• Tan Dun
  • Ghost Opera (1994)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)

Performance restrictions apply; specialized percussion on rental

  • 2 vn, va, vc (quartet plays percussion)
  • Pipa
  • 41 min

Programme Note

Ghost Opera is a five-movement work for string quartet and pipa with water, metal, stones, and paper. The composer describes this work as a reflection on human spirituality, which is too often buried in the bombardment of urban culture and the rapid advances of technology. It is a cross-temporal, cross-cultural, and cross-media dialogue that touches on the past, present, future, and the eternal; employs elements from Chinese, Tibetan, English, and American cultures; and combines performance traditions of the European classical concert, Chinese shadow puppet theater, visual art installations, folk music, dramatic theater, and shamanistic ritual.

In composing Ghost Opera, Tan was inspired by childhood memories of the shamanistic "ghost operas" of Chinese peasant culture. In this tradition, which is over 4,000 years old, humans and spirits of the future, the past, and nature communicate with each other. Tan's Ghost Opera embraces this tradition, calling on the spirits of Bach (in the form of a quotation from the Prelude in C-sharp minor from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier), Shakespeare (a brief excerpt from The Tempest), ancient folk traditions, and earth/nature (represented by the Chinese folk song "Little Cabbage"). The Bach excerpt acts, the composer says, as "a seed from which grows a new counterpoint of different ages, different sound worlds, and different cultures." In the final movement, the gradual transformation of the counterpoint brings the spirits of Bach and Shakespeare, the civilized world, and the rational mind, "this insubstantial pageant," into the eternal earth. The installation employs paper, shadow, and water gong basins placed around the performing space. The performers' movements among the different positions reflect the back-and-forth movement between different time frames and spiritual realms that is characteristic of the "ghost opera" tradition.

Composer note:

My whole village was crazy. We had a professional crying team available for hire at funerals and deaths...a shamanistic choir to set the mournful tone. In Hunan, where I grew up, people believed they would be rewarded after death for their sufferings. Death was the "white happiness," and musical rituals launched the spirit into the territory of the new life. Instruments were improvised: pots and pans, kitchen tools, and bells. The celebration of the remote was grounded in everyday life.

The tradition of the "ghost opera" is thousands of years old. The performer of "ghost opera" has a dialogue with his past and future life — a dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature.

It is really beautiful to see Ghost Opera performed. A great glass bowl is set on a pillar and lit from beneath, creating fantastic reflections. In the first movement "Bach, Monks, and Shakespeare Meet in Water," the violinist draws a bow across a gong in the water and plays the water with his hand, the other strings play Bach, you hear the exhalations of a ghostly monk, and Wu Man plucks the pipa. The sound of a folk song mingles with the Bach.

The second movement "Earth Dance" begins with the sound of distant plucking and ends with Bach, melting into the natural elements and becoming part of them. The monk exhales and conducts, but there's no sound. He conducts a silence.

In the third movement "Dialogue with 'Little Cabbage'," the folk song starts on the pipa, travels to the violin, and the Bach and the folk song are layered together. They fit together perfectly — two entirely different ages — and together they become something totally different.

In the fourth movement "Metal and Stone," the quartet plays all sorts of cymbals and stones, striking them against each other, holding them to their mouths and cupping their hands to vary the tone: a stone trio. Then the violins imitate the stones and the gongs, and all is transformed into the string quartet.

A gong marks the transition to the fifth movement, "Song of Paper." The "little girl" (Wu Man) holds tiny bells and sings the lament of the "little cabbage" — a little girl who has lost her parents. Such an odd, sad song. It's the essence of ghostliness. You can talk to the past, the stone can talk to the violin, and the cabbage can sing of her sorrowful life. A violinist recites the last text, and a huge paper installation drops and is played. Bach returns and is broken into pieces, mingling with the water gongs, sinking under the water, and disappearing.

— Tan Dun


Ghost Opera