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Tan Dun to Stage 'Organic Music' at Shaolin

Composer Tan Dun's bond with kung fu began with An Lee's movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. His score for the film won an Oscar Award, Grammy, the Classical Brit Contemporary Music Award and a British Academy Film Award.

Two years later, Tan gained acclaim for Zhang Yimou's epic tale, Hero, collaborating with violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman and the KODD Drummers of Japan.

Both soundtracks majestically support the spectacular martial arts action sequences as Tan's music adds dimension to the films.

The two blockbusters have helped to promote Chinese martial arts around the world. Now the New York-based composer is returning to Shaolin Temple, shrine of Chinese kung fu in Central China's Henan Province, to explore how to use music to interpret the balance between martial arts and Zen.

The resulting large-scale open-air night musical ceremony will premiere next October at Daixian Valley in Songshan Mountain, where the 1,510-year-old Shaolin Temple stands. After that, the show will become a regular feature for tourists to Shaolin Temple.

Ambitious project

Now Tan is working with hundreds of kung fu monks at Shaolin Temple and a team of world-acclaimed artists. His collaborators include British sound designer David Sheppard who worked with Tan on The Map; setting designer Zeng Li whose credit includes Zhang Yimou's opera Turandot at the Forbidden City and the ballet Raise the Red Lantern; lighting designer Yi Liming, and dancer Huang Doudou.

"I feel honoured to be invited by the abbot, Shi Yongxin, to create this show for the prestigious Shaolin Temple. The trip to Shaolin is a spiritual journey for me to explore the mysteries Zen and to study the rich and profound culture of Central China where the nation was rooted thousands of years ago," Tan told China Daily last Tuesday at Shaolin Temple.

"I was born in Hunan Province where Taoism is popular and my music is influenced by the folk and Taoist music of my hometown. This is my third trip to Henan, and the more I come here, the more I admire the long history and variety of its culture," he said.

"I have compsed for grand occasions such as the ceremony to mark Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997, the BBC's concert to welcome the new millennium, and I have been commissioned to create a show on August 16, 2006, when Athens will pass the Olympic torch to Beijing.

"But this Zen ceremony featuring Shaolin kung fu is very different and special. We will make it a visual and audio feast to express both the physical and spiritual essence of Zen," he said.

Eloquent as always, the composer sums up four points for this project:

"It is the first concert in the world to use the rolling stones of Songshan Mountain as instruments, the brooks here as the strings and the natural breeze as the wind instruments.

"We will use digital technology to make the valley a three dimensional room filled with visual moving music. This will cut the space of the 150-metre long, 150-metre wide and 150-metre high valley, into hundreds of cubes of different sounds. Inside the space, you will be stirred by the impact of the universe and the power of the music.

"The show will feature 1,000 kung fu monks and hundreds of musical monks. The Shaolin monks' martial arts enjoy a good reputation both at home and abroad, and many Shaolin ensembles are touring around the world. But it will be amazing to watch 1,000 monks performing at the same time. The tradition of playing music at temples is dying, so we are trying to collect as much Buddhist music and as many instruments as possible to create an ensemble of monks.

"The last and most important point is that I consider the work an education project rather than a tourism show."

Tan said his use of the latest technology could be instructive for music students.

He also hopes the project will help visitors learn true Shaolin kung fu. Every year many martial arts lovers from abroad come to Shaolin to learn kung fu. Usually they get physical training but neglect the spiritual study which is the basis of true Shaolin kung fu.

The essence of Zen is building high attainments and virtues, "so I hope the show will highlight the spiritual part," said Tan.

Organic music

Using stones and water as instruments is a continuation of Tan's concept of "organic music."

In "Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra In Memory of Toru Takemitsu" (1998), he played with a lot of water. When the piece was performed at the Beijing Music Festival in 2001, Tan drew his water from Beijing's Yuyuantan Lake, which aroused much controversy.

Last year, he performed The Map, Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra (2002) at the Beijing Music Festival. His story of an old man who inspired him to create music on stones was questioned by some people.

However, the intelligent and strong-willed musician does not care much about what others say. Although there are critics who say that he plays with paper, stones or water just for show, he never stops his explorations.

The Zen Ceremony at Shaolin Temple may be considered as Tan's second Map, because it also is a cultural-heritage protection project in which he tries to renew and pass on the tradition through technology.

In The Map, the composer recorded the endangered music of Chinese ethnic groups such as the Miao and Tujia living in Xiangxi (west of Hunan Province) and used them as inspiration to write music for cello and orchestra.

This time, Tan is collecting Buddhist music in temples including Shaolin and Beijing's Zhihua Temple, famous for its Buddhist music. He visits monks, reads documents and trains the monks to sing and play unique instruments. The purpose is to revive and protect dying Buddhist music.

But at this point, Tan told China Daily, he is not that ambitious. "I will try my best to prepare the show and hope what I do helps to revive the disappearing music. I never think how much I could achieve or how many monks I could train to sing and perform in a year."

Other concerns

To be frank, everyone knows that the local government of Henan has created the show to attract tourists. The abbot Shi acknowledges that his goal is to provide tourists more variety than just sightseeing and simple kung fu performances.

"For most tourists, three hours is long enough to see the Shaolin Temple but we want to hold them until night. An open-air show featuring a kung fu performance, music and light in an authentic environment will be a good end to a one-day tour," said producer Mei Shuaiyuan.

Last year Mei produced the open-air show, Impression of Liu Sanjie now regularly performed at Lijiang River in Guilin. He says that 100 million yuan (US$12.5 million) will be invested in the Shaolin show.

"Music is always a way of charting a personal journey. Every person has his own understanding of Zen. I am thankful to the Shaolin Temple for offering me this chance," said Tan.

(China Daily December 1, 2005)

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