By Jonathan Stray
Photos (except the one above) by Contemporary Musiking and Yvonne Chan
I went to Contemporay Musiking's "Music for Airports" partially because I wondered who else would show up. The program promised an evening of experimental music capped by a performance of a 30 year old Brian Eno album.
Not exactly populist fare for a city more into Gucci and Canto-pop than strange and non-commercial. Or so I assumed. Some of you will be nodding your head here. Some of my fellow refugees from the great cultural cities are also missing the late night salons and outrageous costumes and general feeling of "well, I've certainly never seen that before."
There's a whole secret history of art and experience that Hong Kong has mostly been too practical to encourage. So I paid for my ticket, and I went to the Black Box Theatre in Kowloon on a Saturday night, hoping to be impressed by something wonderful which hadn't a hope in hell of ever making money. And I was. There was no stage. There were no chairs. There were black mats taped to the floor, and green and black pillows all over. Two big projection screens hovered in either corner, above long tables crammed with electronic gear. I counted eight glowing Macintosh laptops. The audience, perhaps 80 people, was mostly Chinese and mostly young, though there were a few expats recognizable as art music fans. It's the sweaters. We all piled in and arranged ourselves on the cushions, and just like an elevator, we eventually had to stop pretending that no one else was there.
"So how did you hear about this show?" I asked the big black guy behind me, the one wearing the red beanie.
"We saw a poster in the MTR. We were just talking about Brian Eno a few weeks ago, and there he was," he said.
His girlfriend smiled. I'd definitely bring a date to this show. But then, I like my women on the fringe.
The opening act was the solidly experimental "Clarinet Duet" by Tang Lok-yin, with one live clarinet and one computer running sound processing software.
Accompanying the spare music were little slices of Hong Kong street scenes projected on the screens. Steve Hui, performing as Nerve, was up next with a gritty, fuzzy electronic soundscape, accompanying a long shot of an airport concourse at sunrise. You could literally watch the guy twiddling knobs. Gaybird had not just knobs, but cubes, cylinders, and stones. His performance involved dropping things onto a contact microphone, than replaying the sounds on a touch pad that drew geometric shapes where he touched. With accompanying abstract video art. It was called "The grid of elasticity II," of course. Definitely one of those "never seen that before" moments.
By contrast, Choi Sai-ho's "Ten" got kicking. It was a raging glitchy IDM track, with real time performance on a Kaos Pad and a Tenori-On -- that's sort of the iPhone of electronic musical instruments. He was the only performer to visibly get a groove going, jumping and shaking his acceleration-sensitive instruments in full-on geek freakout, and we were grooving too.
Then came the Brian Eno proper. I'm a fan of Music for Airports, his 1978 ambient music album. In fact it's sort of the ambient music album, because it was the first piece of music to call itself ambient. Anyway, I think it's cool.
"Is Brian Eno cool?" I asked my best friend, the day before the show.
"Who's Brian Eno?," he said.
"Well, he was this experimental musician... and he did the first ambient works... and he worked with David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and produced seven U2 albums," I explained.
"Oh!" he said. "U2! I know them."
Uh huh. But the man's a certified musical genius; he's one of those people who never became a household name, but had a huge influence on the music you now hear every day. And here was a live performance of a piece he created by machine. Eno did the album by recording short sequences of very carefully chosen notes onto repeating loops of tape, starting up a bunch of playback machines, and leaving the room. It's a lovely minimalist, mathematical, slowly shifting, never-repeating concept album, and the Hong Kong New Music ensemble did a brilliant job of bringing it to life on piano, violin, clarinet, and synth.
Meanwhile, we lay on the pillows and watched the screens. Jackets came off, and then shoes, and we listened to the music and watched the haunting short films by Adrian Yeung. He showed us lo-fi recreations of planes landing and taking off from the old Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong's main airport until it was abandoned in 1998. The black and white images were clearly computer generated, but somehow gave off the nostalgia of an old photograph.
The acoustic arrangement of Eno's "Music For Airports" by Steve Hui was both richer and sadder than the original, and we all lay there in the dark watching long ago airplanes come in for dusk landings at an airport that no longer exists. The lights came up and we blinked. Then we applauded thunderously.
It was something different and something great, organized by Contemporary Musiking's Samson Young, who composes and teaches sonic art at City University of Hong Kong. He'd been around the experimental music scene for a while in New York, but he didn't really see the genre succeeding in Hong Kong until a 2007 show at Osage Gallery which drew an unexpected crowd. He created Contemporary Musiking as an organization to support the artists, and to give audiences a way to "find it again, if they liked that experience." "Contemporary music has been perceived as 'insider' or 'academic' music," he told me. "For the longest time, it was difficult for any show labeled contemporary music to sell tickets." But this show sold out. Perhaps times are changing in Hong Kong.
CM's next project will be the "Hell Hot" festival in July. Meanwhile, they're embarking on a series of free web albums. Sign up at www.contemporarymusiking.com