When classical composer John Corigliano won the score Oscar last year for “The Red Violin,” musicians everywhere cheered the choice.
Could lightning strike twice with Chinese composer Tan Dan and his acclaimed music for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”?
Tan, 42, is far better known for his concert music, notably the operas “Marco Polo” and “The Peony Pavilion,” and the 1997 symphony “Heaven Earth Mankind.”
Director Ang Lee involved the composer four years ago on the film, long before shooting began. According to Tan, the two conceptualized the musical approach together.
“We had to find a bridge,” Tan says, “between low and high art, between East and West, and musically between classical orchestra sonorities and world music, Chinese music and desert music sounds.”
That bridge, they decided, was cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma, whose instrument is heard throughout the film, says he thinks the cello — and his unusual fingering techniques — brought “a soulfulness” to the score.
Tan’s approach required three musical ensembles: a traditional Chinese orchestra that incorporated various ethnic instruments, what he calls “the huge power” of a western classical orchestra and a large battery of percussion. All were recorded in Shanghai over just three days.
For the martial-arts scenes, Tan reached back into ancient traditions (Chinese opera, Japanese kabuki theater), using drums and other percussion instruments. For the various character relationships — particularly the unspoken love between the Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh characters — he often wrote a “dialogue” for the cello and erhu, a Chinese fiddle.
And for the “hidden dragon” concept of the title, “something dramatically haunting and ghostly” was voiced by the bawu, a metal-reed wind instrument, again often paired with Ma’s cello.
Tan even wrote the Turkish-flavored ditty that Chang Chen sings to Zhang Ziyi in the desert (singing it over the phone to Ang Lee the day before shooting) and visited the Peking location of the nighttime, rooftop battle between Yeoh and Ziyi.
This is Tan’s second Western film score (the first was 1998’s “Fallen”) although he scored a number of low-budget, experimental films back in his native China. “Crouching Tiger” is especially close to his heart, however.
“For Ang Lee, Yo-Yo and myself,” Tan says, “it’s like finding a China that does not exist anymore. It’s deeply related to our souls.”