Justin Davidson, in the November 2, 2009
issue of New York Magazine, has an article entitled “Arise” and subtitled “How a few Chinese students from the freshman class
of ’78 changed composition.” He mentions Chen Yi, Chen Qigang, Tan Dun and Zhou Long. Remember the cold war, when any Russian
performer – no matter how mediocre – got attention far beyond that accorded to any American of the same achievements? The
romance of the “enemy” artist is a world-wide phenomenon (Russian adoration of Van Cliburn was the same, except that Cliburn,
a gigantic pianist, fully deserved to win the Tchaikovsky competition). No matter how important these Chinese composers may
be to contemporary Chinese musical culture, they are getting Western attention far beyond their compositional achievements.
Tan Dun is the most famous. Turok’s Choice, reviewing his work, finds it derivative, even imitative in a simplistic sense.
He plays the “China” hand beautifully – he has had prestigious
commissions from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. His opera, “The Last Emperor,” was released as a DVD
by the Met. TC’s review: “Tan’s best ideas are those utilizing the exotic wailing of Chinese opera; when he settles down to Western music, his
tawdry borrowings from other composers (especially Alban Berg) are irksome. His opera is more colorful to watch than to listen
to.” Hearing the opera makes one wonder whether his compositional
technique is really sufficient for what he undertakes. Davidson mentions the “resonant bowls” he brought to the doctoral seminar
at Columbia. Donald Erb experimented with the same sort of thing years before;
his works were recorded, enabling Tan Dun to hear the same results as his Philharmonic commission, “Water Percussion Concerto,”
well before he adapted them. None of the names mentioned above have produced music of unusual quality. Deserving American
composers should be so lucky as to gain the attention they are accorded simply because they were born in China.