Van Raat Plays Tan Dun

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DUN: 8 Memories in Watercolor. C-A-G-E (In Memory of John Cage). Film Music Sonata. Traces. The Fire. Blue Orchid / Ralph van Raat, pno / Naxos 8.570621

Tan Dun (b. 1957) is considered to be one of the finest Chinese-born composers. Ralph Van Raat is a Dutch pianist with a decided taste for unusual classical music, having already recorded Koechlin’s The Persian Hours and Frederick Rzewski’s The People United Shall Never Be Defeated. Thus this CD is a perfect match of somewhat obscure music with a superb interpreter of unusual works.

Dun’s music, like that of many modern Chinese composers, leans towards the impressionistic, combining Eastern melodic contours and harmonies with Western harmony and classical form, but in van Raat’s capable hands it also has a backbone and surprisingly dramatic moments. Of course, since all of this music was entirely new to me, I don’t know if this is entirely Dun’s conception or Dun as interpreted by van Raat, but it clearly worked for me. I was mesmerized by the delicate passages, atmospheric but not ambient or mushy, and thrilled by the sparkling and dramatic moments in the music.

One thing I can say for certain is that Dun is, to my ears, an exceptionally meticulous composer. He knows exactly what he is doing in terms of both creating his unusual themes and developing them along lines that keep the listener engaged. His music is primarily tonal, or perhaps better described as modal, since Chinese music uses many more open fourths and fifths than ours does as well as staying within a fairly narrow range of notes, although there are several moments, as for instance near the end of his fifth Memory in Watercolor, “Red Wilderness,” or at  the beginning of No. 6, “Ancient Burial,” where he will suddenly throw in an extended chord that is entirely Western. Indeed, of all the modern Chinese composers I’ve heard, Dun comes the closest to providing a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western elements in a way that sounds natural and organic rather than forced or artificial. (My only prior experience with his music was his Seven Desires for Guitar, played by the superb Sharon Isbin on a Zoho Music CD.)

Van Raat clearly enjoys this music; in No. 7, “Floating Clouds,” he even plays it with a certain rhythmic swagger bordering on a jazz pulse. Whether Dun’s intention or van Raat’s interpretation of his intention, it clearly works, adding variety to the music. In the last piece of this suite, “Sunrain,” van Raat sets up a decidedly strong ostinato rhythm, driving home Dun’s open-fourths  theme with considerable energy. These were exactly the kind of features of his playing that made me a fan of his via the first recording I heard by him, the Rzewski CD.

Dun’s C-A-G-E is, of course, dedicated to the eccentric Zen clown of music. I call him that because he himself either implied or stated this outright many times during his later career; his music was never meant to be taken seriously, it was just a way of tweaking the classical establishment by pulling musical jokes on them. (I’ve seen several interviews with Cage in which he admitted that he was “grinning like a Cheshire cat” at seeing people take his work seriously.) C-A-G-E uses a prepared piano, playing of the inside strings in such a way that they produce microtonal slides and other such sound effects, but like Cage’s own pieces that’s all they are, sound effects. None of the music is really serious and thus nothing but a musical joke is conveyed. It is, however, a musical joke that goes on a bit too long, 13 minutes to be exact, music that says nothing and goes nowhere, although van Raat gives it everything he’s got.

Dun’s Film Music Sonata recycles pieces he has written for movies. The first movement, subtitled “The Mask,” sounds the most like conventional film music, tonal and melodic, although Dun does his best to make something interesting of it, but it is in the almost violent second movement, “After Tonight,” where he explodes with almost violent figures, only pulling back on both speed and volume about two-thirds of the way through the movement. But I must be honest: I heard this music as much more of a suite than a sonata. It’s very interesting music, but it lacks a sonata’s form and structure, even when compared to other sonatas by modern composers. In the third movement, for instance, titled “Sword Dance,” Dun creates an unusual metric pattern (4 quarter notes followed by 4 eights, then two more quarters) over which he places a highly unusual theme using extended chords as its basis. Much of the music in this movement is repeated without variation, creating an hypnotic spell on the listener, though Dun doesn’t stay in these passages for very long before moving the music on. Yet even here, it’s not developed in a sonata-like fashion despite again being very interesting, and the last movement, “Only For Love,” really doesn’t sound like it’s part of the preceding work at all, being a fairly simple and innocuous pop ballad. As I say, an odd piece which, for the most part, is exceedingly interesting…but not really a sonata.

The liner notes tell us that Traces was inspired by a field trip the composer took through the mountainous lands of Guangxi, where he heard the wind whistling in three alternating pitches—A, C and D—through a gap in the bus window. Out of such wholly circumstantial accidents music often arises, and to my ears this is one of Dun’s real masterpieces. The music is “spacey” almost to extremes, with sometimes very long silences between notes, and much of it is played piano to pianississimo. It also contains, to my ears, much more modern Western harmony than the 8 Memories in Watercolor or the two inner movements of the piano sonata. It is very much an impressionistic piece, despite the sudden outbursts of repeated single notes in the middle; it has form, but not as much as the 8 Memories. I take it to be a reflection on some of the ideas that this wind-whistling inspired in Dun during that bus ride through the mountains—an aural “snapshot,” if you will, more vivid than any picture could possibly be because the experience was purely aural and not visual. And although this piece goes on for some time, over eight minutes, the listener is never once bored because Dun constantly varies the duration of the pitches as well as the underlying rhythm.

The Fire was a piece that Dun wrote for van Raat two years ago. This, too, is an excellent work, and here, too, Dun’s music sounds far more Western than Eastern. Much of the thematic material consists of a string of single notes in the right hand, 12 to 16 notes in length, using a serrated but bitonal theme that only occasionally coalesces into tonality, particularly once Dun pulls back on the almost ferocious rhythm he has set up and allows the pianist a bit of breathing room. In his notes, van Raat emphasizes the virtuosic elements required for this piece, such as “avant-garde techniques such as clusters to be played by the fist or the arm.” Yet, at the halfway mark, Dun suddenly throws in one of his pop melodies from a film score, surely an unnecessary as well as a disruptive element in so modern and complex a piece, although to be fair he quickly surrounds it with more modern harmonies and tries to make this foreign element fit in. To my ears, however, this intrusion of a pop music melody degraded the quality of the piece for about a minute or so. (I’m sorry to be so negative, but I absolutely abhor most movie and Broadway show music and have absolutely no idea why so many classical listeners, performers, and composers think it worthy of their talents to even stoop so low as to write it. If I wanted to listen to the music from the film Love Story, which I wouldn’t unless you tied me down and stopped me from putting plugs in my ears, I would do so.) Fortunately, Dun recoups his earlier form and even writes a driving ostinato figure towards the end which eventually morphs into a half-tempo coda of considerable fire and fury.

We end with an anomaly, but also a fine composition. Blue Orchid, also composed in 2020, was written as a “variation on Beethoven’s Diabelli Varations” for Rudolf Buchbinder’s “Diabelli Project.” This is quite an abstract work, slow and spatial, and to be honest it takes all the imagination you can muster to even hear a trace of Beethoven in it. As van Raat puts it in the liner notes, “it provides us with a glimpse into the universe, into nature, and into time itself,” all of which I agree with…but if it is based on the Diabelli Variations, I think even Beethoven himself would be shocked.

In toto, however, this is an excellent and fascinating album with but a few moments where Dun lost my attention as a listener. Van Raat is clearly an interesting and communicative pianist who gives his all to every project he embraces, which helps immensely in putting these pieces over.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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