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Review by Brad Green:
“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in The Ballad Of East And West. Poetic and imperialistic in equal measures, the Indian-born, British-bred Nobel Laureate was as fascinated by the Orient as he could be condescending towards it, and one can only wonder what he might have made of the music of Tan Dun. Following the enormous success of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the acclaimed composer has once again been enticed to score an Asian screen epic, and the resulting soundtrack embodies a musical characteristic for which Dun has become renown: creating something new from Eastern influences and Western influences when the twain do meet.

In the postmodern environment, which embraces “world music” as part of multiculturalism, it has of course become fashionable to dab an ethnic tint on many a film score. Any excuse of setting, plot or character will do. No bad thing, but as routine as the exercise has become, an authentic fusion is rarely achieved. Instead we get the generic, Hollywood Symphonic sound with a token shakuhachi, erhu or paigu drum swimming in the mix like insoluble globules in an emulsion. At best such soundtracks can be user-friendly introductions to exotic tonalities, at worst they hint at a patronising undercurrent. The White Musician’s Burden.

Dun of course comes to things from the reverse perspective, and his cross-cultural explorations are fresh and convincing because they use contrasts as balance. Occident and Orient, Hero and Heroine, Good and Evil. The profound harmony of Yin and Yang, manifested here in a dialogue between one of the world’s most famous violins and an old fiddle from Beijing re-strung with silk. For Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Dun enlisted the services of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and for this project he again teamed with a celebrity string player, the Jewish American violinist Itzhak Perlman. Perlman’s tone, precision and musical sensibility are nonpareil, but he also offers a fringe benefit -- the Soil Stradivari, which was made in 1714 and which Perlman acquired from Yehudi Menuhin in 1986.

We might be forgiven for imagining that this treasured instrument under the bow of its virtuoso owner might be enough to carry any score. Dun, however, had Perlman shift between the Stradivari and a violin strung with silk to simulate the timbres of historical Chinese instruments.

The score is woven tightly around a single motif, Oriental in flavour but with a Western lyricism and a basic three-note resolution that renders it accessible to any ear. When Perlman plays the theme on his own instrument it glows with romance and intimacy, when he bows across the silk the same motif evokes the boundless lands and heroic ideals of ancient China. The film’s narrative is rooted firmly in the landscape of Oriental mythology and makes no essential demand for anything beyond the musical traditions of Dun’s homeland. Thus the violins converse, not fighting each other but offering the two elements of the one dialogue. As Kipling’s poem continues, “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/When two strong men stand face to face.”

Beneath the violins Dun lays out a rugged groundwork. Sonic tactility always maintains primacy with his compositions, and while the string lines haunt us, the Kodo Drummers of Japan beat out the rhythms of the warrior creed on their resonant kaito drums and a powerful chorus intensifies the drama. Again, there is balance with these voices. Mostly they are deep male chants, earthy and unsweetened; but at one point an angelic soprano drifts through the musical ambience, as ethereal as the chorus is corporeal. 

The soundtrack will inevitably be compared with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, particularly as the ubiquitous violin theme is somewhat reminiscent of the former’s cello motif. But the textural nuances are the distinguishing features and the most important aspect of each work. On its own, Dun’s melody takes us to the realm of Chinese legend, and it is Perlman’s Western sense of romanticism that augments it with a universal aesthetic. This inverts the common approach of furnishing a score with relevant sonic decor. Every culture has at its core a purity of aesthetic that transcends the compass points; and this music with its elements in perfect balance journeys to that centre. A wonderous place that even Kipling had some inkling of as he observed in Gypsy Trails, “The junk-sails lift through the houseless drift./And the east and west are one.”

Published December 18, 2003

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ID: 399700 107340
SCORE: Tan Dun
FEATURED PERFORMERS: Itzhak Perlman (violin solos); Kodo Drummers of Japan; China Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus; Tan Dun (additional violin solos)

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