We know what whole notes look like, and we can recognize the curly fanciness of the treble clef and the flags on eighth notes. But the question on the minds of so many music lovers as they exuded excitement over Ravinia’s Chicago premiere of Tan Dun’s Water Passion last week was just exactly how the exotic sounds created by the chorus are expressed in the score so that the piece can be performed by different ensembles in different venues around the world.
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).