Tan Dun in his Element at the TSO
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Tan Dun in his Element at the TSO

Tan Dun: Water and Paper Concertos

To start, let’s get philosophical: what is music? Is it intangible, or can it be physicalized into a concrete object? Is it what emanates from trained musicians in the string, wind, or brass sections, or can it be found in other places, by any person, through unexpected instruments? And what is an instrument, for that matter?
Now, we don’t usually start reviews off with such speculative questions, but they are just a sample of the enigmas that ran through our minds as we left the Tan Dun: Water and Paper Concertos at Roy Thomson Hall last night, conducted by internationally acclaimed composer and Academy Award–winning film scorer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Tan Dun and presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Noted for creating music “that is for listening to in a visual way and watching in an audio way,” it’s clear that within the four separate parts of the evening—de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” Dun’s Water Concerto, Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” and Dun’s Paper Concerto—Dun intends for such questions to be raised.
Dun himself has been a part of the movement to draw on technology and computers to inspire alternative musical experiences, having created the first Internet Symphony commissioned by Google and YouTube. But he’s also a proponent of “organic” music: embodying “sounds of nature, water, paper, ceramics, and the mind.” Throughout the evening, the four elements were encapsulated and expressed within the music—or, we should say, vice versa.
While the opening performance of “Ritual Fire Dance” was a fast-paced and furious blaze of strings and brass in a more traditional arrangement, the remaining elements of water, earth, and wind were literally represented with more unconventional instruments. As the names suggest, Dun’s Water Concerto featured three bowls of water which, through manipulation of the surface and use of different materials (including convex wooden bowls floating on the surface), provided percussion for the piece, and the Paper Concerto had the same three visiting percussionists transform pieces of paper into musical instruments by scrunching, waving, ripping, and beating them.

Photo by James Salzano.

True to his word, these two performances in particular were just as enthralling to watch as to hear. It was an astounding display of strength, rhythm, and agility by the lead percussionist Beibei Wang, who took the water from trickling subtleties to thumping, driving beats with the careful work of her hands, while creating eerie sliding pitches with plastic tubes, gongs, and waterphones. While the orchestra created wind-like scales falling from the highest points to the lowest and back up again, the water was the backbone of the piece. And as water splashed up and out of the bowls the more forceful Wang was with her arms and plastic tools, sometimes reminding us of the octopus from the “Under the Sea” scene in The Little Mermaid, we wonder about the hints of musical genius that must have come from her bath time as a toddler.
The Paper Concerto likewise used visuals as well as audio to impress, with three dramatic lengths of thick paper hanging from the ceiling of Roy Thomson Hall comprising the drumkit for Dun’s percussionists. The three guest percussionists had to change into pants for this number, as it required much more physical freedom to pound, wave, and strip the paper and accompanying appliances, which also had the uncanny ability to simulate other instruments. A cardboard tube became a didgeridoo when vibrating, and pompoms of shredded paper reminded us of a version of the maracas.
Flaunting his flair for film, Dun again fused the visual and the audio simply through inspiring distinct moods and images through the music. As the Water Concerto began, the otherworldly screeches from the waterphones, eventually mirrored through the strings and punctuated by bursts of loud brass, brought us to the scene of an alien spaceship landing, while the quiet dripping of the water off the percussionists’ hands was enough to place us in a decrepit, decaying haunted house. Sometimes, the most compelling visuals of the concerto were the ones we created ourselves.
Also present in these compositions was an element of philosophy, completing Dun’s concept of “organic” music including the sounds of the mind. The Paper Concerto in particular is Dun’s response to Ives’s “Unanswerable Question,” an enigma posed by a trumpet about whether nature truly exists. Throughout the four numbers, each boasting its own elemental qualities to the eye and the ear, the question no longer remains unanswerable. Dun replies with a resounding, thumping, beating, joyful “yes.”
Tan Dun Water & Paper Concertos will also be performed on Saturday, May 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall (60 Simcoe Street). Tickets range from $25-$96, and are available online or at 416-593-4828.