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Tuning in to Beijing's charms

Composer reveals how the sights and sounds of the capital's Central Axis inspired a new piece, Chen Nan reports.

By Chen Nan | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-04-09 08:11
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Conductor and composer Tan Dun takes the baton at a rehearsal with 17-year-old violinist Susan Tang and the Beijing Symphony Orchestra at the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing on Saturday afternoon. [Photo by JIANG DONG/CHINA DAILY]

In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first orchestra from the United States to perform in China since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Tan Dun, then a teenager living in the countryside of Hunan province, heard broadcasts of these historic concerts — his first time listening to any orchestra — which changed his life.

Enchanted, Tan decided to pursue his new-found passion for classical music. Before that, he mostly listened to folk songs from his hometown in Changsha. He also learned to play traditional Chinese musical instruments as a child and joined a local ensemble that performed at funerals and weddings.

In 1977, Tan's dream of learning classical music was fulfilled when he left his hometown and came to Beijing to study composition and conducting at the Central Conservatory of Music. This allowed him not only to be exposed to Western classical music, but also to explore the city, Beijing, which was totally new to him.

"It seemed like coming to a new world," recalls the 66-year-old, who won an Oscar for best original score, which he wrote for Ang Lee's movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000. Tan was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2013.

He enjoyed riding a bicycle, wandering through hutong neighborhoods, where people went about their daily lives.

"There were trees, small shops and gray-walled courtyards in those narrow hutong that offered me a great sense of the local community and the unique Beijing culture," he recalls.

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