The art of conducting | Tan Dun

by Jeff Schiltz
Tan Dun wearing a white shirt, talking to the camera while raising his hand

For this episode of The art of conducting, we sat down with the Chinese-born American composer and conductor Tan Dun. Considered to be a leading figure of contemporary classical music, Tan Dun brings together Western and Chinese cultural influence, a dichotomy which has been shaped his own life. In this philosophical discussion, Tan Dun discusses how he finds inspiration in nature, from his own life experiences and how this drives his music to come alive.

How do you prepare the first rehearsals when a piece is having its world premiere?

When you are producing a piece for such a long time, from a composing point of view you are not just fixing little bits here or there, but also from a conducting point of view you are composing and conducting, conducting, and composing. When you write the piece having already prepared the conducting, in fact when you are conducting you are fixing the composition itself. It's kind of a process that helps making the music come alive. And I have learnt so much from Gustav Mahler, Bernstein, and Stravinsky.

Was there any instance where you revised details of your score during the first rehearsals?

A conductor should be a good musician. For a musician, we're walking towards the simplistic. We are using a lot of complexity and a complicated skill set to make things natural and simple. When you're composing such a piece for so long, you're preserving yourself much more and when you think about a certain way of playing from a composer's point of view and from a conductor's point of view, it's different. So, when you present this piece to the orchestra, you change the order because you're no longer a composer, you are a musician. You are practically and technically connecting yourself to the spirit and turning an orchestra into something. You try to make every orchestra want to play with you and every musician enjoy playing with you which I think is also a goal of the composer and conductor.

As a conductor, it's very important to always share your ideas with your musicians and let them know «hey I'm one of you because you are playing with me, but I am also playing with you». When you are carrying out your conducting skills, you must let people feel that you are playing with them.

Is there a difference between conducting a piece like Stravinsky's «The Firebird» and your original compositions?

When you're conducting an old piece, it's a new composing process because you must create your own accent and include your natural expressions from your own language. For example, I am Chinese, and I was a Shaman in a village. Thus, I have always tailored my arts to the landscape, the fields, the mountains, and rivers back home. I have my own spiritual journey and I try to make things blend with nature and to make things simple as well as allow it to blend with my own history.

When I conducted «The Firebird» I did so much research on Stravinsky's conducting. I found that Stravinsky is very much focused on the spotting exposure and his conducting is very explosive and I find the contrast amazing. Stravinsky also said when the orchestra gets big, you often forget how important and precious solo and chamber expressions are. When the ensemble gets bigger and bigger, I always tell myself «hey, small, small» and that’s how you end up having the best sound and the best emotions.

What are the biggest challenges when there is an audience participation?

Every performance, be it for a classical orchestra or for jazz, for rock or whatever includes an audience participation. To me to make music without an audience is ridiculous. I enjoy communicating with the audience and this piece «Passacaglia» specifically wants to share a motive moment with everyone «hey, please return my city, please give my sky clean air again, please let the black air disappear, please let the birds talk» because the birds are always the translators between heaven and earth. So, when the birds are talking our society is much more peaceful. I wanted to make the «Passacaglia» as a sort of a matching piece with rhythmic guidance and harmonic guidance for the audience.

How do you prepare the very first rehearsal with an orchestra you never conducted before?

Sometimes it feels like dating, like being told that you are going to meet someone for the first time and of course you are a little nervous, I mean what if they don't like you or what if they love you so much, perhaps too much. So, a lot of things could happen. Therefore, you must prepare your musical introduction. For example, as a composer, I always like telling them about my story and how I find the sound through an interesting life story of mine. To me, life is music and music must be a life of mine. And as a composer and conductor, you always want to share how and why you are meeting and for what and of course if you communicate this well it's like dating later, all the compromise will be much more interesting.

How much do you allow your initial sound ideas to evolve through the rehearsal process?

As a conductor, I conduct so many pieces from old to new. I always think about the instrument, the orchestra and the classical music which to me is like a big river flowing from a past far away which is at your feet, and you cannot let this river dry or stop. Classical music is fascinating because it has evolved throughout the entire world and all those orchestras no matter from East or West, North or South, we are all searching for our past, beautiful past, an artistic phenomenon but are also creating our future together, a beautiful river flowing towards the ocean of galaxy. So, the musical creation needs a lot of people contributing from different languages and different cultural backgrounds. However, the same orchestration and same instrumentation becomes so diverse and meaningful and requires the artists, conductors, composers, and audience to work together as one.

Do you have a special pre-concert routine?

I love to jump on stage and have a mint candy, it’s so powerful, just a little one that gives you this «wow» effect and you can hear the orchestra tuning which generates more excitement and then the doors open, and you go on stage. This is just a fantastic moment! In that moment, I feel like I’m a shaman again, you are ritual dancing again; you are fire dancing again. And you feel like you’re about to go and make music together with everybody.