MAGELLAN STRING QUARTET
I first met the young Chinese composer Tan Dun in 1986, while he was pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University under the tutelage of Mario Davidovsky and Chou Wen-chung. He'd emigrated because he found the Chinese cultural bureaucracy stifling, but he'd brought with him part of his native Hunan village: in his studio, he showed me a collection of ceramic bells, chimes, drums, and flutes used in peasant ceremonies like weddings and funerals. These instruments have a hollow sound that's earthy and at the same time ethereal, quite distinct from that of their Western counterparts; their modalities, juxtaposed with or layered over passages written with the European chromatic scale, give Tan's protean and imaginative hybrid of East and West its vigor. After spending the late 80s performing at New York venues like La MaMa E.T.C. and the Knitting Factory--he once scored a dance piece entirely with sounds made by paper being torn, crumpled, even rolled into flutelike tubes and blown through--Tan went uptown, signing with Sony Classical in the mid-90s. But a bigger market means more pressure to write accessible music, and perhaps as a result Tan's Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), a monumental hurrah marking the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, takes after Beethoven's Ninth, and its touches of chinoiserie belie Tan's usual commitment to the reinvention of his homeland's musical traditions. Fortunately, 1988's Eight Colors for String Quartet, given its local premiere this weekend by the Magellan String Quartet, displays his cross-cultural fusion in all its peculiar splendor. Though it's written for standard Western string instruments, the piece, a series of vividly theatrical vignettes, employs techniques and timbres borrowed from the Peking opera--the high, nasal tone used by its singers, for instance, and a bowing style that produces an off-key, quavery wail. Tan also requires the strings to imitate a gong, a sona (Chinese oboe), and even the chanting of Buddhist monks. The Magellan foursome is based at the Juilliard School, and this year won a Naumburg prize. The program also includes Beethoven's Quartet no. 6 and Schumann's Quartet no. 3. Friday, 8 PM, Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. TED SHEN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J. Henry Fair.