• Tan Dun
  • Yi°: Concerto for Orchestra (2002)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)
  • 2(pic).2.1+bcl.1+cbn/2220/4perc/pf.hp/str (min 8.6.6.6.3)
  • 23 min

Programme Note

Balance and counterpoint are two of the most important things to me in writing music — not only from note-to-note in a single style and tempo but also in a much broader sense. Through the Yi-Ching (the Chinese philosophical work Book of Changes, 5th century BC), I grew interested in the balance between that which already exists and that which has not yet come to be. I learned that ways of balancing the existing and the potential are truly unlimited. This idea enlarged my understanding of counterpoint. I began to think that it could include not only the relationship of notes but of styles, tempos, timbres, dynamics, structures — including, even from different time periods and through the converging worlds of East and West.

— Tan Dun

This aesthetic premise guided Tan Dun in the composition of Yi0 (pronounced “zero”), the ur-piece upon which he subsequently built his “Yi” series of three concertos: Intercourse of Fire and Water: Yi1 for Cello and Orchestra; Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra: Yi2; and Yi3 for Cello, Bianzhong (ancient Chinese bronze bells), and Orchestra (see More Info tab for links). An independent orchestral “concerto,” Yi0 underpins and unites the “Yi” series by weaving the soloists’ distinctive music into its own structure in various ways.

An abstract, 23-minute work, Yi0 is characteristic of the avant-garde compositions that built Tan Dun’s career. When adventurous American concertgoers first encountered Tan Dun’s music, it was frequently labeled “a shock from the primitive silence.” For Tan’s music was radically different in sound from the minimalism or neo-Romanticism that had gained favor amongst many listeners: Its compositional elements were reordered into priorities astonishing to Western ears. Tan Dun wove melodies into complex patterns like aural calligraphy, and assigned paramount importance to the attack, decay, and subtle microtonal shadings and bendings of pitches, rather than to functional harmony or a prominent metric pulse. Silence, transparent textures, and the evocation of nature were hallmarks of his episodic scores, as well as mysterious, ritualistic chanting, dramatic climaxes terrifying in their intensity, gestures borrowed from Peking Opera, and the whimsical repetition of short melodic patterns. Kaleidoscopically changing tone colors reigned supreme, and everyday sounds—like the exhaling of breath, tearing of paper, and clacking of stones—seemed startlingly poetic. Most significant, however, was Tan Dun's desire that his music express “the deep singing of the soul and the longings of the human spirit.”

The essence of Yi0 is how it functions within the Yi series. Because one of Tan’s key compositional concerns is to find a “balance” between the old and new, he creates each of the Yi concertos by superimposing an independent work for a solo instrument onto Yi0. The “orchestral concerto” Yi0 therefore is “that which already exists”; the instrumental solo lines are the potential to be discovered. Nevertheless, Tan does not mix the soloist’s and the orchestra’s musical materials haphazardly; he carefully seeks to discover connections or similarities between their elements and then weaves them together into a new entity. Furthermore, each of the soloist’s lines in this cycle is unique in conception and style; they do not function as commentary on one another in any way, nor do they play off the underlying Yi0. Consequently, each of the Yi concertos is distinctive in sound and mood. Tan’s goal in this cycle is simply to discover the two works—Yi0 and the superimposed solo piece—as “one.”

The use of counterpoint in its myriad forms, another of Tan’s interests, can be seen clearly in Yi0’s juxtaposition of the old and new: its use of musical fragments from Tan’s opera Marco Polo and his early chamber works Eight Colors for String Quartet, In Distance, and Silk Road, composed shortly after he moved to New York City from China. Use of these excerpts also symbolizes for Tan his own musical “journey,” a potent metaphor for him as well as the leitmotif of Marco Polo.

— Mary Lou Humphrey

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