Recognized as one of the world's foremost classical composers, Tan Dun enjoyed popular acclaim with his lush score for the martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), directed by Ang Lee. By marrying Chinese traditions with western influences, he crafted a unique dramatic underscore filled with rich tones and lilting harmonies that were a perfect complement for the film's dramatic action.
Tan Dun was born in Hunan province and raised in rural China by his grandmother. Exactly when he returned to live with his military officer father and doctor mother is subject to some controversy, with a few critics questioning the veracity of his claims. Tan claims he was nine when he moved back with his parents while his own father says he was six and already a musical prodigy, spending hours practicing the violin. Whatever the truth, the eccentricity and imaginative ability inherent in the young Tan would eventually be manifested in his compositions. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, he was forced to spend two years toiling as a rice planter. In 1976, following a boating accident that resulted in the deaths of the entire Changsha Peking Opera orchestra, he was recruited to join the troupe as a music arranger and ehru (a two-stringed lute) player. Tan's success with the group allowed him to enroll at the Central Conservatory of Beijing where he spent eight years studying music and premiered his first major composition, the symphony "Li Sao" in 1980, and his controversial orchestral pieces, "Feng Ya Song"(1983), denounced by the state as "spiritual pollution", and "On Taoism" (1985). His music was condemned because he used traditional Chinese instruments to produce contemporary sounds which, despite the prizes it brought him from outside China, distressed the state.
In 1986, Tan moved to NYC to attend Columbia University on a fellowship but he found the restrictions imposed by academia tiring. Settling in Chinatown in NYC, he became aware of avant-garde writers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Cage. Soon he was synthesizing the musical idioms of the two countries into his distinctive compositions that are noted as much for their use of incidental noise as they are for their employment of silences. Tan went on to produce several experimental pieces, like his 1989 opera "Nine Songs" which used ceramic instruments and began with a sample of his "shamanistic wailing", that made his a popular figure in Manhattan's downtown art scene. Perhaps his most outrageous creation was the dance piece "The Pink" (1993) featuring nude dancers playing instruments constructed of cardboard while Tan himself conducted in the nude.
Around the same time, Tan was crossing over into the mainstream with his "Orchestral Theatre, I-IV", a four-part series that was produced in association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and included such odd gimmicks as an audience chant and a multimedia show. Tan was the youngest recipient of the Suntory Prize Commission in 1993 and his 1996 opera "Marco Polo" (with a libretto by Paul Griffiths) received critical acclaim at its premiere in Munich. One of the most important commissions the composer received was for the 1997 ceremonies commemorating the transfer of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. Excerpts of Tan's "Symphony 1997" (a.k.a. "Heaven Earth Mankind") were played then with the full orchestral work debuting in both Hong Long and Beijing later in the year. Tan went on to collaborate with maverick theater director Peter Sellars on adapting the classic opera "The Peony Pavilion" which was produced at the 1998 Vienna Festival. His "2000 Today: A World Symphony for the New Millennium" was featured on PBS broadcast celebrating the year 2000.
While he was no stranger to film composition, having scored TV and feature documentaries, Tan made his American film debut as a composer with the jazz-influenced score for the thriller "Fallen" (1998). But it was his lush, romantic music for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", Ang Lee's visually resplendent film that married historical romance and martial arts which brought Tan near unanimous praise, particularly for the mournful cello solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The end result of over four years of collaboration, the score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was conceived for three orchestras: a traditional Chinese ensemble, a large-scale Western symphony and a small percussion group. Tan, who took only ten days to actually compose the music, has stated that his goal was to not only supplement the onscreen action, but also address the inner passions and desires of the characters. Clearly, he succeeded as many critics highlighted his contributions in their reviews, and he picked up several end-of-year prizes, including an Oscar.