Tan Dun's "Water Passion after Saint Matthew" was commissioned by Helmuth Rilling and the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart for the Passion 2000 project in commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach. Sofia Gubaidulina, Osvaldo Golijov, and Wolfgang Rihm were also commissioned to compose Passions, each of them assigned one of the four gospel narratives of the crucifixion. Tan Dun chose to set his snippets of text in colloquial English and to assign most of the recitation to a bass voice usually singing in the role of Jesus. A second soloist, a soprano, sings roles including Satan, Judas, Peter, and the anonymous accuser of Peter. A chorus sings non-scriptural interpolations, the voice of Pontius Pilate and the traditional turbulent Jewish populace.
It's quite unlikely that any listener not steeped in the Christian Passion narrative could reconstruct that narrative from this setting. That's not particularly a fault in the composition. Honestly, if I could hear this piece as abstract music, ignoring the words per se, I might like it better. But to my ears, it's just cheap thrills. Commissioned spirituality. Micro-tonal religious pettifogging spliced over the sound track from a Sino-Japanese ghost-samurai film.
Tan Dun's music is thoroughly heterophonic; counterpoint and tonality be gone! He shapes his soundscapes around 'natural' noises - gurgling water, paper tearing, stones clattering, etc. - blending the timbres of classical Chinese and classical European instruments, particularly percussion. His credits include the soundtracks for the films "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero," and the operas "The First Emperor" and "Tea." Though Tan Dun is Chinese, from Hunan Province, his music often reminds me most of the ancient Japanese court orchestra repertoire called "gagaku." To enjoy gagaku, one has to abandon all European notions of music as mathematical proportion (harmony) and development. Such music is like a cabinet of gems or seashells, no doubt classified and ordered but each to be esteemed in and of itself. "Tea" is a successful composition, to my ears, because it respects its own premises of "found sound." This "Water Passion" fails because it devalues its musical means in pursuit of a non-musical end.
Tan Dun - Tea, A Mirror of Soul / Lundy, Fu, Gillet, Richardson, Liang, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Opera