloist with their own Waterphones.
     Throughout the concerto, in four connected movements that gradually progress from slow, amorphous music to rhythmically exciting Chinese folk song, Cossin splashed water in two large translucent bowls, tapped on water drums (upside-down ceramic bowls that floated in the water), plunged cups and tubes into the water and lowered gongs into it to bend their ringing pitches. There is a connection here to our local avant-garde (the water gong was invented by John Cage in Los Angeles in 1935, the Waterphone by Richard Waters in Sebastopol in 1966).
     Some of the accompaniment in the orchestra was standard-issue modern music sound effects, some of it more conventional orchestral writing. But Tan transforms everything in a riveting experience that is hard to define but very easy to appreciate.
     The "Crouching Tiger" Concerto was even more a study in transformations. It utilizes thematic material from the film score, which won an Academy Award this year, but the working out is new and more sophisticated.
     The original part for solo cello, which was performed by Yo-Yo Ma, has a rich, exotic quality when transferred to erhu, which was played with compelling expressivity by Karen Han.
     And freed from the constraints of narrative film (all boundaries are Tan's antagonists), the composer wound up inspiring something new and nonlinear from "Crouching Tiger" director Ang Lee and writer-producer James Schamus. They cut material based on the film into a moody music video that was projected behind the orchestra. Among the six scenes, there was one of computer-simulated 19th century Beijing intercut with present-day New York City, a section focusing on Chinese calligraphy and an ending of atmospheric slow-motion falling.
     It was nice but unnecessary window dressing, probably most entertaining to those who had enjoyed the film and wanted to know what was left on the cutting-room floor. The musical performance needed to no help.
     There was great pleasure to be had watching Tan's illuminating conducting; he sculpts sound with his hands. And there were marvels aplenty in the vast range of effects Han could achieve from her seemingly rudimentary two-string instrument.
     Ironically, only the projected images from that other universal medium of blockbuster film didn't seem to entirely speak for themselves.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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