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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Sharing Secrets

The other night, Tan Dun found himself facing a half-circle of 12 cellists. Nothing new about that. The composer has conducted his Secret Land (originally written for the cellists of the Berliner Philharmoniker) with at least a dozen orchestras. But this time the setting was The Juilliard School—in preparation for the piece’s New York premiere on Monday’s all-Tan Dun concert at Alice Tully Hall—and the players were all students. Unlike his Class of 1978 colleagues Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long, Tan has never held an academic position, but anyone who’s ever seen him in rehearsal knows that he loves to teach.

“What would you say is your most memorable musical experience?” Tan asked the young player directly in front of him who had just finished a solo section.

“I’d say going to the Met.”

“Ah, the Met,” said the composer of The First Emperor. “You like drama. Let’s be a little more dramatic.”

The next time through was indeed more dramatic—not just for the player in question, but for his 11 colleagues as well. A few minutes and another solo passage later, Tan singled out another player. “I didn’t know you at the beginning, but I know you now,” he told her gently. “You play well, but you are a little scared. I bet that at parties, you are not so scared.” Smiles all around, but the next time through was indeed less tentative throughout the ranks.

In the next hour, the student players learned not only Tan’s score, but also his concepts of silence within sound. (“The great cellists—Yo-Yo Ma, Wang Jian, Maya Beiser—when they play, you see both the player and the listener.”) They were also schooled on the underlying universality of music. (“Schoenberg and Indian raga are millions of years apart, but yet they are exactly the same.”)

The next stopping point in rehearsal came after two players sitting side-by-side finished a section of what Tan called “chromatic improvisation.”

“Be natural,” he advised. “Play whatever you feel and a philosophy will come.”

As the cellists began packing their instruments, the composer stepped to the side. “They’re students, so they come ready to listen, listen, listen,” he mused. “The Berlin Phil always thinks about discovery, discovery, discovery. My goal was to get the Berlin Phil to listen and the students to discover.”

Posted by Ken Smith

© 2001-2009 Carnegie Hall Corporation

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Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)