Tan Dun: composing is Zen; conducting is like tai chi

For the Chinese film composer, synchronising sound and image is a form of martial arts.

In your Martial Arts Trilogy concerts, you're conducting the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in music you composed for movies including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. How closely do you work with Ang Lee and other directors of these films – how much input do they have in the music?

Normally, I start a few years in advance, before they start filming. I already start to talk to the directors about the movie music sequences so that they melt in organically into the story. It is always a close working relationship, which I am glad of.

How important is traditional Chinese folk music in setting the scene for these films? 

My style is true to my life. I believe my work directly reflects a Zen point of view, a spiritual point of view. But ultimately I don’t believe in combining East and West in my music. I am not interested in the concepts “East” and “West” as it relates to music. My interest is only in my life as it is happening now; my life as it connects to the world is what influences my music – always from living, eating and believing. 

You’ve written concert music for huge sheets of paper and bowls of water. Does writing for film mean being less experimental? 

No, not at all. I feel writing for film is even more experimental for me – just think of the music of Takemitsu. When working with fantastic musicians and synchronising our work with film and multimedia, I love to experiment with lots of ideas. I also integrate a lot of classical music ideas into the film.

For these films you have to write music for intricate choreographed martial arts as well as reflective, emotional scenes. What are the challenges of each? 

Synchronising sound with picture is always a place to dig deeper into any emotion, into your music soul. It is very stimulating. I am an opera composer and I treat my film as if I am writing for opera. Opera is the future film and film the past opera.

All the soloists in the Australian concerts – Li-Wei (cello), Jiaya Sun (piano) and Zhao Xiaoxia (guqin) – are of Asian heritage. Is that important when it comes to interpreting music with a traditional Asian influence, or is it partly because that’s what audiences expect to see? 

I work with talented young soloists from all over the world. I am challenged by them. Meanwhile, through these projects I have a chance to influence young people – it means I am changing the world. Young people are the future, whether they are of Asian descent or not.

This isn’t the first time you’ve conducted your own works in Australia – what has the reaction been like on previous visits? 

I had a wonderful time with the Sydney Symphony previously. However, I have never had a chance to conduct my work elsewhere in Australia. I am excited to go to Adelaide! Somehow the Australian culture and people have seduced me very deeply. I hope that I can continue to play my music in Australia and with Australia orchestras.

Tan Dun recently won the Hamburg Bach Prize. He conducts the ASO in his own music on September 22-23 as part of Adelaide's OzAsia Festival. View event details here.

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Tan Dun: composing is Zen; conducting is like tai chi
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