materiality and creativity

Local Materials and Creative Flow towards Interior Senses of Spirit 

I consider the materiality of place as a basis for inspiring creativity, where in contemporary culture, the Korean taegumperformer draws on ‘raw’ bamboo or the Chinese architect on ‘naked’ earthy red bricks for their respective creativities. In the same way as these models, the cultures of our own environment around us, including the living colours(Crossman 2016) of nature, can become the ‘materiality of place’ to inspire creativity. What I love here and in its creative extensions, is the idea that the materiality of creative practices—visual, material and musical—can be intertwined with a sense of flow which expresses the everyday and identifiable hybridities of identity.

In contemporary Chinese architecture, in reaction to the Westernisation of Chinese rural landscape constructions, architect Wang Hao draws on the materials of place for his internal play with linear flow in Wang House(2012). In a rural seaside village in Chunxiao, Ningbo (Li 2018, p. 238)—his childhood place of memories—Wang drew on the simplicity of raw materials of the land around him with ‘pigments of the naked red bricks deposit with the pass of time, and strike a stable visual balance with plain concrete’ (Li, p.238) with the aim of raw simplicity for his domestic-artistic architectural retreat. The architect’s aim was an expression of the direct materiality of environment ‘to express the primitive vitality of material and strongly indicate the internality of the house’ (ibid, p.218). In short, the nakedness, vitality and internality of materials are expressed in traditional Chinese outer enclosed concentric forms that move into free flowing structures internally, that unleash the power gravity towards a hidden inner centre in the building—described as ‘internal free linear structure’ (ibid, p.218) which moves towards a secret inner heart of the dwelling. Its materiality of form is intrinsically an interior of natural energy flow—almost a raw untamed power of imagination and environment.

In a similar way, the young Chinese architect Fan Beilei in her concentric cocooning curves with architecture as a ‘primitive cave or nest’ (Williams 2019, p.59) in Baggy Treehouse (2016), creates architectural flow into a central space which embraces the undulating bush-scape. For Fan Beilei, the gentle inner shaped cacoon embracing of nature—led to by an inner passage of flowing wood materiality—are an expression of an intangible spiritual energy that connects to existence. Her architectural company name describes the philosophy underpinning her practice as in the ‘Chinese word gèn[which] refers to an intangible element or energy that permeates the whole of existence’  (ibid, p. 56). So in her case, architecture is a materiality of wood as a flowing expression of spirit, or energy, that connects things.

A middle generation contemporary Chinese painter, Cai Guo-Qiang, links the materiality of artistic expression with spirit. He imprints ink calligraphical marks into glazed Japanese hemp paper and then explodes them with a literal gunpowder energy. This energy of spirit is seen in the literati informed Cypress materiality—associated with ancient Chinese sages—in Flow (Cypress)(2019) and vast chain-like network of mountain-scape in China Pulse (Mountain)(2019). In the latter drawing, the gunpowder breaks up the meticulous calligraphical marking on paper with a type of smudgy air like the Loess Plateau in China, which Cai describes as ‘created with the help of invisible forces from the spiritual realm’ (Ma 2019, p.133). In the former work, the trace elements of nature’s Cypress trees on the paper reflect the ‘unyielding spirit valued in traditional Chinese culture’ (ibid, p.133) exploded with gunpowder unpredictability as ‘weight, profundity and fluid momentum’ (ibid, p.133).

Finally, the link between materiality and flow is also present in music. Korean taegumperformer Hyelim Kim, in the 2020 Inexplicably Subtle research series[1]between Seoul National University and Western Sydney University, talked of the ‘inner compass’ for her musical creativity as being from the ancient instrument’s materiality—bamboo. Here, bamboo permeated all things in her creative world view: bamboo as connection to nature, as a measuring tool for pitch, and its reed-membrane transformed bamboo vibrations of sound forming the tangible breath of pulse. Haegeumperformer Park Si-hyun noted in the same forum, that breath controlled pulse in Korean traditional music, not a westernised concept of equal divisions. So here, tangible bamboo becomes the breath controlling pulse divisions which are the musical life in Korean sanjo; this intangible ‘felt-sound’ is something which sanjo master Hwang Byungki describes as:

something so inexplicably subtle that it can only be felt deep in the heart…[it] comes down from heaven to stay in the human mind…It touches the heart of everyone…and activates his spirit 

(Hwang Byung-ki, 2002, p.814)

In my work for solo taegŭmGyeonggye: Border (2020), composed for Hyelim Kim, the living coloursof materiality (Crossman 2016) were sparked by the angularity of a single branch and its slipping rhythms and texturally layered brown and black barks in the Australian bush. Here through the performer’s breath, it is designed to have a living thread of taegŭmbamboo colours move from breath sounds to full-blown reed-membrane stridency excitations, with subtle pitch shifting, pure-to-noise notes, chant memories and air-attacks in-between. In the intertwining sounds of glossolalia transcriptions (from a type of personal Christian meditation of ‘speaking in tongues’) and Japanese temple bell resonances lay memoires of my Sydney bush walk in Mulgoa Nature Reserve, with chanting and bell-bird resonances; yet all this frames and flows with the living thread of bamboo breathing colours. Here there is no one moment, but a series of moments that flow within a changing pulse that suggestions the aural and visual colours of my natural environment. I take inspiration from the presence of the natural materiality of traditional Japanese craftsmanship of wood in architecture, where the leaves interlock and sing in architect Kengo Kuma’s qi energies of bush-lines of malleable wood and light refraction through bamboo suggest ‘his love of nature and his devotion for life, which make his works vibrate with life and resonate with landscape’ (Fernandez-Galiano 2019, p.5). 

In conclusion, what I take away from this lateral thinking comparison from architecture and visual arts into music, with parallels in nature, is that there is  interdisciplinary connectedness of things that give birth to three principles for igniting creativity connected to place. Firstly, the materials of place can become externally ‘visible’ or ‘heart-felt’ spiritual expression within creativity. Secondly, these materials of place can be exploded with the creative imagination of the artist as an abstract concept of flow that runs through the creative artefact or practice. Finally, these ideas born of materiality of place and artistic imagination draw deeply on culture, its spiritual concepts of flow, energy and connectedness into new hybridities expressive of contemporary life. Simply put, I suggest that the materialities of culture can be connected to spirit to inspire creativity.

Audio Example 1: Hyelim Kim (solo taegŭm) performs Bruce Crossman’s Gyeonggye: Border (2020) at  London, Stella Polaris Studios, United Kingdom, November 2020. (Recording engineer: Oyvind Aamli; Mastering Engineer: Mitchell Hart)

[1] Something Inexplicably Subtle: Intercultural and Interdisciplinary Lateral Thinking, Music & Music Therapy Discipline, Western Sydney University, Research Seminars—Semester 2, 2020, Seminar 2: Thursday, 5-6.30pm, 22 October 2020—Zoom, Heaven-to-Earth Inspiration 1: Gugak Performers & Australian Composers.


Works Cited

Crossman, Bruce (2020). Gyeonggye: Border(solo taegŭm). Sydney: Australian Music Centre.

Crossman, Bruce (2016). ‘Living Colours: An Asian-Pacific Conceptual frame for Composition,’ in Sally Macarthur, Judy Lochhead and Jennifer Shaw (eds.), Music’s Immanent Future: The Deleuzian Turn in Music Studies, London: Routledge, pp. 125-138.  

Fernández-Galiano, Luis (2019). ‘Artesanía Pixelada,’ Kengo Kuma: 2014-2019, AV Monografias Monographs 218-219 (2019), p.5.

Hwang, Byungki. ‘Philosophy and Aesthetics in Korea,’ in R. C. Provine, Y. Tokumaru, and J. L. Witzleben (eds.), The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Li Xiangning. Contemporary Architecture in China: Towards A Critical Pragmaticism, trans. He Yanfei. Mulgrave, Victoria: Image Publishing, 2018.

Ma, Lesley, Cai Guo-Qiang and Yuko Hasegawa. Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2019.

Williams, Austin. New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future. London: Thames and Hudson, 2019.

© Bruce Crossman, Sydney, 25th October/31st December 2020