Tan Dun @ Beijing Modern Music Festival

Big Palace at Forbidden City

Tan Dun @ Beijing Modern Music Festival

28 May 2018 / William Anderson / Compositions

I laughed I cried, it was better than Bolero!

The entire Beijing Modern Music Festival finished with a passacaglia by Tan Dun. A knockout.

Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds

An easy thing done exceptionally well. I capitulate to Tan Dun because music needs all the tricks. Cheap tricks, like his bird calls, for example, can work together with his other construction skills, his craft, his accumulated compositional wisdom. His skill earns him the right to employ a cheap trick.

Moreover, and most striking, are his moments of swirling microtonal glissandi in the strings, a modernism which he has integrated into a work with broad appeal and a sense of humor. He is an integrator. The moment also strikes me as distinctly Chinese magic realist. This work is way better than Ravel’s Bolero, and distinctly Chinese.

One might object, “it’s just a stupid passacaglia!”,and it’s not even atonal! We’ve evolved past this! ( Admission: When I was a callow youth, I scoffed at Tan Dun for all these reasons, and I met him in New York before he was famous. )

This reminds me of what Nadia Boulanger said to Astor Piazzola, paraphrasing: do what you know, what you do best (and he replied, I know tangos). There are armies of young composers who were promoted and selected for incusion on this festival, and many of them would benefit from writing passacaglias for five or ten years.

And at this stage, no one gets points for being either tonal or atonal.
We are beyond that.

–William Anderson, RSF delegate to ISCM World Music Days 2018