Tan Dun’s Passacaglia: “Secret of Wind and Birds”
Notes by former TŌN oboist Regina Brady
An Interactive Effort
The Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds was commissioned in 2015 by the National Youth Orchestra of the United States and was premiered in the summer of the same year. The piece is designed to be an interactive effort between orchestra and their cell phones, transforming the purpose of our phones, allowing us to incorporate the sound of bird calls on ancient Chinese instruments via recordings. The orchestra also incorporates humming, snapping, whistling, and singing. As Tan Dun writes, it explores the “wonder of nature and a dream of the future,” connecting ancient with modern.
Tan Dun sought to explore the sounds and colors found in nature, investigating the energy and sounds of invisible parts of nature, like the wind, and the motion of water as a lens to examine the sounds of birds. The piece begins with a chorus of bird song, representing the bridge of tradition to future as the passacaglia begins. The passacaglia form, which originated in 17th-century Spain, is a set of variations over a repeating bassline. Tan Dun creates these variations by playing with the orchestration, color, and texture of the orchestra. Over nine repetitions of the passacaglia form, the piece climaxes with the chanting of the orchestra, and ultimately crying out together as the bird call of the Phoenix, the dream of the future.
I love the energy that this piece builds. For me, the collective nature of the orchestra is one of the aspects that drew me in to building a professional life in music, and this piece highlights some of that cooperation. The passacaglia bass is passed from instrument to instrument, group to group, allowing for a variety of colors and sounds to come through, but it is ultimately the collaboration of the entire orchestra in the final Phoenix call that resolves the tension that the piece develops.