Changing the culture

William Lane is the face of new music in the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 6:36pm

If a contemporary classical music scene exists in Hong Kong, William Lane is undoubtedly its master.

The violist and composer is the founder and artistic director of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble (HKNME), arguably the only purveyor of new classical music in the city. And despite the "classical" label, the ensemble is anything but: its focus lies in musical experimentation that blurs the boundaries of "sound, image and imagination".

I like uninitiated people to come to our concerts, because they may be surprised
William Lane

Lane, a native of Tasmania, Australia, came to Hong Kong by way of an eclectic, worldwide classical education. He left his homeland in 2004 for Italy, where he studied chamber music. In Germany, he studied contemporary classical music at the International Ensemble Modern Akademie, and under luminaries such as Jan Sedivka, Bruno Giuranna, and Garth Knox. In 2007, he lived in India, performing and researching at the Orka-M International Institute of Innovative Music in Mumbai.

"I was a musical nomad for a time," Lane says. "I was searching for a voice, trying to find where I fit in. Australians don't naturally fit anywhere. We're not exactly European, we're not Asian. We all have a bit of a cultural identity crisis. Australians are some of the most well-travelled people in the world because we all want to get out as soon as we can, to figure that out."

In 2008, Lane embarked on a tour with his newly created international collective, Grenzenlos (which means "borderless" or "limitless" in German). The definitional overlap is telling: Grenzenlos' repertoire was similar to HKNME's, composed of what is commonly called contemporary classical music, although Lane refers to it simply as "new music".

The tour began in Beijing and ended in Hong Kong, with a sold-out performance at Osage Gallery in the middle of summer, much to Lane's surprise. The ensemble played avant garde music, some by local composers including Samson Young. "It gave me hope," says Lane.

Lane stayed on in Hong Kong, met the woman who would become his wife, and settled. Grenzenlos morphed into the HKNME, which now boasts 18 internationally trained members about to embark on their sixth season.

In their six years together, the ensemble has delighted audiences with a wide and unconventional range of music, from Brian Eno to Philip Glass to a concert played exclusively on fruits and vegetables. They've toured Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shanghai, Macau, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Singapore, Hobart and Siem Reap.

Despite its range and pedigree, Lane describes the HKNME as "frightfully difficult" to keep afloat. "No one really knows what new music is here," he says. "It's not like Europe, where new classical music is understood as the continuation of an old, living tradition." Much of the ensemble's funding comes from the Home Affairs Bureau.

"Here, [new music] has been very much in the background," says Lane, "and it's our job to bring it out so that there's more public awareness. And we have a lot of fun doing it."

Lane and the HKNME have learned to be creative with their marketing. For an October 27 performance of the celebrated but obscure European composer Gyorgy Ligeti, he printed flyers shaped like metronomes - a reference to the Hungarian composer's seminal 1962 Poeme Symphonique, composed only of 100 metronomes. Lane calls it "a pivotal piece of the Fluxus art movement".

The HKNME also filmed a ticking metronome around Hong Kong; the last scene shows the ensemble's horn player in the middle of a Mong Kok street, surrounded by metronomes, asking passers-by if they've heard of Ligeti. "Ligeti what?" they ask. "Ligeti who?"

The show's title: Ligeti's It!

These marketing gambits have helped draw an audience that's young, hip and curious. Lane says: "Our audience is a very different demographic than in Europe, where you'd find a classical concert hall filled mostly with people over 60. I like uninitiated people to come to our concerts, because they may be surprised. Our job is to present the music in the best way possible."

He chose Ligeti for the sixth season because he thinks the composer offers a diverse spectrum of styles with wide appeal. "I've always had a strong connection to Ligeti's music, and very little has been performed of him here before. And it's great music.

"I first came into contact with Ligeti's music in Australia, playing his viola sonata. There are six movements, and each movement is inspired by a totally different source, including one by Bach, one by Balkan folk music, one by music from the Pacific and one by African music," Lane says.

"It's incredibly eclectic, but somehow this music hangs together as a whole. I'm kind of the same."

As is Hong Kong. "Even though people say that Hong Kong is a conformist city, there are so many different pockets and personalities. That should be encouraged."

So to encourage musical experimentation, HKNME and the Goethe-Institut have organised The Modern Academy, a week-long music camp being held in January in Sai Kung. The camp aims to offer 60 international young musicians the opportunity to study modern masterpieces and performance theory with specialists from around the world.

"We live in a very contemporary culture," Lane says. "New music hasn't been big in the past, but I don't see a reason for that. We need to give the impression that new music can be hip, fun, energetic and passionate. Not all modern works are masterpieces, but the fact is that it's wet paint. We work with composers who are living here in Hong Kong. New music is alive."