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Becoming Air

Many people have visited a greenhouse before. But what about at night? What then might the flowers, plants, and trees be communicating to each other? And especially with the atmosphere all around them? Now, there is an unparalleled opportunity to find out at the Forsgate Conservatory in Hong Kong Park, where singers, musicians, installation artists, and dancers are ready to take you on a mesmerising exploration of air.

Getting to know air

Why Hong Kong Park Conservatory? Because it is much easier to actually “feel” the air there, according to Aria curator Stephanie Cheung. “In the Humid Plant House, the cooling effect created by the trees is even more obvious at night. Rarely in Hong Kong could we find a similar sensation. For the Dry Plant House, just staying five minutes is difficult to bear, providing an instant and powerful experience of the greenhouse effect!”

Sensitised to our environment

Aria is an original production by Dr Eugene Birman, Assistant Professor, Department of Music, at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). Large-scale social issues lie at the heart of many of Birman’s works. These include the financial crisis and border treaties. Publicly funded projects, in particular, should aim to convey knowledge useful to society, he believes.

And yet, Birman, Artistic Director (Music) of Aria, does not subscribe to judgemental messaging. “I have not set out to blame people who damage the Earth. Nor do I try to idealise its current condition. Neither have any positive value,” he said. Aria is an attempt to enhance everyone’s perception of air. With increased sensitivity to our surrounding environment, the daily choices we make can transform it.”

Attuned to big data

The integration of big data into music composition is another Aria highlight, with Birman being that rarity in the arts world: a composer and an economist. “Economics is more than just a collection of numbers. Ultimately, it portrays human behaviour. It can be complementary with artistic creation,” he said.

In line with his affinity for sound and statistics, Birman worked with HKBU’s Department of Computer Science before composing Aria to compare public views on air pollution with scientific findings through big data analyses.

One of the verses in Aria is written with the situation in Hong Kong in mind, and this site-specific approach will be followed in other locations where the work is scheduled to appear. “When we perform in cities such as Beijing and Copenhagen, we will refer to the local pollution index,” he explained. “Given the different presentation, the work will be connected to the place it is performed.”

What kind of music would we hear when the air is seriously polluted? The performance will include a demonstration for the audience to see and hear the impact themselves.

Atmospheric breakthrough

At 70-some minutes, Aria is Birman’s longest work to date. It also encompasses a highly complex structure, bringing together Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning Danish vocal group, Theatre of Voices, live vocals by the Hong Kong Children’s Choir (HKCC), and electronic music, all in the singular setting of the Conservatory.

Due to the pandemic, Theatre of Voices will now participate via hologram. Yet acoustically, this has only added to the creative dynamic, Birman noted. “Working with holograms allows us to create a new and deeper strand in the narrative, contrasting the ‘digital’ world of Theatre of Voices with the live world of the HKCC singers. Though the sound of the Theatre of Voices virtuoso soloists is fed through amplifiers and loudspeakers and they themselves appear through holographic projection, their presence is just as powerful and urgent.”

Immersive art experience

To Birman, Aria’s extension of music to these horizons defies the existing definition of a “concert”. Additionally, for Hong Kong, it represents a breakthrough in public art.

Local media artist Kingsley Ng is the production’s Artistic Director (Visual) who, together with his team, is responsible for light and multimedia installations in the Conservatory. To Ng, everything is poetic in its own way. Hence his adoption of a minimalist approach to reveal the invisible in daily life, and shed light on what has previously been missed.

Nonetheless, turning a greenhouse into a performance venue is no easy task. To protect the plants, installations cannot be placed on the soil and the venue layout needs to be carefully planned. Such work has involved close cooperation with the regular greenhouse staff, who have readily contributed their time and effort to the innovative endeavour.

Being kind

The boundless imagination of children injects additional fresh air to Aria. Project Manager Nicky Liang, who has gathered ideas from the HKCC singers, cites an interesting story by one choir member. “One day, Air encounters three robbers, yet manages to escape by knowing how to stay invisible.” These whimsical ideas are incorporated into the show.

But at the end of the day, Air can still get hurt by what people do, and needs the world to be kind. Aria helps us to empathise with Air. As one step in the direction of greater environmental protection, the creative team has worked hard to ensure there are no printed promotional materials for the production. After experiencing this amazing show, no doubt you, too, will want to inspire ways of generating greater eco-awareness.