Balance and counterpoint is one of the most important things to me in writing music -- not only note-to-note in a single style and tempo, but in a much broader sense. Through the Yi-Ching (the Chinese philosophical work Book of Changes, 5th century BC), I became interested in the balance between that which already exists, and that which has not yet come to be. I learned that ways of balancing the existing and the potential are truly unlimited. This idea began to enlarge my understanding of counterpoint. I began to think that it could include not only the relationship of notes, but of styles, tempos, timbres, dynamics, structures -- even of different ages, of the converging worlds of East and West.
In creating the Yi series of concerti, I wrote an Ur-piece -- a single orchestral “concerto” (Yi 0) -- and each time add to it an independent work for a solo instrument, in this case the guitar. The orchestra is “that which already exists”; the solo, the potential which is to be discovered. Perhaps there is no relationship at all in musical materials or tempo -- the point is to discover the two as one.
Yi 2 presents a “counterpoint of styles” to Yi 1, a concerto for cello and orchestra entitled Intercourse of Fire and Water. The writing for solo guitar is totally different from that for the cello; rhythmically and melodically, the guitar’s materials are influenced by Spanish flamenco music. Furthermore, a “cultural counterpoint” is found within the guitar part itself: it blends and contrasts the different traditions, relationships, and characteristics of two plucked instruments: Spain’s flamenco guitar and China’s pipa. (The pipa holds a place in Chinese society parallel to that of the flamenco guitar in Spain.) The guitar’s solo line is no longer coherent as flamenco or pipa music; it has been transformed by this mingling and exchange of two cultural traditions. Something entirely new has been created which doesn’t echo tradition, but nevertheless retains the “shadow” of its roots.
Intercourse of Fire and Water (Yi 1) was written for cellist Anssi Karttunen, who premiered the work on 13 March 1995 with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Helsinki Biennale. Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Yi 2) was written for Sharon Isbin, who premiered the work on 18 October 1996 at the Donaueschingen Festival with the Orchestre National de France, Lothar Zagrosek conducting.
-Tan Dun and Mary Lou Humphrey