Tan is based in New York City, but I managed to catch him in Stockholm (between gigs in Shanghai and Rome), where he was attending part of a weeklong Tan Dun festival. We first met in a hotel coffee lounge. It was self-service. He chose to have tea: “Tea is from the inside,” he said. “Coffee is from the outside.” Tan tends to talk like that, less like a composer than like a mystic. “One plus one makes one” is another one of his sayings, meaning — I think — that his music is not so much a fusion of East and West as an individual expression emerging from the mixture of different traditions. Speaking of his birthplace, he once said, again rather typically: “Hunan is the home of philosophy, of yin and yang, of shamanistic culture. It has good feng shui.”
The wise man is also an astute entrepreneur, however. Walking from the hotel to the Konserthus, where the Nobel Prizes are handed out, he was talking in Chinese on his cellphone. After he was done, he turned to me in a state of great excitement. “Just imagine,” he said, eyes shining with pleasure. “We’ve got permission to perform ‘The First Emperor’ on the Great Wall of China for the Beijing Olympics. We’ll have a worldwide audience of billions!” Since then, there have been some doubts raised about this project. In fact, the Chinese government may not let it happen after all, but the very idea of it shows the scale of Tan’s artistic ambition.
It has indeed been a remarkable journey from rural Hunan to the audience of billions.
Watch a solo by Placido Domingo from Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor:
And an interview with Tan Dun about the soundtrack he wrote for The Banquet: