With its first note struck, Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy doesn’t merely weave harmonies; it stitches together poignant tales, sharing narratives of love and death through an artistic amalgamation of wordless music and cinematic allure. Born from the fingers of a maestro whose acclaim stretches globally, the trilogy transcends mere performance, embodying an evolution of emotion and philosophy. Every iteration of it, from its inception in 2011 to its most recent presentation at the Beijing Music Festival, held at the Poly Theater, ensnares something novel and refreshing, proving that the combination of music and martial arts can indeed share not just melodies but dreams and hopes.
A journey through three narratives of emotional profundity, Tan Dun’s trilogy is an odyssey that speaks, albeit without words. It introduces audiences to three disparate tales of love and sacrifice, each embedded deeply within their respective stories, all beautifully connected through instrumental expression and visual art. A violinist, in a cinematic tale shaped by director Zhang Yimou in “Hero” (2002), surrenders her existence for love. A cellist, portrayed in the beloved Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), relinquishes her life in pursuit of martial arts mastery. Meanwhile, a pianist from Feng Xiaogang’s “Banquet” (2006), falls victim to vengeance and longing, ultimately succumbing to death.
During the ethereal experience of the all-night Sound Visual Drama, audiences become witnesses, ensnared by the melodies and visuals, as the solo characters narrate their tales across epochs and reincarnations. Throughout the trilogy, motifs of rhythm, timbre, and melody dance in a splendid concert, echoing and conversing with one another, reminiscent of the patterned repetitions found within Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle.” And in a culminating act, Water, symbolizing life and freedom, bestows upon the three protagonists a second chance at life in the earthly realm.
It was under the glimmering lights of the Poly Theater that Tan Dun, sharing the stage with esteemed violinist Daniel Hope, cellist Nie Jiapeng, and pianist Sun Jiayi, declared, “The world needs love and music, very urgently.” This embodiment of hope and heartfelt sentiment seemed to permeate the auditorium, touching every soul present with its genuine candor.
Martial arts, as articulated by the composer, signifies a harmonic balance – between friendship and rivalry, yin and yang, nature and nurture, masculinity and femininity. It encapsulates the essence of humanity and the art of living. This intrinsic connection to human nature and the surrounding world has captivated global audiences for centuries, instilling an enthralling quality that Tan Dun has absorbed and subsequently infused into his creations.
Hope, who marked his first return to China since the onset of the pandemic with this performance, remarked, “Music is always something that connects with people of all nationalities and religions.” His first collaboration with Tan in Amsterdam bore witness to the unspoken, unparalleled language of music. Despite no prior meetings and without discussion upon a tardy arrival, the duo delved into rehearsal, letting the music speak where words could not, concluding in silent amazement at the power of unspoken, musical communication. Both artists agreed wholeheartedly: music is about dissipating boundaries and eradicating disparities, for musicians relate and share dreams, hopes, and existences through their art. It is a universal constant, tethering lives, DNAs, and narratives, beautifully entwining them in a melodious embrace.