Watching children explore the world is instructive. They are the masters of play, seeing the world as a wonderland, and their choices of how to play – and with what – reflect our most profound desires as humans. They gravitate towards drawing and coloring, building and structuring. And they delight in things that move and make noise. Pieces of Eight – 八音 is the creation of children who are now grown up, and who are inviting us to play again.
This is a non-traditional romp in the world of sound, an Alice-in-Wonderland aural landscape where gargantuan strings can be plucked to summon music played from far-off ambient environments; where non-acoustic elements such as audio cards, remote sensing and data plans take on new importance; and where sound engineers can make or break the day. There are unusual sonic materials like tile and concrete laid out for you to touch, strike or ring. The unorthodox approach is meant to disarm us, and to usher us into an innocent state of play, where the impossible becomes possible, where we can access for a moment Alice’s state of mind in Wonderland when she exclaims “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” .
Mimi Brown: “Pieces of Eight – 八音” is the music program of the ESKYIU PLAYKITS exhibition. William, can you give us a little background on how this collaboration came into being?
William Lane: The Hong Kong New Music Ensemble first worked with the ESKYIU architecture studio at the 2009 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, where I was invited to curate experimental musical performances on the West Kowloon Cultural District site. For the last ten years a key aspect of the HKNME’s identity is to collaborate with artists from other disciplines. Like ESKYIU, we share a common belief in community education, social advocacy, and open collaborative spaces that breed new artistic possibilities. I have great respect for ESKYIU’s design and research practice and hope to apply this more to HKNME’s own approach to new creation in the future.
Mimi Brown: This is the HKNME’s first creative collaboration with Soundislands from Singapore. How did this come about?
William Lane: Upon discussions with ESKYIU about the musical part of their retrospective exhibition at ArtisTree, we were all attracted to the approach of Joyce Beetuan Koh and PerMagnus Lindborg, who work as a duo in their company, Soundislands. The music part of this PLAYKITS exhibition was originally conceived as a reimagining of design aspects of the guqin, a traditional Chinese instrument, and specifics of its performance tradition and notational practice. We were specifically drawn to Soundislands’ 2010 work On the String - Theatre of Music. We believed they were the right fit for the project as musical creators and collaborators.
Mimi Brown: Joyce, could you expand on the compositional process in Pieces of Eight – 八音?
Joyce Beetuan Koh: Underlining the compositional concept of Pieces of Eight – 八音 is the ancient Chinese way of thinking about tones or sounds known as the bayin (八音), which are essentially eight categories of material (leather/hide, clay, metal, stone, gourd, wood, silk, and bamboo). The tones and materials are also linked to the eight cardinal directions on a compass. This led us, Soundislands, to conceive of placing the musicians at eight locations around the central point of ArtisTree and at different distances from it. Together with William Lane, we chose the instrumentation with reference to the sonic qualities of bayin 八音: xiào, shéng, gúqin, saxophone, percussion instruments (bells, gongs, stones etc), violin, viola, and double bass. In parallel, the concept of bayin 八音 informed ESKYIU’s design of the percussion instruments and selection of eight locations that were metaphorically connected with each of the materials. For example, the estate Shek Kip Mei evokes the image of dense living quarters, and the accompanying percussion instrument is made from concrete.
In terms of the compositional material, we have worked out seven types of music fragments. The range from fully notated music to verbal instructions that ask the musicians to respond to the environment, such as to imitate a machine sound, or to create a dialogue with the voices you hear. This style of composition allows both ensemble musicianship and individual expression.
Mimi Brown: PerMagnus, could you expand on the technical and collaborative challenges of this work? I understand that it’s quite complex.
PerMagnus Lindborg: The technical matters serve the core musical idea of listening to and playing with the acoustic environment. In collaborating with HKNME, Soundislands focus on how each musician adapts their performance of the composed material to the soundscape they hear at a specific location – on a nature trail, at a busy commuter point, near a construction site, on a boat in the harbor – by imitating and forming a dialogue with people’s voices, animals, and other sound sources. We have a team of sound engineers working with us.
The HKU players will perform on a set of new, re-invented musical instruments designed by ESKYIU. The installation will showcase eight electric neo-guqins connected with eight percussion-hurdles built with materials that are conceptually linked to the sites where we are placing the HKNME musicians.
The live performance of Pieces of Eight – 八音 unfolds over eight hours, at nine sites around Hong Kong Island and Kowloon – eight remote locations and ArtisTree. It features eight musicians from HKNME, eight players from the HKU percussion ensemble, and nine teams of technicians. The HKNME musicians perform the given material three times, with subtle variations depending on what happens at the different locations, there and then. Remote location audio is streamed back to ArtisTree, where live, streamed, and re-produced material form an increasingly complex and dense “composition by addition.” In the evening, when the HKU players join in, there will be up to forty individual musical parts and thirty-three acoustic environments layered. Effectively, the sonic canvas is on the scale of a large orchestra.
William Lane, Founder & Artistic Director, HKNME
Mimi Brown, Founder, Spring Workshop
PerMagnus Lindborg, Composer, Sound Artist and Researcher, Soundislands
Joyce Beetuan Koh, Composer, Sound Artist and Researcher, Soundislands
Learn more about the design of ESKYIU PLAYKITS.