Tan Dun’s Water Passion after St. Matthew

Globalization is one of the most controversial issues to be debated in the humanities and social sciences today. Whether seen as a set of cultural processes or economic complexes, this phenomenon is considered by many theorists to be characterized chiefly by sustained and regular exchanges that forge interdependencies and a sense of interconnectivity on a worldwide scale, resulting in or contributing to the development of a global consciousness. Globalization emphasizes difference, promotes pluralism, and increases diversity through the accelerating circulation of a multiplicity of cultural practices. This literal revolution is intensified by the mass movement of peoples (voluntary or involuntary) and the creation of diasporas, as well as the transcultural consumption of artistic practices and commodities. 

Thus translates the development of the arts and music in specific in a global society according D.R.M. Irving, but what is the reality of such a practice when the fundamental origins can be traced back to the origin of mankind and his environment itself?

In the 1990s, Tan Dun began working on a series of orchestral pieces that would analyze the relationship between performer and audience by synthesizing Western classical music and Chinese traditional music. Tan Dun describes his music to the extend that:

If we look at the idea of ‘art music’ with its firm separation of performer and audience, we see that its history is comparatively short. Yet the history of music as an integral part of spiritual life, as ritual, as partnership in enjoyment and spirit, is as old as humanity itself.

A vast amount of Tan Dun’s works call for instruments made of materials such as paper, stone, or water, but the compositions that he classifies as “organic music” feature these instruments most prominently. The first major work for organic instruments was his Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra(1998), dedicated to Toru Takemitsu. According to the composer, the sounds made by the soloist are inspired by the sounds of everyday life growing up in the province of Hunan. Basins are filled with water, and the contents are manipulated with bowls, bottles, hands, and other devices. Other water instruments used include the waterphone. Various means of amplification are used, including “contact microphones” on the basins.

The techniques devised in the Water Concerto also used in the in Water Passion After St. Matthew (2000), were used to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, the work for chorus, orchestra, and water percussion follows the Gospel of Matthew, beginning with Christ’s baptism. The chorus doubles on tingsha, and the soprano and bass soloists double on xun. The score also requires Mongolian overtone singing from the soloists. As with Orchestral Theatre I: O, members of the orchestra play their instruments with techniques borrowed from non-Western traditions.

In 2003 the NRC Handelsblad, a dutch news paper commented the following:

What Tan Dun composes is “world music”, music that brings together everything that you had always wanted to hear. The composer Tan Dun is therefore a citizen of the world, a man who can blend all styles

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