Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

An eclectic survey of recent recordings

By Stephen Grimstead

Tan Dun
Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind)

(Sony Classical)

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  To celebrate the July 1, 1997 reunification of Hong Kong with China, Tan Dun (a humble rice planter during two years of the Cultural Revolution) was commissioned to compose a work, Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), that brings together musical constituents as diverse and estimable as Yo-Yo Ma (one of this century's greatest cellists at the height of his powers), the Imperial Bells Ensemble of China (playing the recently discovered 2,400-year-old set of 65 bells called a bianzhong), the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Yip's Children Choir. That's quite an army of resources. And Tan Dun fully employs these forces and exploits their tonal and expressive capabilities, not only in the composition of this work, but also in the conducting of it.

Tan Dun (born in 1957) draws on the rich musical histories and traditions of both the East and the West. He makes clear, through his skillful synthesis of these vastly different musical cultures, his understanding and mastery of both -- creating a work that is at turns richly and riotously celebratory and moodily and profoundly contemplative. Commemorating an event with global implications, this work fittingly has something for just about every predilection on the world musical spectrum, yet it neither panders nor "talks down" to any particular faction.

This marvelous piece begins and ends gloriously with the reverberating sounds of the bianzhong. Both the ancient bianzhong and the children's young voices assume featured roles throughout the piece, taking turns at echoing the past and presaging the future. They ground the composition, humanize it, and ultimately free it to soar, all the while lending it a strong textural and philosophical coherence. Lighter, more pop-influenced music featuring the children's voices in the recurring "Song of Peace" and other pieces frame a stand-alone, serious, tour-de-force concerto (Earth) featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Rich percussion and brass are used especially effectively throughout the score to dramatically punctuate and heighten the colors of tableaux depicting such historical and folkloric elements as dragons, opera, and war. Tan Dun pays clear homage to Schiller and Beethoven, quoting from theSymphony No. 9 ("Ode to Joy").

The liner notes point out that it was Tan's first encounter with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 at age 19 that initially inspired him to write music. Since that time, he has become a remarkable, first-rate composer, respected internationally. He has shown us why and how in such works as his Ghost Opera, composed for the Kronos Quartet, and his opera Marco Polo. And with Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind), he does so again.

Hopefully, this impressive recording (beautifully packaged and documented, by the way) will help more listeners to discover the cross-cultural treasure that is Tan Dun. -- David Smyth


(Seeland Records)

Anyone who claims to be a proponent of First Amendment rights has to be an admirer of those unrepentant culture jammers, Negativland. This group of artistic subversives continues to play brave David (the lowly consumer) to a variety of heartless Goliaths (mainly big business and governmental Big Brother) and often winds up squashed in the gears of commerce for its efforts (in particular, the now-legendary "U2" fiasco, where Negativland was sued by just about everyone who didn't have a sense of humor).

Utilizing their unique blend of audio collage and sound textures coupled with satiric intent, Negativland skewers the absurd Republican notion of art as property. Reconfiguration of appropriated sound bites into new arrangements results in a fresh juxtaposition, alternately hilarious and horrifying. Sacrificing good sense for the better good of imparting truth, Negativland full-frontally attacks a most persuasive enemy this time around on their newest release, DISPEPSI.

Reaching beyond mere popular culture to disrupt the clandestine purity of "soda-pop culture," DISPEPSI is the aural equivalent of the Emperor's New Clothes for non-alcoholic drink manufacturers. By reminding us of the untold millions of dollars spent each year to promote "nutritionless brown sugary beverages" (i.e., Pepsi, Coca-Cola, et cetera) that are already recognized by name around the world, Negativland reduces the consumer mentality to exactly what it is -- corporate brainwashing through celebrity endorsements.

As an avid drinker of Pepsi and an advocate for Negativland, this reviewer is proud to enjoy both side by side without undue discomfort. Fortunately, we still live in an America where both can exist together, even under somewhat uneasy circumstances. Negativland's crusading message is implicit -- our personal freedoms continue to be compromised on a daily basis, and you certainly won't miss them until they're irrevocably gone. The evil is not inherent in the beverage itself, but in its packagers and promoters. DISPEPSI probably won't make anyone stop drinking Pepsi, but it may make one think a little deeper about those responsible for overselling it in the first place, as well as in the marketplace. -- David D. Duncan

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