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CLASSICAL  June 2005

CLASSICAL June 2005

Subject:

Re: Rouse & Dun Guitar Concerti

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 12 Jun 2005 18:15:33 -0500

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In an exceptionally unsympathetic review, Steve Schwartz dismisses not
only Tan Dun's music, but the introduction to a recording of it, by
Christoph Schlueren:

>The liner notes blather about both composers' "philosophies" (Right.
>Like Leibnizian monism, I suppose.  Does anybody, other than the
>composers' mothers and objets d' affection really care?). Better
>the writer tried to clarify the music, but this is just a minor annoyance.

The notes, without mentioning "philosophies," attempt to present the
composers' musical intentions regarding what they are trying to do.
Admittedly, he could be more clear in what he says about the musical
idioms of the guitar and p'i-p'a, as well as about "the soloist's
improvisations, which are written out in full."

>In a work lasting nearly half an hour, less than a third (the "Andante
>agitato" section) demonstrates any movement or rhetorical contrast at
>all.

The movement I like best is the Adagio, which Steve would probably
consider the most static.  I find the opening touches of Flamenco and
the rather fierce Ending of this five minute concerto the least appealing
elements, but I do not find lack of contrast.

My feelings about Tan Dun's music are not that well formed at present,
but I am certainly not inclined to dismiss him as a composer.  I have
the Guitar Concerto Steve reviewed and, although I have heard it more
than once of twice, I do not yet have a considered opinion about it.
His Ghost Opera I found downright disturbing on first hearing, and I
have not been able to go back to it yet, but, considering its title,
that probably should not count against it.  I do consider his score for
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon highly successful.  The strong percussive
accompaniment to the spectacular fight between the two principal women,
in particular is extremely apt.

>I get the impression Dun doesn't believe transformation or transition
>necessary.  Music for him seems to reflect an unchanging state of mind.
>This may work for Chinese music (I don't know whether I've actually
>heard the real thing), but not for most listeners in the West.

Let's suppose for the sake of discussion that all of this is true.
How much do most listeners in the West know about any kind of Asian
music or, for that matter, anything in depth about any of the ancient
and continuing Asian civilizations in general?  I consider myself
interested in these matters on a much more than average level, but just
about everything I know I have had to find out by myself.  So I am a
long way from caring what "most" Western listeners think about Asian
music.

There are Western pieces of music that are inspired by Asian aesthetics,
such as Rochberg's Slow Fires of Autumn or Cages Sonatas and Interludes
that I find both meditative and exciting; they could be said to "reflect
an unchanging state of mind" but this does not count against them as I
hear them.  What is true is that the listener needs to be disposed to
slow down his/her sense of time (required also to appreciate, say, Robert
Wilson's Civil Wars in the theatre).  That can be profoundly restful or
restorative.

A recent personal note: I returned a week ago from a very fast-paced
and event packed visit to six Chinese cities, including Xian, the ancient
capital, where I enjoyed hearing the p'i-p'a, along with a number of
rarely performed ancient instruments, and also including Beijing, where
I spent an entire day in two garden parks, and much of that sitting still
in two spots, quieting my mind prior to meeting a tour group the next
day.  Those two spots including one sitting in a tea shop terrace on a
hill in view only of five pagodas, wooded hills and flying swallows, are
perhaps what I will remember longest and most satisfyingly about that
whole fantastic trip.

Jim Tobin

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