Creativity and a Concerto by Tan Dun

In the early 2000s, I was invited to join a working party to discuss the value of creativity in education. A teaching style that encouraged children’s creativity had flourished in the late sixties and seventies but it had gone out of fashion and was now being re-evaluated.

I grew up in a creative household, my siblings and I were always drawing, painting or making something. To this day, I am always happy when I’m being creative so I was pleased to be invited to contribute.

A surprising thing happened. At the end of the first meeting of this enthusiastic group, the chairperson gave us a hand-out, with some pages to read and to fill in. The last page was blank apart from an instruction at the top.

“Use this blank page for your creative ideas and bring it to the next meeting.”

For the first time in ages I was flummoxed. My mind, like that page, was blank.

I put the piece of paper aside.

The day before the meeting, I still hadn’t thought of anything. And I wondered what was wrong. I held the piece of paper in my hand, stared at it and wafted it in the air. Then it came to me in an instant … and with one idea, there followed another and another. I ended up taking several sheets of paper with me to that meeting.

In presenting my thoughts to the group, I explained that I had been intimidated by this blank piece of paper with its demand … until the idea had come to me. “This is my first idea …”, I held up the first piece of paper between thumb and forefinger and wafted it in the air, making a slight fluttering sound. Then I shook it till it made a rattling sound. Then, I shook it even harder till it made a surprisingly loud clattering sound.

“My next idea is this …”, I tapped the paper with my fingers gently at first, creating a beat and then used my whole hand to create a rhythmic crescendo.

Then I started to crumple the paper loudly and threw it down on the table.

I picked up the next leaf and started to tear it slowly into strips savouring the ripping sounds. The next piece I tore quickly with staccato accents.

The next I rolled into a tube and sang a note through it. “Oooh”.

The last one became a paper aeroplane flying across the room and I wondered if I’d taken my creativity a bit too far. I’d taken a risk: I was petrified of speaking in meetings so by this time my heart was pounding. Luckily, the others were on the same wavelength and suddenly everyone in the room was coming up with ideas.

Some time after this meeting, I came across a piece of music by Tan DunPaper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra. I was astonished to see the soloists use huge sheets of paper which were hanging from the ceiling, shaking them and rattling them and then picking up drum sticks to tap rhythmic themes, which were picked up by the orchestra. Here’s what to do with a piece of paper if you’re a composer like Tan Dun! Now that’s not just creative: that’s inventive, exciting and profound.

Profound because for Tan Dun, paper represents a connection with his Chinese heritage: China, the country where paper was made almost two thousand years ago, using plant fibres (mashed tree bark, hemp), rags and water. By using paper as a set of percussion instruments, alongside a full (conventional) orchestra, Tan Dun created a concerto which aims to celebrate the connection between humans and nature, that is symbolised by the making of paper. The significance of paper for Tan Dun goes even deeper. 

Used universally as a means of communicating through writing, drawing and painting, paper was used in a different way by shamans in the village where Tan Dun spent his childhood: crumbling, tearing and rustling paper as part of their rituals. Tan Dun preserves the memory of this ancient tradition, and brings it to life again in his unique concerto.

Paper not only communicates, but can transmit creativity in an acoustic way by blowing, rubbing, cracking, shaking, crumbling, tearing, popping, puckering, fingering, hitting, waving, slapping, plucking, whistling, swinging and singing through the paper.

Tan Dun (2007)

To hear a sample of this concerto, watch the clip below.

To read about the context and creation of the piece, click on this link: Paper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra. The above quote is from Tan Dun’s website accessed 10/01/22.

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