It's a wet, foggy and cold afternoon, with the temperature edging towards the single digits, and international composer/conductor Tan Dun is out 'excavating' on a muddy hill near Tai O on Lantau Island. Taking advice from a ceramic artist friend, the 53-year-old is collecting a bagful of soil that he will use to create a new set of Chinese musical instruments. The exercise is as practical as it is symbolic. 'To me, it's the texture and colour of the soil,' Tan says. 'I had already collected soil from Xian, which is white in colour, and Taiwanese soil is black. Here [the soil] is very red. It's very interesting as red, black and white are believed to be the symbolic colours of old China. 'We will have the three kinds of soil mixed together and if we have different layers on the instruments, that'd be even better.' The new set of instruments - including horns, the udu, dizi and xun - is for Earth Concerto, the third work in his Organic Music Trilogy (the others being the Water Concerto and Paper Concerto) that he wrote to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth this year. He hopes to tour it with a chamber orchestra in 2011, which also marks the 100th year of the Austrian composer's death. Tan says Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, or The Song of the Earth, is his favourite work. Featuring two vocal soloists, the piece is drawn from the words of famous Tang dynasty poets including Li Bai and Tan finds the 'passion and beauty' of the composition inspiring - the same way he finds this city inspiring. Sitting inside a car that is navigating the narrow and winding lanes of Lantau, he says: 'It's rainy, it's foggy and it's wet ... everything is so poetic. Visually, I cannot believe I'm in Hong Kong, especially on a foggy day, [when] you see a mountain suddenly floating on top of another one, in the sky, but actually there is a sea between them but you cannot see that. The vista is strange, this kind of landscape becomes so surreal and musical.' Tan says it is hard to imagine the city is only an hour away. New York City, where the Hunan-born composer now resides, doesn't have this contrast between 'the highest urban culture and the lowest, organic world'. 'To me, this is as ideal and inspiring a contrast as any musician could get,' says Tan, who won an Oscar for his score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and was recently in town to perform with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Nature has always been a major source of inspiration for Tan. He says 'organic or environment music' is like a religion to him in that it challenges people's beliefs. 'For example, you have to really believe everything could have a spirit, and that they communicate with each other,' he says, 'like a bird can talk to a flower, the rain can talk to trees or the clouds can talk to the sea ... in that same way, human beings can talk to nature. 'It is a kind of religion. If you have this religion, you may well have a suitable environment in your heart to deal with the physical environment and organic materials. Otherwise everything is not organic. So, I think, if you don't have the spiritual environment, then how can you deal with the physical one?' Of a suggestion that his creative thinking is philosophically profound, Tan says: 'Actually, yes. Because if you ... don't have an environment or a place to settle down yourself in, how could you say to yourself that you are alive on earth?' And is Tan, who was the driving force behind last year's YouTube Symphony Orchestra project, feeling at home where he is at now in his career? 'The biggest lucky [break] for me was, after [winning] the Oscar, I could reach a much younger and larger crowd not only in the classical but more general music circle. Now I want to put myself in a position where I can freely go back and forth between high art and popular art, experimental and classical, I'm in a truly very rare freelance position ... where I could do whatever I could. That is very liberating,' he says. 'And people trust me. They trust me in what I can do and what I want to do. And I feel honoured to be able to do that. So this is my position. I want to be a freelancer. I don't want to be exclusively a classical [composer] or film writer or experimental music-maker. I'm a freelance musician choosing to do anything, and in other words, I am organic.' Having recently collaborated with large orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw, London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, the composer says he is lucky to have gained the trust of some of the finest musicians and troupes in the world and to work with them. 'That is because everybody wants to change, everybody wants to cross over this invisible line that blocks us, whether it is within the historical or cultural context,' Tan says. He stresses that his music - which straddles East and West, ancient and contemporary - is not 'fusion' as that sounds contrived, but organic; it's a reflection of his life experience. It is also the artistic manifestation of his philosophy that 'one plus one equals to one' - that the combination of yin and yang makes the whole. Looking ahead, Tan says he has several major projects in the pipeline, including composing the theme tune for the upcoming Shanghai Expo with veteran American music producer Quincy Jones. Conceived last year, it was supposed to be a collaboration with Michael Jackson. 'We were talking to the producer and [Jackson] about coming to the Expo. It was going to be big because he had never been to China and we thought we would create a good concept for his appearance. 'Three days later we read in the papers he passed away and we thought it was a joke, because it was impossible. A few days before we were talking ... that became a strange experience for a human being.' Tan describes Jones, who wrote the theme song for the Special Olympics in Shanghai in 2007, as a 'big lover of China'. The composer will continue to work with big orchestras from around the world. 'I am very picky about the orchestras I work with because I want them to be with me, to be naked, musically, and to confront ourselves and reality together. We need to trust one another completely.'