As Beijing film fans get excited about the debut of Zhang Yimou's new film, "Hero," Tan Dun talks about the soundtrack he composed for the film and the stories behind it in a recent interview with China Daily and several other local Beijing media organizations.
As the composer of the soundtrack for Zhang Yimou's new film, "Hero," which will debut at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Saturday, Tan Dun is most nostalgic about the cross-cultural experiences he went through while creating the music.
It was like a new "Song of the Earth," Tan said, referring to Mahler's symphonic work of 1908, inspired by Chinese poems from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
Tan recalled how it all started with a visit from Zhang Yimou. "Zhang came to ask me whether I would like to compose for his movie," Tan said.
The composer said he was impressed by the heroism in the story and the strength of the four leading roles.
The composer said some embryonic tunes immediately entered his mind.
From the very beginning, Tan decided "the music should feature the flavour of northern China and the emotion the music implies is concern for its boundless land. The theme tunes are both romantic and profound."
How could these ideas be reflected in a score?
Tan first thought of Itzhak Perlman, whose violin playing is the most romantic as far as Tan is concerned.
Tan and Perlman are good friends. Perlman once told Tan that he wanted to co-operate with Tan on a Chinese work. So Perlman accepted Tan's invitation without hesitation.
Perlman had already proved he could produce touching performances for a movie soundtrack with the Oscar-winning film "Schindler's List" and his musical interpretation for "Hero" is said to be wonderful.
But the challenge for both Tan and Perlman was that Tan was trying to blend romantic Western violin music with Chinese music.
Tan specially composed music for two very different violins for Perlman. One was for the violinist's own instrument, which is worth US$6 million, while the other was for the violin that Tan brought with him from Beijing when he went to the United States 17 years ago. Tan once played it in the streets of New York.
Tan adjusted his own violin for Perlman by replacing the original strings with the silk strings used for the sanxian, a traditional Chinese three-stringed plucked instrument.
The composer said he came up with the idea of transforming his violin with silk strings because he wanted Perlman to produce the ancient sounds of the Orient described in a history book that Tan once read.
According to the book, during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), a stringed instrument called the qinxianzi produced a hoarse but high-pitched melody.
"The unheard sound produced by the lost ancient stringed instrument kept lingering in my mind and I wanted to recapture the sound because it would fit the mood of the movie," Tan said.
After several experiments, the creative composer restringed his old violin to produce the very tunes that were in his imagination.
The two violins, which Tan dubbed yin and yang, display the two contrasting themes of the soundtrack: Perlman's violin, the yin violin, symbolizes the two heroines Flying Snow (played by Maggie Cheung) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi). The restringed violin, the yang instrument, plays for the two heroes Nameless (Jet Li) and Broken Sword (Tony Leung).
With the yin violin, Perlman produces romantic and lyrical tunes, implying love and other personal emotions. With the yang violin, he plays heroic and high-pitched ancient Chinese melodies, something that imparts the desolateness of a distant desert, implying concern about the world.
Tan, who has studied traditional Chinese instruments, introduced a lot of music by the erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and sanxian into the score and he also composed a concerto for the violin and the guqin, a traditional Chinese seven-stringed plucked instrument.
In ancient China, people playing Chinese chess were usually accompanied by music on the guqin. So, in the scene "In the Chess Court," Liu Li of the China Central Conservatory of Music plays the guqin to Perlman's violin. The Chinese guqin and violin had come together in a concerto.
During recording, the classically trained Tel Aviv-born US violinist Perlman discovered he had difficulties with the score for his violin.
Tan and Perlman spent more time talking about ancient Chinese fingering skills and trying to capture the guqin's rhythm.
"Finally Perlman played exactly the music I wanted," Tan recalled.
It took Perlman four hours to record the two-minute concerto but he was moved to tears by the music. According to Tan, Perlman said that music should be personal and emotional like that.
The veteran documentary director Allan Miller also set up his camera in the studio to record the concerto. He said he considered it a perfect example of "East meets West."
Miller has shot more than 30 non-fiction musical films and was artistic supervisor for the 1980's Oscar-winning "From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China."
After recording finished, Perlman gave the recording to his youngest daughter Ariella instead of listening to it himself first, Tan later learned from Perlman.
Ariella, 17, also invited several friends of her own age to listen to the recording with her.
Unexpectedly, they all enjoyed the music and Perlman's daughter even said it was the "coolest" music her father had ever played.
Tan's music, "East meets West" encompassed a broader range of Asian music than merely Chinese because he also introduced Japanese taiko drums.
Thus, while Tan's music for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" features the contrast between Yoyo Ma's cello and ancient Chinese chime bells, "Hero" features communication between Perlman's violin and Japanese taiko drums.
Drums played an important role in the Warring States Period, in which the story of "Hero" is set. People beat the drums not merely to make music but also to wage war. Drum music is present for about 70 of the 90 minutes of music that Tan recorded.
The taiko drums were played by the Japanese drum group Kodo, whose name is Japanese for "heartbeat" or, read in a different way, "children of the drum." The group's dynamic and exhilarating performances of traditional and contemporary Japanese drumming have captivated audiences worldwide for years.
The group live and work together in a kind of commune on Sado, Japan's fifth-largest island. By sharing the rhythms of life - eating, drinking and working together - they have developed a unique rhythmical understanding as an instrumental ensemble too.
Tan said: "It was an adventure for me to visit them and record the drum part on the island."
The composer first flew from New York to Tokyo, then took the bullet train to a mainland port, where he got a ferryboat for the island. Finally, he rode a rented bicycle for three hours to get to the village.
Before discussions about the music began, Tan was invited to drink with the Kodo drummers. They told him that their home-made rice wine inspires them in their drum playing.
"I spent the first three days living with them, drinking with them and planting tobacco and crops with them without mentioning one word about music," said Tan.
On the fourth morning, Tan was taken to a huge house. As Tan pushed open the door, he was impressed by the drums of various sizes that filled the house.
"They asked me to choose which drums I would use and I knew the deal was done," Tan said.
But problems soon arose. Kodo members play according to a kind of oral rhythm so they could not figure out Tan's written score. Tan had no choice but read out the score to them.
To Tan's surprise, the Kodo members remembered the entire score and played it with no mistakes the next day. So the 70-minute drum part was successfully recorded in one day.
Besides Perlman and Kodo, the soundtrack also features the China Philharmonic Orchestra, 50 bass singers, a soprano and a guqin player.
Under the baton of Tan, the orchestra performed so wonderfully that its members said they could not believe they had played the music.
"When I gave them the sample CD to listen to, I told them it was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic. They believed it and could not recognize that the thrilling music had been recorded by themselves," Tan said.
(China Daily December 12, 2002)