View from the Choir: Tan Dun's 'Water Passion'

Inside a Performance of the Composer's Bach Tribute

Tan Dun

Tan Dun conducting a performance of Water Passion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For enlargements of this and other images see the photo gallery. Hiro Ito hide caption

itoggle caption Hiro Ito
Percussionist

Percussionist David Cossin. Hiro Ito hide caption

itoggle caption Hiro Ito
Cellist

Cellist Maya Beiser with the Dessoff Choirs. Hiro Ito hide caption

itoggle caption Hiro Ito
Water Passion

Water Passion after Saint Matthew is a 2003 release on Sony Classic Music. hide caption

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Popular audiences know Chinese-born composer Tan Dun for his score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned him a Grammy and an Oscar.

His music builds a cultural bridge from East to West, and that complex integration of influences permeates the work Water Passion after Saint Matthew, which he created in honor of Johann Sebastian Bach's 250th birthday.

After a premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, two years ago, and an American debut in Oregon last summer, the Water Passion reached New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music last fall. Tan Dun employed the Dessoff Choirs — an amateur group — for the vocal work.

Jeff Lunden, an independent producer, usually reports on music and culture from an objective vantage point, as a member of the audience. But for this story he provides NPR with a true inside look. Lunden sings tenor with the Dessoff Choirs.

Performing for the noted composer presented plenty of new challenges for the singers, Lunden says. There were lip trills and overtone singing, and even more unusual sounds: growling and shouting, for example. And, Lunden recalls, "There were also passages of great beauty."

Tina Fairweather, who sings in the soprano section and had also taken part in previous performances of the Water Passion, says she admires Tan Dun's conducting technique. "He is such a clear conductor and he conveys so much feeling and emotion in his face," she says.

As the title implies, Tan Dun's treatment of the story of Christ's suffering, from Last Supper to crucifixion, is drawn from the gospel of St. Matthew, which is replete with water references. And the name Bach means "little river" in German, Tan Dun explains.

So the stage is awash in water, with 17 clear plexiglass bowls laid out in the form of a cross. Three percussionists "play" the water with a variety of homemade instruments.

Among them is David Cossin, who has performed the Water Passion since Stuttgart. "The main instrument is the water and there's everything from just dripping sounds, to playing the actual water with your hands in different ways," he says.

To achieve a variety of sounds, Cossin strikes a variety of common objects resting or floating in the water — cups, bowls, even PVC pipe.

Tan Dun's score combines a variety of eclectic musical styles, from chanting Tibetan monks to electronic synthesizers to — naturally — allusions to Bach's own work. He says he wanted to write a passion for contemporary times, to create a synthesis of world music.

"This version of gospel story is a reflection of what's culture today," he says. "And most important in our culture today is something must be shareable."

Future performances of Tan Dun's Water Passion after Saint Matthew are being scheduled around the world.

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