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Worlds Meet in a Song For Hong Kong Gala

'Heaven, Earth, and Man' is a unique piece of music that celebrates a historic event and mixes sounds from the East and West

Tan Dun, a Chinese composer who lives in exile in New York, seems to have been an unlikely figure to be chosen to write a symphony to mark Hong Kong's return to China. After all, he left Beijing more than a decade ago after his music was targeted in a Communist Party campaign against the invasion of "spiritual pollution," or Western influences.

But now his experiments in mixing Eastern and Western sounds fit, in many ways, Hong Kong's hybrid culture under British rule.

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Rather than becoming detached from the West after coming under Chinese rule on Tuesday, Hong Kong is more likely to help propel China into the mainstream of global interchange, says Mr. Tan. "Hong Kong is a passageway between China and the West," he says in an interview. "With its openness and international outlook, Hong Kong is becoming the New York of the East."

Tan says his new symphony - called "Heaven, Earth, and Man" - "is a celebration of a renewed Chinese civilization and its full-fledged entry into an evolving world culture."

He adds he initially wanted to call the symphony Marco Polo II, because many of the ideas it contains are an extension of his latest "Marco Polo" opera.

"Marco Polo," the production, is in many ways a play within a play, a metaphor for the ongoing globalization of life, information, and art on the eve of the 21st century. The opera, which has traveled across Europe and Asia, and is scheduled to reach New York in 1998, traces the spiritual and philosophical journeys Marco Polo took from medieval Venice to China, and back. Toward the end of his life in prison in 14th-century Italy, Marco Polo recounted tales of his travels through Europe and Asia to the wondrous Chinese kingdom.

Tan says he searched the international market to bring together "Marco Polo's" multinational cast, and the music is itself a cross-cultural fusion of words and sounds. "Until recently, we believed that East is East and West is West," he says. "But now the two are beginning to meet."

English dominates "Marco Polo," but it is bent and shaped into barely recognizable forms by the opera's Western and Chinese performers.

As Marco Polo and his fellow travellers sail and trek from Europe to Asia, the music moves across a parallel soundscape.

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"The music of Venice is transformed into Indian music into Chinese music," says Tan. "Western opera singers perform in Mongolian, in Tibetan, and in traditional Chinese opera style."

Tan Dun experiments with juxtaposing Tibetan chants with Western classical music. He injects English into the forms of Beijing opera. The result is a work that, like surrealist art and poetry, shocks the audience and forces them to perceive even the familiar in a new light.

"I want to struggle against [everyone's] traditional beliefs and thinking," says Tan.

The remark eerily echoes the battle cries of the Cultural Revolution that Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong launched during Tan's youth 30 years ago. Mao enlisted millions of radical young Red Guards to make way for a pure communist culture by forcibly wiping out the country's religious, artistic, and social past.

Buddhist monasteries from the center of Beijing to the far reaches of the Tibetan Himalayas were leveled. Many traditional Chinese scholars and painters were imprisoned, while Western musical and literary works were publicly burned.

Urban youths like Tan were forced to detain and denounce their schoolteachers. and the young rebels with their teachers were then banished to the countryside to "learn from the peasants."

When Mao's death marked the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Tan Dun escaped the rice paddies of a small village in central Hunan Province by joining a local opera troupe. He later studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where his composition "On Taoism," a modern adaptation of an ancient ritual, earned him a scholarship to Columbia University in New York. His "Orchestral Theatre I" helped launch Tan onto the world stage of experimental classical music. The work featured a clash and fusion of civilizations past and present.

"As I wrote [Orchestral Theatre I] in New York, a lot of things were running through my mind: the faces of Peking opera actresses, sacrifice, human noise in Tiananmen Square," says Tan.

"All these images appeared to me as hallucinations, jumbled together on a huge stage."

In "Marco Polo," Tan Dun expands on breaking down the boundaries of different ages and places.

The main character, split into the tenor Polo and mezzo-soprano Marco, drifts through dream-like backdrops of water, dunes, and Himalayan passes while tutored by such figures as Dante, Shakespeare, Kublai Khan, and Chinese poet Li Bai.

Tan, who calls himself a latter-day Marco Polo, says the opera reflects the meeting and mixing of cultures and ideas that is gaining ground in virtually every corner of the globe.

"Until recently, European-centered art movements like Impressionism and Expressionism rippled outward and became world art movements," say Tan. "But the tides of influence are beginning to flow both ways."

Tan says he wants to help pull down the cultural divides that still stand between the East and West.

"Classical music is in the midst of change," he says. "Composers, musicians, performers everywhere are searching beyond their immediate surroundings and traditions to create something new."

He adds that modern technology is fostering "internationalism - the loss of national boundaries - which in turn begets new originality." Tan says that while the West has long had a monopoly on the "world cultural market," China and the rest of Asia are beginning to open up to the possibilities the marketplace presents.

He sees the dawn of "not a Pacific Century, but rather a Crossover Century" led by countless figures and movements linking the East and the West, with Hong Kong likely at the crossroads of cultural trends.

He compares tomorrow's handover of Hong Kong to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when long-separated friends and family were reunited.

His symphony, combines ancient bronze bells, cast in the era of Confucius more than 2,000 years ago, with the voices of children from Hong Kong and China singing music derived from Western classics.

"In Chinese tradition, true harmony can only be created when heaven, man, and earth are unified, says Tan. "I want to use this occasion to bring the sound of that harmony to the world."

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