Ripple, Affect: Tan Dun’s "Water Passion"

Water Passion

By Thomas May

In 2013 Tan Dun traveled to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig to conduct his Water Passion in the very space where J.S. Bach had introduced the Saint Matthew Passion nearly three centuries ago (most likely in 1727). The gesture underlined the kind of cross-cultural counterpoint that lies at the heart of the Chinese composer’s oratorio. The full title reads Water Passion after Saint Matthew, yet Tan also models his work on his reading of Bach’s monumental precedent; it might even be titled Water Passion after Saint Matthew after Bach—the second “after” being taken simultaneously in its dual senses of “according to” and “post-dating” (for a contemporary world).

The result is a fusion of musical techniques and expressive devices from Asian culture—not limited to Tan’s native China—with several features from the Baroque genius’s choral masterwork. This fusion is immediately evident even before the first sounds resonate: Tan’s instrumental ensemble, configured around 17 transparent, illuminated water-filled basins arranged in a cross, is markedly focused on percussion and calls for only two string soloists. There is additionally a fusion of Buddhist and Christian outlooks, mixing inspiration from the composer’s memories of Mao’s Cultural Revolution with a poet’s reverence for nature, and a theatrical savvy that combines echoes of timeless ritual with avant-garde experimentation. Tan’s philosophical and aesthetic interests, for example his embrace of the ancient art of calligraphy, add a further gloss to the drama of his Passion.

All of which is to say that Tan’s Water Passion represents something a good deal more intricate and textured than “East meets West.” His oratorio stands as a one-of-a-kind creation shaped both by the composer’s unique experience as an expatriate of China and by his singular understanding of Bach and the Passion tradition.

Bach’s entire legacy—indeed many of the basics of Western traditions—remained unknown to Tan until his 20s. The opportunity to study music at all had been severely restricted during his youth in the southern Chinese province of Hunan (where Tan was born in 1957). The brutal policies of the Cultural Revolution packed him off to an agricultural commune, where he worked in rice fields and could be safeguarded from the perils of decadent Western culture. Tan was among the first students to be admitted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing when it reopened in 1977, offering his first serious exposure to modern Western music. In 1986 he began graduate studies at Columbia University and resettled in New York, which remains his home. A string of noteworthy triumphs made him a key member of the new wave of Chinese composers, several of whom— Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, and Chen Yi, along with Tan—have garnered some of the world’s most prestigious musical honors.

But during his years in the provinces of China, Tan gathered up a fertile store of inspiration from the ancient and enduring folk traditions. The lack of access to basic musical resources during the Cultural Revolution only sharpened his ingenuity in using improvised alternatives— including, at one point, an orchestra of pots and pans. These experiences helped mold Tan’s signature use of “organic” musical sources and sounds in not only the Water Passion but also the Water Concerto (written just before the Water Passion), Earth Concerto for stone and ceramic percussion, and Paper Concerto for paper percussion. A related trait is Tan’s fascination with shamanistic rituals and spirituality. (At several points in the Water Passion score he includes the indication “shamanistically.”) An early example is his Ghost Opera for strings and pipa (written for the Kronos Quartet in 1994), which incorporates the sounds of water, metal, paper, and stones to enhance its narrative. Here, too, Tan evokes the spirit of the West via Bach, using a quotation from the Well-Tempered Clavier as a significant motif. For Ghost Opera he also drew on his memories of peasant funeral observances in which, Tan wrote, “musical rituals launched the spirit into the territory of the new life” while also entailing “a dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature.” It’s not surprising, then, that the invitation to compose a new musical account of the Passion story would inspire a similar network of associations for Tan. According to the composer, from an interview about the Water Passion’s world premiere in Stuttgart in 2000, “When I read the account of the Passion in the Bible, I heard the wind, the sound of the desert. I always felt the desert heat and heard the stones and the water. So I shaped the story through those sounds, giving the element of water an important theme. Not only does it stand for baptism, but also for renewal and rebirth. It is cyclical. Water evaporates, becomes clouds, rains to the earth, and evaporates again. The sound of water is in my composition like a passacaglia theme—it is always present.”

The occasion that led to the Water Passion’s commission was the worldwide observance of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, coincidentally the beginning of a new millennium. The esteemed Bach conductor and scholar Helmuth Rilling decided to mark the anniversary by encouraging a dialogue between Bach’s legacy and the perspectives of four contemporary composers from different cultural backgrounds— the German Wolfgang Rihm, Russian Sofia Gubaidulina, Argentine Osvaldo Golijov, and Tan Dun—each commissioned for a new Passion after one of the four Evangelists (Luke, John, Mark, and Matthew, respectively). [Golijov’s Passion has already found its way to Ravinia, receiving its Chicago premiere at the festival in 2002.]

Another influence on the Water Passion is the prominent Japanese composer Tōru Takemitsu, one of Tan’s former teachers, from whom he learned to cultivate the deeper, symbolic resonances of nature’s sounds and the silences that shape them—such moments of silence interlace the score. The use of amplification, found sounds, and digital processing provides still another level of counterpoint with the natural acoustics in Water Passion.

Takemitsu also furnished Tan with an inspiring model for the visual possibilities of music. In 2000 the Taiwanese-American film director Ang Lee created Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which became a phenomenal international success. A fresh take on the martial arts genre known as wuxia, the film is set in Qing Dynasty China and combines an adventure quest—featuring thrillingly choreographed action sequences—with ill-fated love stories. Tan produced over 90 minutes of music for the film, and his score (which garnered Academy and Grammy Awards) assumed a major presence in the narrative. Thus, along with an ear for sound’s more than decorative significance and texture, Tan cultivated a gift for combining musical and visual elements. The water bowls, waterphones, and ritualistic gestures using percussion (which the singers are also assigned) in the Water Passion are his “deeds of music made visible,” to steal a phrase from another highly theatrical composer. They might also be seen as visual embodiments of the kind of symbolism Bach laced so intricately into his scores, with their Christological divisions into three and encoded names. Water is indeed a fluid image in Tan’s Passion, transforming into tears and blood and back into “the sound of innocence.”

Embarking on his Passion setting as an outsider to the culture in which Bach was immersed, Tan remarked, “I was nervous about presenting a story that has lived in people’s hearts in another culture for thousands of years. But I was excited because it is such a powerful, dramatic, operatic story. And I thought, we are in a global village now, this very powerful story must be shared.”

“Tan Dun comes from a non-Western tradition musically,” notes Grant Gershon, director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which will be giving the Chicago premiere of Tan’s Passion at Ravinia on June 10. “He’s also bringing his own Buddhist faith. So it’s probably the most open-ended, and also a remarkably beautiful and powerful, telling of the story.” This openness of faith makes Water Passion an especially salient part of Ravinia’s season-long celebration of choral conductor Robert Shaw, who himself sought a melding of Western and Asian religion in his later years.

“Tan uses the sound and imagery of water to create a version of the Passion where redemption is seen as life-giving and life-sustaining, just as water is life-giving,” says Gershon. “He makes that palpable by using the sound of water as a musical instrument in a way that is really extraordinary. What sets the piece apart [from Bach] is that Tan Dun actually goes beyond the final suffering. Musically, he deals with the Resurrection. It’s during that final 10 minutes of transcendence that the audience again starts to hear the sound of water in all its different forms. The idea is that through the suffering of the Passion story, we are cleansed. Life is given anew through the water.” Because of his decision to centralize the imagery of water, Tan also extended the arc of the traditional Passion narrative to begin with the baptism of Jesus (the lengthy first section). So, too, he includes the scene of the temptations in the desert to explore another natural setting against the backdrop of the water theme.

To the ancient, ritual, mythical, universal connotations of the water imagery, Tan had a recent, very personal one to add. Around the time the commission arrived, his wife was pregnant, and Tan recalled, “We went to the doctor for an ultrasound, and there I could see this beautiful baby and hear the heart. Suddenly I heard this beautiful water sound, and I realized this is the sound all human beings hear first.”

Choral music frames Tan’s Passion like Bach’s, but with one key difference. The music emerges from and fades again into indistinctness, then silence. On the first page of his score, Tan wrote, “There is no beginning, no ending, only continuing,” as much a motto for the entire piece as an instruction to the chorus. “That message is quite universal,” says Gershon. “It’s the music in every case—[whether Bach’s, Tan’s, or any other composer’s]—that opens up the experience for the listener, enabling people of any faith or no faith to come and be moved by the story, by the emotions that are evoked, and by the beauty of the musical treatment.” Water Passion breaks the boundaries between indeterminacy and order, nature and religion, doctrine and spirituality, beginning and ending as it maps out what the composer has called “a musical metaphysics and drama based on the story of Jesus’s Passion according to Saint Matthew.”


Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at

Tickets for the Chicago premiere of Water Passion at Ravinia can be purchased at