Tan Dun’s creations can be unabashedly populist, radically experimental, or—most frequently—both. While his work does not neatly fit within previously-existing categories—perhaps the closest fit is opera in the broadest cultural context, Tan has created several new artistic formats, which—like opera—encompass sound, sight, narrative, and ritual. In addition to his contributions to the repertoire of opera and motion pictures scores, Tan’s new formats include: orchestral theatre, which re-contextualizes the orchestra and the concert-going experience; organic music, which explores new realms of sound through primal elements such as water, paper, and stone; and multimedia extravaganzas, which incorporate a variety of cutting-edge technologies.
Tan’s reconciliation of disparate and seemingly contradictory elements is a direct byproduct of his life’s experience. Now living amidst the 24/7 densely-populated ever-changing urban sprawl of New York City, Tan was born and raised in a rural Hunan village in the People’s Republic of China where millennia-old shamanistic cultural traditions still survived. However, Tan’s life and the life of millions of Chinese people would be irrevocably changed by the time Tan was a teenager as Mao Zedong’s astringent plan for social transformation, the Cultural Revolution, attempted to completely reinvent China. Tan was sent to plant rice alongside the local farmers in the Huangjin commune, but soon became involved in their local music scene and ironically, through his knowledge of music and instrumental resourcefulness, became the preserver of their traditions. After two years, a boat carrying a traveling Peking opera troupe capsized resulting in the death of many of the musicians, and Tan was recalled from his farming duties to serve as a fiddler and arranger for the troupe. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, China re-opened its Central Conservatory and Tan was one of only thirty selected to attend among thousands of applicants. Visiting lecturers—such as Alexander Goehr, George Crumb, Hans Werner Henze, Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, and Chou Wen-Chung—introduced Tan to a wide range of international contemporary music. Within a few years he became the first Chinese composer to win an international composition prize since the founding of the People’s Republic. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1986, where he soon immersed himself in the music of John Cage and the New York downtown avant-garde scene, Tan Dun was already famous in China. In these past two decades, Tan Dun has transcended stylistic and cultural boundaries to become one of the world’s most famous and sought-after composers.