Passion sends shivers of disgust and ecstasy
EXTRAVAGANTLY MINIMAL Tan Dun''s Water Passion at BAM. What was I, an upstanding citizen (heck, the king) of my own, very gay universe doing in the middle of Brooklyn listening to a reenactment of Jesus Christ’s bloody crucifixion at Christmastime? Even worse, what was a Chinese, Communist Revolution-surviving, Academy Award-winning composer (Best Original Score: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)—and Buddhist!—doing creating a two hour-long musical composition (for lack of a more nuanced word) about Christ’s death and resurrection? These are the kinds of questions that wrapped their way around the synapses of my mind while listening to the exquisite Water Passion After St. Matthew by Tan Dun, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last weekend. An answer became clear. The last 10 minutes of Tan Dun’s piece is an exceptional and extraordinary sweep of pure peace and joy. A soprano, bass, cellist with hair as long as her bow, a tightly wound violinist, three percussionists, and a 200 voice choir come together to create something truly greater than the individual components. In front of it all, conducting and dictating the extravagantly minimal and sweetly maximal sounds, stood Tan Dun. The musicians were divided into four quadrants, two rows of large, clear bowls of water illuminated from beneath intersected them. Three of the bowls were “played” as instruments by the percussionists. The scene was odd, East-meets-West, and New Age-y, and it was all a part of this Passion cycle. Tan Dun’s music passed through the gospel according to St. Matthew, the baptism of John the Baptist, prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, the crucifixion, and finally resurrection on it’s way to a redemptive conclusion. Have I told you what it sounded like? I don’t think I can. It was so original, so different. Tan Dun used so many instruments I’d never seen or heard of before. He had the singers sing in so many different voices—from Peking Opera to Hollywood shrill to Tom Waits drawl. I can tell you what it looked like. The scene resembled a typical B.A.M., multi-media performance event. Props, lighting, special effects, and carefully controlled movement of the singers and choir. The one percussionist, who was apparently the lead, was so handsome and boyish, so eager to gong on his water drums and shake his body. The longhaired cellist who squirmed ecstatically sent her own special energy through the room. In between the mystical, hypnotic performance—I worried about god. The Christian god being sung about has been little more than grief to me. The havoc his believers have wrecked around the world is visible everyday on TV, the street, in my mind. There isn’t a corner of this earth where “god” hasn’t caused pain and suffering. For these reasons I did not want to enjoy a musical event that honored “him”. I almost forced myself to not like the show.