In its review of a 2009 DVD of Tan Dun’s Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra, Musicweb International states “This could be interpreted as nonsense by the close-minded.” So be warned. If you find serious classical music in the vein of John Cage or György Ligeti to be absurd, you may find Dun’s concerto slightly disconcerting.
I beg you, stick around. John Cage influenced The Velvet Underground, Ligeti influenced Radiohead & Water Concerto is a beguiling composition which uses bowls of water as instruments. Tan Dun is an accomplished composer who won an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, and a BAFTA Award for his soundtrack to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Once you accept that glass bowls of water can be used in an orchestra for the creation of sound effects and percussion, the performance is a delight. If I am hammering at this point, it is because while the performance is lighting up Instagram at the moment, it also attracts YouTube comments such as this by CrunchyLeafVillage: “There is NO way I would have been able to sit through this without laughing”. Rager Queen says: “Is this supposed to be comedic or an actual serious orchestral performance.
The performance in the video is from 2019 & features the acclaimed London-based percussionist Beibei Wang on lead water bowls. The devices she uses to coax, bash, pour and rub to generate the different water sounds are a visual delight, but it is the music that enraptures and transports. For the concert, The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Pavel Šnajdr. Here is a beautiful composition from Tan Dun’s 2023 EP Five Souls. The piece is WE (West & East) & no bowls of water are involved:
Water Concerto was written in 1998, with a dedication to the Japanese composer and music theorist Tōru Takemitsu. Tan Dun was born in 1957 in a village in Hunan, China. According to Wikipedia, as a child Dun was fascinated by the local shaman who performed rituals that tended to be accompanied by music made with natural objects such as rocks and water.
Unfortunately, under The Cultural Revolution in China Dun could not pursue music. He was sent to work in paddy fields in Huangjin commune. Here he learned to play traditional Chinese string instruments. A ferry accident that killed members of the Peking Opera, led to Dun stepping in as a violinist. This led to his going to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1977. Tan Dun was on his way to becoming the lauded composer and conductor that he is today.
In a 2007 interview quoted by Classic FM, Dun speaks about Water Concerto. “In Hunan, water was a daily thing with our life. Every day we washed everything with the river. All the old women, they always went to river for laundry, making a beautiful sound, very rhythmic. So I transpose those memories of beautiful laundry sounds, and swimming sounds, body popping sounds, water dancing sounds, water teasing sounds, water popping sound, into my orchestrations.”
In its review of the 2009 DVD of Water Concerto, the reviewer for The Australian describes the three-movement concerto as being one of the most astonishing pieces of music that he had ever heard.
Earlier I mentioned György Ligeti (1923-2006). If you are interested in serious contemporary classical composition, take a listen to his Mysteries of the Macabre featuring Sara Hershkowitz. You might find that the inclusion of bowls of water as instruments is not that odd. Enjoy: