Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 2003; 2005

Length: 18 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (1st or 2nd = bass flute), 2 oboes, clarinet, bass clarinet (= E-flat clarinet), bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (large paper screens, paper cymbals, thick paper sheets, cardboard thundersheets, thin waxed-paper bags, paper strips, tracing paper, paper spinphones, paper head drums, paper cardboard tube drum, paper thunder tube, paper umbrella, paper box drums, and Chinese folding paper fan), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 16, 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, with percussionist David Cossin (world premiere)

Tan Dun recently spoke about the Paper Concerto in an interview anticipating these performances by the Philharmonic. According to the composer, the concerto has its roots in his childhood. "Growing up in rural China, I received my early musical training in such an organic way, mounting paper for instruments, singing a song in the village to the accompaniment of water, using ceramics to bang out the beat. I was surrounded by ritual music and ghost opera, not Bach, not Beethoven, not Brahms. These childhood memories have become so important as inspirations."

The Paper Concerto is the composer's most recent work in a series exploring the combined sounds of those elements from his childhood - ceramics, water, paper - and the orchestra. It is an expression of what he describes as his organic music concept: "You have to know how paper was made and explore what kind of sound it makes. You have to prepare the instruments, rehearsing the instruments, performing the piece, and hearing it from the audience point of view. All of these are organic experiences."

Part of the organic concept is the interconnectedness of music and the world around it. In the Water Concerto (1998), performers use water from the city where they're performing. Tan Dun uses the example of Beijing: "When the Water Concerto was performed there, the performers used polluted water from the city, but they used it to make these beautiful sounds. Every composer has been inspired by organic sounds. Debussy used the sound of water and of the whole-tone series of nature."

Tan Dun represents the next step in this process by combining sounds made by natural materials with orchestra. The original version of the Paper Concerto carried movement titles with references to nature, further underlining the connection. Tan Dun has removed these in the revised version. "The revision comes out of the first experience of hearing the Philharmonic's premiere. There was no example of how an orchestra would sound with paper, and that performance provided enormous feedback in terms of inspirations and techniques."

"The four movements now incline more toward a symphonic structure," Tan Dun explains. "The first two movements have been completely rewritten. The first movement is more like a ritual; the second is more like a scherzo. The third movement is like an adagio, with a dark side - violent contrasts, like a thunderstorm. The fourth movement is like a festival. In the revision, I still kept all of the violins surrounding the audience in the rear in the fourth movement." The placing of the violins is another example of the relationships underlying the organic music concept, as the audience is brought into the musical experience.

"I have two goals in my heart," the composer says. "I don't just want to establish a musical idea; I also want to change musical institutions. I want to develop a cross-cultural idea that brings nature and classical music, ancient and modern, together. The question everyone is asking today is how we can broaden our audience and make it more diverse, and I believe these kinds of musical practices are an answer. It's not just a small group doing something experimental. It's using the institution of classical music, the orchestra, to communicate to a mass audience."

- John Mangum