Wanted at composer Tan Dun's gig: 1,000 phones to play birdsong

Award-winning composer Tan Dun wants audiences to download recordings and play them at his gig tomorrow

Tomorrow's concert will be the fourth time composer Tan Dun (above) conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Tomorrow's concert will be the fourth time composer Tan Dun (above) conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. PHOTO: TAN DUN

Composer Tan Dun is inviting his audience to break a concert taboo: He would like them to keep their mobile phones switched on during the show.

As the Grammy Award-winning Chinese composer conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in the Esplanade Concert Hall tomorrow, he will have orchestra and audience members alike take out their phones and play recordings of "birdsong".

The smartphone gambit is part of his symphonic poem Secret Of Wind And Birds, for which he recorded six traditional Chinese music instruments, including the guzheng, suona and pipa, simulating the sounds of birds.

Tan, 59, is a world-renowned composer and conductor. He won a Grammy and an Academy Award for his score for the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Tomorrow , 7.30pm. There will be a pre-concert talk at library@esplanade at 6.30pm

    ADMISSION: $15, $28, $48, $58 and $78 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Go to www.sso.org.sg.

    To download the birdsong before the concert, Android users should go to bit.ly/2oGXCSo and save the audio file onto their phone. Use the file manager or music app to locate and play the file. For iPhone users, use the WeChat app to add Tandunwechat, which will download the audio file automatically. If the download does not start, send a message to Tandunwechat to trigger it. Once the download is complete, the audio file is stored in the WeChat app and can be played back by tapping it. Note that there is no mobile phone signal in the concert hall

He has led orchestras around the world, from The Philadelphia Orchestra to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam, and was recently named honorary chair of the Carnegie Hall China Advisory Council.

For tomorrow's concert, his fourth time conducting the SSO, he has programmed two of his own compositions, the concerto Farewell My Concubine as well as Secret Of Wind And Birds, and bookended them with two works by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Dance Suite and The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19: Suite.

Tan, who was born in rural Hunan, China, and is based in New York and Shanghai, was last in Singapore two years ago for the concert Nu Shu: The Secret Songs Of Women, about a near-extinct writing system used exclusively by women in Hunan's Jiangyong county.

He credits his time here as part of the inspiration behind Secret Of Wind And Birds, which was commissioned in 2015 by Carnegie Hall for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States.

While in Singapore, he visited an exhibition on Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci at the ArtScience Museum and was struck by the Renaissance man's words: "If you want to know how birds fly, you've got to know how the wind blows."

"I have always believed birds are translators between man and nature," he says. "They are much older than humans. They are witnesses of ancient times and, maybe, they are the future too. Who knows, when humans are all destroyed, they might still be alive."

His favourite bird is the flightless kiwi because it hails from New Zealand, the place he believes to be "closest to nature, at that end of the world where everything seems so pure".

The piece takes the form of a passacaglia, a 17th-century musical form which Tan calls a "repetition of minimalism". The use of smartphones, however, plants it firmly in the technological present.

Many regard the smartphone as a source of millennial addiction, but Tan prefers to think otherwise.

"It's like an instrument," he says. "Life is my music and my music is life, and my life and your life every day are full of interacting with the smartphone."

When more than 1,000 people in the Esplanade Concert Hall raise their smartphones in symphony, he says, it will be "a forest of birds, a digital miracle".

He will also be presenting his twist on the classic tragedy Farewell My Concubine.

In his concerto about the doomed love affair between the warlord Xiang Yu and his consort Yu, the warlord's part will be rendered by Ralph van Raat on the piano - the "king of instruments", in Tan's opinion - while Yu will be embodied by Peking opera soprano Xiao Di.

His composition was inspired by the 120th anniversary of celebrated opera artist Mei Lanfang's birth. To combine the sound of the piano with the voice of the opera soprano, he says, is "exotic and erotic".

He adds that he chose Bartok's work to open and close the concert because of the parallels he sees between the Hungarian composer, who died in 1945, and his own work.

"It's like a dialogue," he says. "Bartok made the music of his home town and countryside a major voice on the international stage and that, too, is what I am doing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline Wanted at composer Tan Dun's gig: 1,000 phones to play birdsong. Subscribe