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Tan Dun's Cultural Evolution

Composer Tan Dun grew up in Mao's China. As a boy, he saw his parents sent away for so-called "re-education." He remembers being a wild child, living alone, running up mountains barefoot — and being "intoxicated only by music."

He was 20 when he first heard Bach, whose music Tan Dun says was a "spiritual medicine" on the heels of the Cultural Revolution.

"You are standing on the ruins. Everything's been destroyed. Family's been destroyed, culture [has] been destroyed. And nobody [was] allowed to touch anything Western or ancient. And suddenly you heard Bach. It's like a medicine curing everything you were suffering."

Tan Dun says his own Water Passion is an answer to Bach's St. Matthew Passion — "the water representing the tears, the resurrection, the circling, incarnation."

Drawing from China's shamans, Tan Dun often turns to what he calls organic instruments: a pair of stones, bamboo, a leaf. Or in the case of Water Passion, cups of water dipped into a basin.

Organic sounds also turn up in his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a concerto he wrote for Yo-Yo Ma.

Features in this series are produced by David Schulman and NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schulman