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Tan Dun Brings The Stone Man to the Concert Hall

The Dresser had the good fortune to be invited by a long-time season ticket holding friend to the October 13 performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Tan Dun conducting. The program entitled “The Map of Asia” was a set of folk music inspired works rooted in Asia—Dmitri Shostakovich’s "Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes" (Kirghizstan borders on westernmost China), Alexander Borodin’s "Polovtsian Dances" from Prince Igor (Borodin’s unfinished opera centers around Russian Prince Igor’s campaign against the Asian tribe of Polovtsi), and Tan’s The Map: Concerto for Violoncello, Video, and Orchestra.


While the romantically pitched music of the Russian composers lulled the Dresser into deep reverie, the blended East-West experimentation of Chinese born Tan Dun brought the Dresser to the edge of her seat in alert excitement. The Dresser has to admit that she is a fan of Tan Dun whom she happened by chance to run into in the lobby of Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This moment with the composer gave her an opportunity to tell him she experienced his opera The First Emperor and express her eagerness to hear this concert. The Map concerto turns out to be the logical entry for Tan’s work.


TanDun.gifPhoto by James Salzano

In 1981 while Tan was a student at Beijing’s Central Conservatory, he went back to his home province of Hunan to collect ideas from folk musicians. He met a regionally renown, shamanistic stone man who made music by drumming on stones as told to him from conversations with such objects in nature as stones, water, and tree leaves. Tan told this folk artistic he would come back, if the man agreed, and record his music. Life intervened for Tan and when he returned, the man had died. The Map concerto done in nine movements is Tan’s tribute to the stone man and the lost art of stone drumming.

What is exciting about The Map concerto is the blending of sounds from nature with the formality of a classical concert. BSO musicians used stones to tap out intricate rhythms and kazoos to echo the leaf-blowing concert performed by young Chinese women seen in a colorful video projected above the orchestra. The BSO musicians made their instruments talk the language of a Hunan ghost dance and cry singing. Unless you see the video that Tan made and managed with a camera crew in 1991 and 2001, you would not get a full understanding of what the movement titles of The Map concerto mean. So yes, the native artists seen in Tan’s video sit with each other and cry as a way of making music. The native singers also produce music with agilely quick tongues (tongue-singing) and unusual instruments, such as a large pipe horn Tan calls a mouth organ. Tan pays tribute to his origins by ratcheting up his musical invention to include elements of these folk sounds with classical and jazz music.


The Dresser also asserts that you do not need to see the video or how the BSO musicians produced this engaging concert to enjoy Tan’s musical accomplishment. However, in this climate of falling attendance at classical music concerts—do read “The Post-Classical: No Coats, Ties or Stuffed Shirts,” the newsprint article in the Sunday (October 14, 2007) Washington Post (The Post didn’t see fit to put this article online)—new BSO director Marin Alsop is making innovative and intelligent choices that will hopefully bring in the younger generation and keep the tradition of classical music concerts alive. Now, the Dresser wonders if she invited Mr. Tan to her humble apartment, if he could find a way to make music out of the whining of cement trucks out her window by week day and the cascading rush of an ageing heating-system air handler by night.

The Dresser offers this poetic monument to Tan Dan, who has reverence for stones, human beings, life.


“There was a Stone of Losses in Jerusalem. Whoever found an object went there, and whoever lost one did the same. The finder stood and proclaimed, and the other called out the identifying marks and received it back.” —Baba Metsia 28b

I search
for what I have not lost.

For you, of course.

I would stop
if I knew how.

I would stand
at the Stone of Losses
and proclaim,

Forgive me.
I’ve troubled you for nothing.
All the identifying marks I gave you
(a white forehead,
a three-syllable name,
a neck and a scar,
color and height),
were never mine.

I swear by my life,
by this stone in the heart of Jerusalem,
I won’t do it again.
I take it all back.

Be kind to me:
I didn’t mean to mock you.

I know there are people here
—wretched, ill-fated—
who have lost their worlds
in moments of truth.

And I search
for what I have not lost,
for that—that
name, neck, scar
and forehead white as stone.

by T. Carmi
translated by Grace Schulman
Published in The Stones Remember
edited by Moshe Dor, Barbara Goldberg, Giora Leshem

Copyright © 2007 Grace Schulman


Comments (1)

Meeting Tan Dun brings us to the edge of our seat in excitement, thanks to karren Alenier

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