Tan Dun composes Trombone Concerto ‘Three Muses in Video Game’ for Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘It is an ode to antique Chinese instruments’

At the request of Jörgen van Rijen, solo trombonist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Tan Dun composed a concerto that will have its world premiere on 5 November 2021. The intriguing title is Three Muses in Video Game. How did he come up with this title?

‘When I first met Jörgen, I thought he was a cool guy, easy to talk to, eat and drink with’, Tan Dun recalls in an e-mail interview. ‘We had great times in Amsterdam and during the Shanghai Arts Festival, our souls connected. I knew immediately that he was an artist I would like to work with. Only later did I discover that he is one of the best trombonists in the world.’

Tan Dun (c) Challenge Records

How did he come up with the idea to call his solo concerto Three Muses in Video Game? Tan Dun: ‘The covid-19 pandemic brought the whole world to a standstill, but as artists, we will not be silenced. What intrigued me in the recent period were all those online and digital art forms that flourished, such as live streaming, virtual performances and video games.’


Yet the direct inspiration lies in Dunhuang, he writes: ‘This was an ancient outpost along the Silk Road, where generations of monks and pilgrims carved shrines out of the rock and painted the cliffs. They are known today as the Mogao Caves. Together with a Chinese company, I researched and recreated the instruments depicted there.’

‘For my trombone concerto, I have chosen three of these ancient instruments, cultural relics from thousands of years ago that are in danger of disappearing. They became my three muses and represent a dialogue between past and present. Between past and future. Between reality and imagination.’

His concerto creates more than usual a ‘feeling of action and reaction’, he writes. ‘That is the influence of the video games.’ However, he emphasises that his piece is not related to any particular video game: ‘My piece is purely abstract, the relationship lies only in the chosen rhythms, the action, the tempos and the repetitions. There is no specific story behind it, but there is a link to the heroes of our history, our old legends and stories, which, like the instruments, have been dismissed and forgotten. I wanted my concerto to reflect all this, but also connect to something ancient and spiritual.’


‘The three muses/instruments are exotic but also very beautiful. Many of the earliest scores in China were written precisely for these three instruments, but none of them still exists in its original form. The xiqin, for example, was a ‘stringed muse’, which has disappeared but has been transformed into the modern erhu, which was inspired by it. This two-stringed viol, with its slightly haunting sound, is the most popular and moving Chinese string instrument.’

Tan Dun: ‘The glissando is an important form and structure of Eastern culture, language, and of course music.’

The first movement, ‘Muse of Bili’, is named after the bili, a double-reed instrument with a warm, muffled sound, akin to the oboe. Yet in this opening movement, the soloist is given a large variety of glissandos to play. What is the idea behind this? ‘The glissando is an important form and structure of Eastern culture, language and of course music. The glissando gesture is also related to our communication with nature: one fluent, all-encompassing sweep… In the old drawings of Dunhuang, the artists depicted not only rhythms and melodies, but also timbres, tempo and volume. How avant-garde!’


‘Most of the paintings show gestures related to what we now call ‘glissando’: we see traces of clouds, of wind, of running water. The ancient scores and instruments reflect these in their music.’ The composer does not answer the question why precisely the second movement, named after the xiqin, lacks these glissandos – these are far easier to realise on a string instrument than on a wind instrument.

But Tan Dun does respond enthusiastically when I suggest the chords of the orchestral trombones at the beginning of the third movement seem to be derived from the sound of the Chinese mouth organ sheng, the ‘muse’ after which it is named.

‘Yes! What I find so interesting about the sheng is that this instrument is strongly related to the Western organ. This used to be called ‘the voice of God’, or ‘the poetry of the church’. Similarly, the Chinese mouth organ, one of the earliest instruments in the East, was described as ‘the sound of heaven’, ‘the sound of Buddha’, ‘the sound of nature’, ‘the sound of an unknown power’. You see? It doesn’t matter if it’s East or West, for me these two instruments are undeniably connected.’


He even thinks about further exploring their relationship in a double concerto: ‘I would like to have Buddha talking to Jesus. Why? Because I believe that these two instruments are related not only in shape and sound but also in the expression of spiritual beliefs.’ Interesting in this context is that the three trombones in the regular orchestra line-up traditionally refer to the Divine Trinity. ‘The trombone therefore meets my needs perfectly,’ agrees Tan Dun. ‘It is itself an ancient instrument, it relates excellently to those historical images and can convincingly recreate the ancient echoes.’

He concludes with a philosophical reflection: ‘All this just proves that as human beings we are all the same, whether we come from the East, the South, the North or the West.’

This article was commissioned and first published in Dutch by Preludium, the music magazine of Concertgebouw and Concertgebouw Orchestra.
5 November Concertgebouw Tan Dun:Three Musis in Video Game
written for and premiered by Concertgebouworkest & trombone player Jörgen van Rijen
Due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions Tan Dun can’t conduct the concert himself. The South-Korean conductor Shiyeon Sung takes his place, making her debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Tan Dun composes Trombone Concerto ‘Three Muses in Video Game’ for Concertgebouw Orchestra: ‘It is an ode to antique Chinese instruments’

  1. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Thank you for “picking the brain” of Tan Dun to be able to relate these important features underlying the musical ideas in his ‘Three Muses in Video Game’ to us, Thea!

    Liked by 1 person

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