for string quartet was the first piece I wrote after coming to New York in 1986. It shares the dark, ritualized singing, very dramatic form, and attention to tone color and dynamic with my pieces written in China, such as On Taoism
(for orchestra, voice, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), but still is very different from them. This string quartet (together with In distance
and Silk Road
) marks the period of my first contact with the concentrated, lyrical language of western atonality. From it, I learned how to handle repetition, but otherwise responded in my own way, out of my own culture, not following the Second Vienna School. I drew on Chinese colors, on the techniques of Peking Opera—familiar to me since childhood. The work consists of eight very short sections (of which Black dance
is the fourth), almost like a set of brush paintings, through which materials are shared and developed. The subjects are described by the eight interrelated titles, and form a drama, a kind of ritual performance structure. “Not only timbre, but the actual string techniques are developed from Peking Opera as I wanted to find a way to mingle old materials from my culture with the new, to contribute something to the western idea of atonality, and to refresh it. I found a danger in later atonal writing to be that it is too easy to leave yourself out of the music. I wanted to find ways to remain open to my culture, and open to myself.
from notes by Tan Dun © 2011