Monday, March 7, 2011

The next Eroica? Tan Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1

For the last 180 years, it's been tough for symphony composers to get out from under Beethoven's shadow. We've dealt with lots of symphonies on this blog that seem to go beyond anything Beethoven could have ever even dreamed of doing. (If you don't believe it, check them out on the right.)

Rather than express fearful anxiety about Beethoven's domination of the symphony as a genre, the Chinese-born composer Tan Dun did something remarkable: he took Beethoven to task. In Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1: Eroica (2008), Beethoven is — so the composer claimed — not an overwhelming presence to be feared or matched, but rather, a "mentor" to be loved. (Thanks, by the way, to the folks at Amusicology for the tip to investigate this symphony.) But I don't buy the "mentor" line.

Before I continue, I should say that it's difficult — and maybe misguided — to discuss this composition without doing so in terms of its history as a Google/YouTube commission. But I'm going to do it anyway, because learning to appreciate it as a work of art that could one day stand somewhat apart from its gimmicky genesis is the only way it will possibly outlast Google or YouTube as anything more than an oddity. You can read elsewhere about how this piece came about and how its real was apparently on YouTube (a delightfully awkward video made up of auditions, some of which probably shouldn't be there). Here, we're going to ignore some of the contexts and look instead at how the piece is put together.

The symphony's roughly four-minute length is itself a nod to new technology, since four minutes is about as long as most people are willing to commit to any particular YouTube clip in the first place (unless it's an episode of Charlie Sheen's Korner). In this way, the new Eroica really is a digital symphony, best consumed on a laptop or an iPad in between brushing your teeth and taking out your contacts.

Just as Beethoven's symphonies have so often been read as battles and struggles, one way to understand Dun's Eroica is as a battle with Beethoven, a struggle to move the symphony, as a genre, once and for all past the big symphonikahuna and into the digital age. Dun combines elements of Beethoven's music (including literal quotations, as we'll see) with such un-Beethovenian innovations as car parts for percussion.

(Note: I suggest opening this clip in another tab and following along with the timestamps here.) The mysterious opening (2:38) screams struggle. Sudden crashes create a sense that we might be in for a long journey from darkness to light, Beethoven style.

But the sudden appearance of a majestic brass chorale-like theme (3:14) is a smack in the face of Beethovenian organicism and order. At first, it doesn't seem to make any sense. You have to earn climaxes like these, and they usually show up at the end; they don't just pop up out of nowhere less than a minute into a symphony. Perhaps Dun is telling us that in a post-Beethoven, YouTube world of digital shorts, you don't have to earn these climaxes at all. The tune itself is nice, but the harp doubling the brass is a little awkward.

After hearing the theme again in the cellos, and finished by the horns, we encounter what I'll call the "Beethoven section" (4:23). Here, an intense galloping rhythm, played by the whole orchestra, envelops some of the same sounds from the startling introduction, along with some new ones. We soon learn why we're in triple meter, because at 4:51, we hear the waltzy opening theme of the Eroica (soon violently interrupted by the "new" sounds). Perhaps this is the final degradation of Beethoven's symphony before the YouTube age begins.

At 5:54, we suddenly get the original march-like chorale-like tune but with the less dignified galloping melody weighing it down somewhat. The almost corny cymbal crashes (6:07 and 6:13) seem to tell us that Beethoven and his original Eroica have been defeated by this whirlwind version of the symphony's most memorable theme. The world has left the original Eroica behind.

But the noisy coda (6:55) lasts just a little longer than you'd expect, and its refusal to end is delightfully surprising, and probably the best moment in the whole work. Notice the relentless, continual cadencing, almost as if Dun is hammering away at the nails on Beethoven's coffin. Beethoven's Eroica has already been defeated, but Dun and the YouTube Orchestra are just making sure.

Despite its unevenness, I really enjoyed Dun's first Internet Symphony, especially its cinematic effects and the contrast between big, brassy sounds and interesting percussive hubbub. And maybe the piece is a crucial step in the evolution of the symphony. Now that the oppressive weight of Beethoven is off our shoulders in the world of the digital symphony, it's time for someone to write Internet Symphony No. 2: Charlie Sheen vs. Mark Zuckerberg.
— Matthew Mugmon


  1. Really interesting post, and a cool concept behind the work. You really shine the best possible light on this work, and take it seriously as music not just cultural curiosity.

    But I gotta admit I think Tan Dun missed an opportunity to write something much more compelling here, given his skill and the novel parameters (like potential for really amazing performers and the completely innovative delivery form). There's some very cool stuff going on here, for sure, but other aspects not so much. It's not just the maudlin main theme that rubs me the wrong way (believe me, I love me a good saccharine chorale) or the weirdly bad orchestration in places -- mostly it's just its too-easy, low attention span. Maybe it's Dun's point, but the Beethoven aspect comes off sounding a little superficial...
    Maybe I'm just longing for Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen -- now there's an Eroica quotation!

  2. Keep up the good work! A few suggestions:
    Bax (in particular #6)
    Bantock (in particular Hebrides)
    Zweers (in particular #3)

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