Like a rite of passage that must be undertaken by anyone who visits or lives in Sydney, and especially for one who is not of Sydney, a visit to the Opera house kept looming over me. I knew that eventually I would go there, but I was content with seeing the Opera house from a distance, usually from the bus as it crossed the Harbour bridge. I felt that the iconic status of the Opera house was such that one didn’t even need to go up close to it. It’s not like the Eiffel tower, which at least gives you a good view of the surrounding city, and the prices for a concert are not exactly easy on a student’s stipend. I remember going up the steps of the opera house more than a year after I got here, and being not as impressed as I expected. I guess that since there are so few things that are truly symbolic of Australia, and all the charm of the Opera house has been drained out of it merely by being bombarded by images and souvenirs all over the place. I read with interest the battles over the construction of the opera house, and the disputes with the designers and the bad acoustics because of a drastically altered interior design, but it was more of a detached interest rather than an active one. But a couple of weeks back, I was idly looking through the listings in the newspaper –I go through performance listings, vicariously attending the events in the city through reviews and such- and I came across an ad for a performance by Tan Dun. His name didn’t ring a bell, but the ad mentioned that he’d done the soundtrack for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. I’d bought a tape of said movie long back, and the music had helped me while away many an insomnia riddled night. That was good enough for me: the Opera house would finally be visited by me. The performance I would visit was called “The Map”
A digression, now. I have always been interested in maps: my strongest subject in school after English was Geography. I liked making maps and was/am good at reading maps, especially during my stint with the Scouts or on various trekking expeditions in the Himalayas. But of late, my just simmering interest in maps has turned into a full blaze. I am just short of being obsessed. I can pinpoint this to my discovery of the field of psychogeography, which in turn was triggered by the book “The Songlines”, by Bruce Chatwin. I read the book, liked it very much and as I searched the internet for more information about the Songlines, I came across psychogeography. Basically, there are lots of people doing very cool mind bending things with maps and such, and to cut a long story short, I ended up writing an article about it for a local newspaper in Bangalore. Since then, I have followed my interest in maps intermittently, through websites, and google and books. But never through music, at least not until now.
Tan Dun’s The Map was couple of firsts for me. It was the first time I was going to the Opera House. It was the first time I was attending a western music concert. I’d attended one sort of western classical concert in the past (I wrote about it here), but it was more of a fusion thing rather than a pure western classical concert. However Tan Dun’s music can hardly be considered as a traditional western classical piece. For one, the first part of the evening was called “Paper concerto- for paper percussion and orchestra”, and it did have paper ‘instruments’. There were three paper performers, and they played a series of paper articles ranging from huge swaths of paper that hung from the ceiling, paper fans and umbrellas, and even plain pieces of paper that very used in a variety of ways to make noises –crumpling noises, tearing noises, blowing through the paper to make a high pitched whistling noise- all sorts of noises. If I was mildly nonplussed, D. was even more so. She assured me that Tan Dun broke traditions with impunity, and pointed out that placing violinists among the audience was not only irregular but also bizarre. The second part of the evening was even more different. The programme assured us that Tan Dun can be viewed as a practitioner of the ‘Total art work’, where he strives for a synthesis of sight, sound and drama. To this end, he uses multimedia in conjunction with the symphony. The Map sought to juxtapose ancient Chinese ritualistic music and folk art from Tan Dun’s native province of Hunan in China with a more modern exploration of the tunes and emotions with the symphony. It was surreal to see the musicians respond to the melodies generated from a man blowing through a leaf, or play along with the sounds of stones clacking together. Paper made an appearance too, but it was not as explicit as the earlier piece. Each section of The Map, attempted to showcase a different aspect of the rituals and music of an ancient time, and in a sense bring a representation of those melodies and rhythms to the modern world. It’s only now, as I’m writing these words, I realize that the Map was aptly named. It was a representation, an abstract form of an ancient time. And by translating the old tunes into a form that is likely to be appreciated by modern audiences, Tan Dun is ensuring that the rhythms still have their day in the air.
The essential question in my mind at the end of the performance was-‘ yes, I get the idea, but does it work? Is the music as satisfying as the idea?’ And this is where I have my doubts. There were certain parts of the performance that really sounded cool, and sent shivers down my spine etc etc., but in the end, the ideas took over the music, and music without a melody is alien to my ears. Of course, I could be approaching this in a completely naïve way, especially considering that my knowledge of western classical music is next to nothing. However, the concert gave me a glimpse into another world, an absolutely esoteric world, where music can be woven out of as mundane objects as paper and stone and leaves, and that while the map is not the territory, it is still a guide.