An Appetizer to Nasi and Risotto


In teaching music, imagination is a powerful tool. When we ignite a student’s imagination, they start creating their own interpretations. And that is when the seeds of a lifelong relationship with music are planted – when students realize that music is about finding themselves and their humanity in the musical experience, and not about chasing what is perceived as a universally ‘correct’ way of playing.

In preparing for an upcoming presentation ‘Nasi and Risotto’ for the Southeast Asian Online Music Academy, I chanced upon some of my doctoral research on Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolour, Op. 1. Learning this set of pieces set my imagination soaring as they were a wondrous confluence of various fields of art. Many pieces of the set were inspired by Debussy’s musical language, fused with sounds from traditional Chinese instruments and ideas associated with Chinese watercolour paintings.

Here I share with you an excerpt from my doctoral lecture-document and multimedia performance. It is on the movement Ancient Burial from Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolour, Op. 1. In the upcoming presentation ‘Nasi and Risotto’, I will be discussing another movement in Tan Dun’s composition,alongside works by Chen Zhang Yi, Wang Chen Wei, Jonathan Shin, Ananda Sukarlan and Ilysia Tan, with suggestions on pairing them imaginatively with repertoire from the traditional Western classical canon.

A performance video by Khoo Hui Ling

8 Memories in Watercolour: VI. Ancient Burial

The title of the sixth movement, Ancient Burial paints an unsettling and sombre picture while evoking an atmosphere of mystery. These moods are brought about by the simultaneous interaction between twentieth-century Western sounds and the chimes of ancient Chinese bells, as well as in the art works found in excavated tombs over a thousand years old.

The opening phrases are atonal, creating an uneasy atmosphere. However, when the music starts building towards the climax at piu mosso, there is a shift to bitonality. Dissonances and consonances weave in and out of the polyphonic texture, so that the surreal and unsettling Expressionism of Berg’s Wozzeck is apparent here as well.

Befitting the word “ancient” in the title, the ritualism of Nuo Drama and the gong and bell-like sounds that recall the ancient Chinese bells called bianzhong can be heard in this movement (Lin, 2014). These gong and bell-like sounds are heard in the quarter-note ostinato that opens the movement and in the long whole-note accents in the bass in the climax. Made of bronze, the bianzhong are extremely resonant instruments. Hung in a wooden frame and struck with a mallet, they are used as polyphonic musical instruments. These bells range just over four octaves, and are shaped so that they can produce two different pitches, depending on where they are struck. Furthermore, they were capable of sounding a 12-tone scale just as in this movement.

The design of the bells requires an understanding of physics, engineering and musical acoustics formerly thought to have evolved only in the late 18th century (Hubei Song Dance Ensemble of the People’s Republic of China, 1990). However, a complete ceremonial set of bianzhong was found during the excavation of the tomb of Marquis Yi from the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 B.C.). He was the ruler of one of the minor states of the ancient State of Chu, of which Hunan, Tan Dun’s birthplace, once belonged. The bells in his tomb were delicately inlaid in gold filigree with intricate dragons and inscriptions, documenting music theory and the precise instrumentation of ancient orchestras over two thousand years ago (Hubei Song Dance Ensemble of the People’s Republic of China, 1990).

The mystery that enshrouds the topic of death culminates in the age-old question: what happens after death? Many ancient tombs have been uncovered and the unearthed artefacts, from the massive tomb of the Qin Emperor with terracotta armies to accompany him even after death, to the mummy that stayed freshly preserved for two millennia in the tomb of Lady Dai from the Han dynasty imply that ancient Chinese believed in an afterlife. Draped across the coffin of Lady Dai was a flying banner, a painting on silk. It depicts the afterlife journey of the deceased; the bottom part of the banner shows burial preparation of the deceased, the middle portion depicts the journey with a painted figure of Lady Dai and her servants, while the top part symbolizes the celestial realm, a balance of the yin and yang forces via the moon and the sun. The writhing serpents are shaped like the vessel of Penglai, a Daoist symbol of immortality. While most Chinese paintings are of landscapes or figures, this banner, however, gives
insight into the ancient beliefs regarding death and shamanistic burial rituals (Sullivan, 2008).

In Ancient Burial, old traditions and progressive ideas find a synthesis. Sounds and images re-enact the mystery of ancient rituals, while the unnerving sonorities of atonality are a contemporary reminder that death remains the ultimate mystery.

Flying Banner draped across Lady Dai’s tomb


Hubei Song Dance Ensemble of the People’s Republic of China. Liner Notes. The Imperial Bells of China. Fortuna Records 17075-2. 1990, compact disc.

Khoo, Hui Ling. “A Confluence of Artistic Realms: Tan Dun’s 8 Memories in Watercolor, Op. 1.” DMA Diss., University of Oregon, 2016.

Lin, Tian. “The World of Tan Dun: The Central Importance of Eight Memories in Watercolor, Op. 1.” DMA diss., Louisiana State University, 2014.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. 5th Ed., Expanded and Rev. ed. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2008.

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