I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man (2001)

John Rea

Yamaha Disklavier, and chamber orchestra

Commission: SMCQ, with support from the CCA

“Once upon a time, there was me, Tchouang Tcheou,* and I dreamed I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there, for all intents and purposes, a butterfly! I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, oblivious to the fact that I was Tcheou. Suddenly I woke from my dream only to find that I was myself once more. At the same time, I do not care if I was a man dreaming that I was a butterfly, or if I am actually a butterfly dreaming that I am a man. There is necessarily a difference between man and butterfly. The transition is called the transformation of material entities.”

The butterfly effect--the notion that one beating of this creature’s wings can cause a tempest half-way around the world--a fundamental notion of chaos theory, may be summarized metaphorically by this wise ancient proverb:

For the want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost;
For the want of a horseshoe a horse was lost;
For the want of a horse the rider was lost;
For the want of a rider, the message was lost;
For the want of a message, the battle was lost;
For the want of a battle, the war was lost;
For the want of a war, the kingdom was lost.

Slight initial variations engender gigantic and dynamic transformations of the final events. That is, if there were no nail, the kingdom would collapse. My composition is no different.

Man / Butterfly was commissioned by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), to which it is dedicated, thanks to a grant from the Canada Arts Council.

* The true name of Tchouang-tseu (c. 400 BC), a convert and disciple of Tao (In L’œuvre complète de Tchouang-tseu, translated by Liou Kia-hway, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1969, p. 45.)

  • Recording: available at SMCQ’s office