by Dan Goldwasser
World-class composer Tan Dun might be better known for his original symphonies and operas, but he has been known to branch into other mediums. In 1998, he scored the Denzel Washington thriller Fallen, and now he is responsible for the moving score to the epic film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with Tan during a recent visit to Los Angeles.
It's probably an understatement to say that there is a lot of buzz surrounding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Your score seems to be comprised of three different styles: full orchestral, minimal instrumental, and percussion. What prompted you to take that route?
This film, which is a collaboration between Ang Lee, Yo Yo Ma and myself, was based on friendship. We've been for friends for over ten years in New York, and once Ang finished The Ice Storm, we began talking about working together. Ang asked me if I wanted to do something Chinese, which is different from much of my work. He said that we should look at Martial Arts - but from a different angle. We should look at Martial Arts as the traditional art in China - not the fatal, bloody, violent impression that Hong Kong films have given a Western audience. We would look at it philosophically, culturally, and with a human touch. I found that to be very interesting. So once he picked the script, I had to find something that could bridge both high and low cultures between the action and the romance. And musically who would be the perfect bridge? Yo Yo Ma! He has bridged the East and West, and is able to play all sorts of world music, from Turkish to Chinese. Also, his music goes between low and high cultures, and between romantic and action music. So that's how we bridged these three orchestral styles together.
So Yo Yo Ma was the glue?
Yes! He was not only the physical glue, but also the spiritual glue. After all, the three of us not only worked on this as a business, but as collaboration between friends. Four years ago we started working on the concept of the mysterious hidden dragon, with the love story, and the percussive martial arts philosophy. Those three things were conceptualized four years ago. Of course, there's the long process of preparation, and the musical concept was not just a score written at the end, but also during pre-production it was useful in helping the director shoot the film. Typically, the director will shoot a script and then during the tight post-production period, they will come up with musical ideas and see what they can develop. I really don't like that. The music can't be just attached to the picture. The musical idea, if you can set it up at the beginning of the film process, benefits the director when he's shooting the film. It helps set up the contrast between the characters, and bridge elements together. All of those things that we learned from our pre-production on Crouching Tiger helped a lot. Ang is a very musical person with a great theatrical sensibility, and Yo Yo Ma is a very unusual classical crossover artist. He can come up with interesting ideas - we were very lucky! That's the luck we gave ourselves. The process should always be like that.
People have been making comparisons between you and Crouching Tiger and John Corigliano and The Red Violin. Do you think that's a fair comparison?
The most important thing to me, if you want to compare us, is that both of us have been exercising the power of the structure, which is to have a strong experience as a classical composer. There's a track on the soundtrack album where it's a long period of percussion - but in the film it's a ten-minute long fight sequence. How can you hold this ten minute sequence, second by second? You have to form a certain power structure - not just "note by note, second by second" development. The experience that John and I have with opera and symphony allows it to weave that way. We bring that experience to the film industry. For me, composing for film is no different than composing for opera - they're both very dramatic.
I love film, and I love drama. I think that film is such a fantastic medium. I have my choice of what medium I want to work in; I'm doing a new symphony and a new opera, but I think that I can approach film music with new ideas and concepts. Look at Kurosawa. My good friend and teacher, Toru Takemitsu worked with Kurosawa and his experience in the classical field only benefited his film work. That is what I admire and what I learned from him.
I read that you took only ten days to write the score for Crouching Tiger?
Yes! But while it took ten days to write the music, I had been working on every aspect of the score for four years. To me, the phenomenon of composing, sitting down and writing at a desk, is merely putting down what you already have composed in your mind. It's just the mechanical process. It took four years to compose the score, and ten days to write it down. This is one of the big rumors about my work. People always think that I'm super-fast. But actually, they're wrong! I'm very slow in terms of pre-conceptualizing. I spend a significant period of time embracing the body of the creation - talking to the director, etc., and I get so involved in a film that I can compose without sleeping for three days! In a way, it's very fast - but it's also very slow.
You recorded the score in China, but recorded Yo Yo Ma in New York. Did that make it difficult to mix the score together?
Actually, it wasn't difficult at all. Way before the session, we planned on Yo Yo recording in Shanghai. But unfortunately, he couldn't make it due to a technical problem. When I found this out, I hadn't started orchestrating the music, so I planned on him being absent from he orchestra session. We ended up with a really good match, since we planned on recording him separately from the start.
Some people seem to think that film music is not as "pure" as classical music, and vice versa. What are your thoughts on that?
I am a composer doing both, and I don't know what other people's experiences are, but I think honestly that there is no difference. Artistically, both are extremely creative, and technically, there are normal distinctions - it's not a big deal. When you write a chamber music piece or when you write an opera - they're the same, but they're different, of course. The same goes for writing for film. All of the people involved are humans and artists, and there's a soul that you need to reach. No matter if you're doing a symphony or a film - they all have the same goal.
What can you tell me about your "World Symphony for the Millenium"?
This is very interesting, and worth mentioning. It was written for the television - commissioned by the BBC and PBS networks. 55 networks were broadcasting it for 24-hours on New Years Day. So that is my largest work, in terms of the stage. That's what I love about composing for film - normally I'm facing a stage that's small - it's an actual stage. Here it's a larger audience. My whole life is about sharing my music with an audience, and if you think about it, television and movies allow a larger audience to hear my work.
What are you working on currently?
I'm working on an opera that takes place about 4,000 years ago, about human beings discovering tea. It's a wonderful story, and I think it would adapt into a film rather easily.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opens in a limited release in New York and Los Angeles this week. It goes wide in January. The soundtrack is available from Sony Classical Records, and is highly recommended. Access the soundtrack's official website here. Also be sure to visit Tan Dun's official website.
Special thanks to Monique Ward at Chasen & Co., for setting up the interview.