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CLASSICAL  June 2005

CLASSICAL June 2005

Subject:

Re: Rouse & Dun Guitar Concerti

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 12 Jun 2005 21:25:15 -0500

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James Tobin, as usual, makes some very thoughtful comments in his reply
to me:

>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.

Touche!  However, notice how little of those notes actually says something
specific about the music.  You could write reams of Schlueren's stuff
without having listened to the pieces at all.  Most of the Tan Dun notes
make almost no sense, even with the liberties I feel Schlueren takes
with the concept of "helpful information for the listener."

>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."

Wasn't that a great line?

>>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.

Different strokes.  To me, it's mostly a flat wash o' sound.  The opening
was the only thing that I found remotely interesting or even memorable.
But, as you say, it's probably the least important piece of rhetoric in
the concerto.

>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 too enjoyed the score to CT/HD. In fact, that's what made me invest
time in Dun's music in the first place.  I wonder, however, whether my
enthusiasm was helped along by the stunning screen images.

>>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.

I was an East Asian studies major in college.  So I know a little bit,
though admittedly not all that much.  On the other hand, I am a Westerner.
I can't get around that.  The Dun piece may work fine for those more
steeped than me in Chinese civilization.  However, isn't this a limitation
of the piece and a kind of special pleading?  Chinese music lovers
appreciate major Western composers, after all.  I judge Tan Dun not
in the context of Chinese music, but of Modern and Contemporary music.
I have to compare him to Boulez, Webern, Messiaen, even Takemitsu.  I
simply don't find him as interesting or as memorable as any of those
writers.

>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.

I can deal with a slow unfolding of time.  I went through minimalism and
Morton Feldman, after all.  But, as I wrote in the review, one needs a
sense of, if not transformation, at least progression.  The problem with
what I have (unfairly) taken as Dun's aesthetic is that everything is
equally interesting; therefore nothing is particularly interesting.  I
too like Western pieces inspired by Pacific Rim aesthetics and pieces
by Asian composers that take native traditions and give them, like Tan
Dun, to Western musicians.  But Tan Dun's guitar concerto is a particular
case -- which, I admit, I find emblematic of his career in general --
one I don't care for.  After all, saying that I like Minimalism doesn't
obligate me to like Philip Glass, or to dislike a particular work by
him.  I can think of many living composers other than Tan Dun I'd rather
listen to.  In fact, I don't really understand why he gets commissions.
Not that this should bother anyone: for years Brahms affected me in
similar ways.  I finally learned to listen to Brahms in a way that makes
the music's worth palpable to me.  It may yet be the case with Tan Dun.

But I don't count on it.

Steve Schwartz

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