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PRIMER | Soundstreams Sonic Ripples Through The Water Passion

By Brian Chang on March 6, 2018

Tan Dun, Water Passion after St. Matthew (Photo: International Bach Academy Stuttgart)
Tan Dun, Water Passion after St. Matthew (Photo: International Bach Academy Stuttgart)

Water Passion demands something of you. It also demands a fair amount from the musicians. The percussionists are elbow deep in the water for a good portion of the concert, the soprano must display virtuosity at the top of her range, and the choir plays stones. You have to take in the full theatre of the spectacle that Tan Dun has assembled. This work will lead you on quite the journey through the unsettled murmurs of the choir to “Is it I?”, the harsh temptation of Christ in the desert, the Water Cadenza, which features percussive sounds in and outside of water, and cackling soprano. Water Passion will challenge your cognition of music, your capacity for storytelling, and your conceptions of the Passion of Christ.

David Fallis leads Choir 21, instrumentalists, and soloists through Tan Dun’s highly unusual Water Passion inspired by Bach’s St Matthew Passion. In an interview, Fallis shared thoughts on the upcoming Soundstreams performances in Kingston and Toronto.

“Water crosses different religions,” shares Fallis. From the font at the entry of a church to the washing of hands and feet before entering temple or mosque — water is central to many rituals. “There’s a kind of ritual performance… theatre even [to this work],” shares Fallis, “Dun is quite precise about how it should be set up on stage.” Water shapes the stage, it is the element through which all other sounds flow in this work, and it is constantly present throughout.

“It is an intense experience, and I think that’s what he wants,” says Fallis. Audiences will be challenged watching and listening to this piece. It is as much a visual as an aural experience. “The Bach St Matthew Passion was not a ritual, but was part of a ritual — worship service. Any time a person is in a ritual, it can be emotional,” says Fallis. Like any type of unknown ritual, you’ll be confused, you’ll be interested, you’ll be reverent, and you’ll be challenged.  

“The story is a very Christian story and has a weight of Christian theology behind it,” shares Fallis. Dun has changed the work in a very fundamental way, “he doesn’t quote the bible literally,” Fallis continues, “having rewritten the words. As such, you don’t feel like it’s set in the wider theology of Christianity.” Fallis speaks of a more universal writing that Dun has evoked with this work. Tied into this, Dun has interspersed rhythms and sounds from across the assembled musicians that evoke Eastern instruments and music. From harmonic overtone singing to Peking Opera to prayer bowls, to violins and cellos played to mimic more traditional instruments. And of course, the ever-present sound of water. These are not common sounds for Euro-centric settings of sacred music. “In this case,” says Fallis, “[Dun has taken] the story and put it in a context that all of us can understand, whether we believe in the redemption story — the Christian story — or not.”

In 2000, Helmuth Rilling and his Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart commissioned new works from four composers from around the world with a specific Bach Passion as inspiration. Tan Dun was given St Matthew’s Passion. Performances of St Matthew are an “intense” experience,” shares Fallis, who is no stranger to the Bach. He continues, “partly because of its length and there’s also so much happening moment to moment.” Listeners won’t find Bach directly evoked in Dun’s work. There is little aural or literal imitation. Dun has created something truly different, but no less impactful and “intense”. “It is a journey, and a somewhat arduous journey if you get drawn in,” Fallis continues.

Much is demanded of the musicians. During the crucifixion, The rhythmic placement of the “haha” is incredibly effective, driving the emotional intensity behind this humiliating musical spectacle. Fallis talks about the intention of this section: “you can’t tell from the music. But, the way that he gets the chorus to laugh for instance, you can tell there’s something.” The effect is chilling. Other parts are very quiet, with earthy qualities intoned by different percussion instruments. And there is always the ever-present water.

Water is an unusual choice to match with voices and instruments that operate by displacing molecules in air. But vibrations can also displace molecules in water, taking familiar sounds we all know and changing them. Tan Dun has been intentional with the writing that shapes the water sounds. “Especially because of the sound of the water instruments, [the music] doesn’t ever get very loud,” says Fallis. “There are a few important moments of silence. There’s a lot on the quiet end of things and parts where there is dripping water. Dripping is always quite quiet. The minute it gets more, it sounds like pouring. Everything has to be specifically gauged in order to hear it,” shares Fallis. Some of the vocal writing, due to the extra low pitch of the notes means the lines are inherently quiet, more like a subtle vibration coming from the bass soloist than a sound. Writing in the soprano line is dramatically wide and very high, almost inhuman sounding. Some parts are whispered, like “it is finished” at the end of the crucifixion. While right after is a cacophony of sounds as thunder sheets erupt with screaming voices — the earthquake. The dramatic demands are wide and demanding. This is the challenge, one that David seems intellectually and musically prepared to master.

Warning: Make sure to use the washroom before the performance. There is sustained dripping in this performance…

Soundstreams presents Tan Dun’s Water Passion. March 8, 7:30 pm, Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, Kingston. March 9, 8 pm, Trinity-St Paul’s Centre Toronto. See details here.


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