In 2015, Carnegie Hall commissioned Chinese composer Tan Dun to write a new piece for National Youth Orchestra of the USA’s tour of China. With the goal of combining the ancient with the modern, Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds incorporates recordings of bird songs on Chinese traditional instruments played back on the smartphones of the musicians’ and selected audience members. Throughout the piece, the orchestra emulates the sounds of birds, the wind, and the ocean. Tan Dun's piece honors both mankind’s ancient desire to communicate with nature and the optimism for the future embodied by the players of NYO-USA
What is the secret of nature? Maybe only the wind and birds know…
When Carnegie Hall and the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America asked me to write a new piece, I immediately thought to create and share the wonder of nature and a dream of the future.
In the beginning, when human beings were first inventing music, we always looked for a way to talk to nature, to communicate with the birds and wind. Looking at ancient examples of Chinese music, there are so many compositions that imitate the sounds of nature and, specifically, birds. With this in mind, I decided to start by using six ancient Chinese instruments, the guzheng, suona, erhu, pipa, dizi, and sheng, to record bird sounds that I had composed. I formatted the recording to be playable on cellphones, turning the devices into instruments and creating a poetic forest of digital birds. The symphony orchestra is frequently expanding with the inclusion of new instruments; I thought the cellphone, carrying my digital bird sounds, might be a wonderful new instrument reflecting our life and spirit today.
It has always been a burning passion of mine to decode the countless patterns of the sounds and colors found in nature. Leonardo da Vinci once said, "In order to arrive at knowledge of the motions of birds in the air, it is first necessary to acquire knowledge of the winds, which we will prove by the motions of water." I immediately decided to take this idea of waves and water as a mirror to discover the motions of the wind and birds. In fact, the way birds fly, the way the wind blows, the way waves ripple…everything in nature has already provided me with answers. With melody, rhythm and color, I structured the sounds in a passacaglia.
A passacaglia is, to me, made of complex variations and hidden repetitions. In this piece, I play with structure, color, harmony, melody, and texture through orchestration in eight-bar patterns. Thus, the piece begins with the sounds of ancient Chinese instruments played on cellphones, creating a chorus of digital birds and moving tradition into the future.
Through nine evolving repetitions of the eight-bar patterns, the piece builds to a climax that is suddenly interrupted by the orchestra members chanting. This chanting reflects ancient myth and the beauty of nature. As it builds, it weaves finger snapping, whistling, and foot stamping into a powerful orchestral hip-hop energy. By the end, the winds, strings, brass, and percussion together cry out as one giant bird. To me, this last sound is that of the Phoenix, the dream of a future world.
— Tan Dun