BAREFOOT BOY I was born into an intellectual family in Hunan province [in 1957]. My mother was a doctor and my father a researcher at a nutritional institute. They helped me connect with various aspects of life starting in my tender years. But I was also experiencing life with my own eyes as a wild boy, literally running around in the mountains in bare feet. Nature has always been an inspiration - be it the wind rushing through a bamboo forest or the pouring rain, which generates in me a burning desire to turn them into my own sounds. Another important influence on me was my maternal grandmother. A Buddhist, she took me to local temples for 'red and white events' [weddings and funerals], where a lot of ritual music was played. This music originated in the ancient Chu culture, about 2,000 years ago, and enchanted me so much that I wanted to become an ensemble leader. That dream made me who I am today, working with styles of music different from others in my profession. LIFE SENTENCE A good part of my early life coincided with the Cultural Revolution - not one or two years, but the entire decade. Some find it strange that I give thanks for that ordeal. I am still grateful, not because it meant I didn't have to embark on a medical career like my mother - although my sister did - but because of Mao Zedong's order that we receive re-education from peasants in the countryside. Even though I thought it was a practical idea, I hesitated when I was asked to sign a contract stating I would remain in the countryside for life. When I asked if it could be changed to two years, I was told: 'See, your mind is dirty. That's exactly why you have to be re-educated for life.' In tears, I signed the contract and prepared to spend the rest of my life as a farmer. As luck would have it, Mao died two years later and everybody rushed home. I was one of them. During my time in the countryside, I was attracted to the chantings of the peasants and labourers. In those days, listening to Beethoven would have resulted in the death penalty. I heard of people being beaten to death for secretly listening to Brahms and Bach. Still, I picked up the notation system so I could record the peasant songs. Without knowing it, I was doing what the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok did in collecting folk music. I consider myself extremely lucky to have spent those two years being re-educated by the sounds of the earth and the people. It never would have happened without that order from Mao. My later work, The Map, which documents the sounds of dead people, is a direct product of my experiences. COMPOSING MYSELF I was among the fortunate few who entered the Central Conservatory [of Music] in Beijing after the Cultural Revolution, and brought with me a range of contradictions. The musical language I spoke was the ancient ritual music of Chu. But there, at China's top music institute, I was exposed to Western music that fascinated me. In particular, I owe a debt to Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. They were all great composers, but they were also ritual band leaders in their own spiritual realms. I wanted to be a conductor-composer like them, and that's the dream I took with me when I left China in the mid-1980s to start my doctorate at Columbia University in New York. TOOTHPASTE AND TOILET PAPER Unlike people from rural China who struggled to adjust to the Big Apple, I led a fairly stable life there. Not for one moment did I feel I was far away from home in Hunan, because my life and my music were always intertwined. China was very poor at the time. I arrived in America with US$30 - that was the maximum a student could take overseas in those days. But I brought lots of toothpaste and toilet paper, as a professor visiting Beijing warned me that they were costly in the US and could consume the little cash I had. I think I was still using those supplies 10 years later. While tuition was covered by a scholarship, living expenses were not, so I earned extra cash by playing violin on the streets in Greenwich Village. This taught me something very important: one has to save in order to create. I applied this to my music-making. For example, I often tell orchestra players to save their bowing for the final explosive dynamics. It might sound like I'm telling them to play slower than they were trained to, but ultimately they end up playing faster than they could have ever imagined. So that's how my US$30 philosophy - to preserve and save energy - affects the orchestral textures of my music. SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL During my training, I was taught very complicated ways of working with sound, melody, orchestration, rhythm and so on. But no one ever taught me how to be simple. So when Ang Lee asked me if I could produce 90 minutes of orchestral music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in just 15 days, I told him it was almost impossible. The only way to get it done was to save the big, ambitious sounds and employ a small but powerful minimalist line. Success at the Oscars convinced me that simplicity means success. I'm now middle-aged and feel lucky this year to be an artist in residence with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Japan's NHK Orchestra for my next project. When I stand on the podium and make music with top ensembles like these, sometimes I can't help but wonder at how far that barefoot boy from Hunan has travelled. I think it's a miracle. Tan Dun's recent recordings with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra are expected to be released on the Naxos label later this year.