Situated at the edge of the Gobi desert, just outside the city of Dunhuang in northwestern China, is a vast network of cliff-carved cave temples containing the world’s largest display of Buddhist art and artifacts.

Visiting the site left an indelible mark on Tan Dun.

The Mogao Caves, as they are known, comprise 490,000 square feet of murals and thousands of painted sculptures created over a period spanning more than a millennium, along with many other examples of religious artwork.

“I had to go back again and again to see them by myself,” the internationally renowned composer recalled during a recent Zoom conversation. “I even went there secretly one night, which was very scary” — but, he adds, allowed him to imagine being present during the time of the Buddha.

Tan’s transformative encounter spurred him to envision “Buddha Passion,” a monumental, boundary-crossing work that uses vivid parables and folklike tales inspired by the Mogao Caves to convey the Buddha’s teaching of compassion. Modeling it after the narrative power he admires in J.S. Bach’s Passion settings, Tan deems “Buddha Passion,” which he completed in 2018, among his most important creations and a kind of spiritual testament.

The composer himself will conduct “Buddha Passion” on Nov. 10 and 12 as the culmination of Seattle Symphony’s minifestival “The Musical World of Tan Dun” Nov. 3-13.

Tan immersed himself for two years in studying the murals, sculptures and other art during frequent visits to the caves. He also visited the libraries in the West where many of the priceless manuscripts long sealed off in one of the caves had since been dispersed — some even containing information on ancient musical practice.


In addition to “Buddha Passion,” there will be performances of a much earlier reflection on spirituality, “Ghost Opera” (Nov. 11 at the Symphony’s intimate Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center space). Written for the Kronos String Quartet and a pipa (Chinese lute) player, it draws on Tan’s childhood memories of shamanistic performances among Chinese laborers. And a family concert on Nov. 5 will include a short piece by Tan exploring “patterns of the sounds and colors found in nature.”

To complement these musical offerings, the Symphony has partnered with the Dunhuang Foundation to present a free virtual exhibit introducing the Mogao Caves, also at the Octave 9 space (Nov. 3-13). It’s a rare chance to pay a virtual visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The exhibit uses immersive, 360-degree video technology (think IMAX) designed by Greg Downing of Hyperacuity and Eric Hanson of Blueplanet VR to give spectators an impression of the astounding experience of being in the caves.

“These are not art for art’s sake but sacred spaces of Buddhism,” says Mimi Gardner Gates, one of the foremost experts on Asian art and chair of the Dunhuang Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and studying the Mogao Caves. It was Gates, a Seattle Symphony board member and former director of the Seattle Art Museum, who initially invited Tan to visit the site — “and it really changed my musical life,” asserts the composer.

“It’s a wonderful moment to increase Seattleites’ understanding of Chinese culture and the culture of the Silk Road,” Gates says. “Just as today is an era of globalization, the Silk Road routes encouraged an intersection of cultures, in which Dunhuang played a pivotal role.”

Tan, who was born in a village in Hunan province in 1957, lived through the trauma of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and became one of the first composition students to attend the newly reopened Central Conservatory in Beijing. He left China to pursue graduate studies at Columbia University in 1986 and permanently settled in New York, though his engagements as a composer and conductor require frequent international travel.


Tan’s name became internationally famous with the success of Ang Lee’s 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which re-imagined the Chinese martial arts genre. Tan’s score, which featured performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, won an Oscar and a Grammy.

A signature of Tan’s artistic practice is to combine aspects of widely disparate cultures and outlooks — not only from Chinese and Western musical traditions but from styles or even eras assumed to be incompatible, such as timeless folk idioms side-by-side with avant-garde experiments. By suggesting a dialogue with the Passion narrative that is central to Christianity, “Buddha Passion” moreover boldly amalgamates elements from different religious perspectives.

“Creating art always involves different cultures bumping into each other and becoming something new,” Tan says.

Like the ancient Silk Road closely associated with the Mogao Caves, Tan’s musical world is a place of vivid intersections. “Buddha Passion” uses the apparatus of a Western orchestra and chorus, but he transforms Asian melodies and includes Chinese percussion instruments. The chorus and soloists variously represent the voice of the Buddha, whose leave-taking in the final act is presented not as a sorrowful tragedy, as Christ’s is in the Bach Passions, but an encouragement to those he leaves behind to awaken. 

One of the work’s six parts features a fan-tan pipa, a dancer who plays the pipa. An especially moving scene based on the “Heart Sutra” calls for a Mongolian throat singer (who accompanies himself on xiqin, an ancient two-string instrument). The libretto, too, which Tan crafted from original sources, weaves together Mandarin with some texts in ancient Sanskrit.

“What I find so intriguing about this work is that it showcases how you can bring so many cultures together and end up with something larger than what you began with,” observes Krishna Thiagarajan, Symphony president and CEO. “The world that we currently live in is one where political relationships between nations are fraught. Yet you see this expression of how much cultures have influenced each other over the centuries, and created this unbelievable work of beauty.” 

“I feel this music, and these stories, are very important, as this time is truly a time for West and East to become one home,” says Tan. “We must learn to share passion and compassion.”

The Musical World of Tan Dun

“Buddha Passion”: Tan Dun conducts the Seattle Symphony and guest artists; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 and 8 p.m. Nov. 12; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets from $41.

“Ghost Opera”: For string quartet and pipa. 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Nov. 11; Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center, 200 University Street. Seattle; sold out.

“The Mogao Caves: An Immersive Experience”: 4-7 p.m. Nov. 3, 8 and 9 and noon-2 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. Nov. 5, 6, 12 and 13; Octave 9: Raisbeck Music Center; free – reservations recommended but not required; walk-ups are welcome.

“Nature Resounds”: Family concert, including Tan Dun’s “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds,” with Sunny Xia conducting the Seattle Symphony; 11 a.m. Nov. 5; Benaroya Hall; tickets from $15.

More info: 206-215-4747,