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Scene Changers

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Leisure and Cultural Services Department

The highs and lows of musicians’ out-of-this-world and deep-sea performances

Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s ‘Space Oddity’ vocals while orbiting Earth, a music show played underwater and concert given in asylum are among craziest gigs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 3:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2018, 4:32pm

Live music, as a performance, is not only about the music itself, but also the visual spectacle and atmosphere of the environment in which the concert takes place.

Musicians are often on the lookout for venues that challenge the audience by offering a surprising experience or a new way to relate to their music.

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Hongkongers have the chance to see what must be one of the most unusual environments in which to make music in the forthcoming performance of AquaSonic – underwater – which forms part of Hong Kong’s ninth New Vision Arts Festival.

Water music makes a splash

In the show, five performers submerge themselves in glass water tanks. They play custom-made instruments and sing entirely underwater.

Their hair and clothes float eerily around them as they produce compositions that range from dreamily melodic to unnervingly resonant.

Five performers submerge themselves in glass water tanks. They play custom-made instruments and sing entirely underwater as their hair and clothes float eerily around them

Their hair and clothes float eerily around them as they produce compositions that range from dreamily melodic to unnervingly resonant.

It took a decade to create AquaSonic. The artists spent years researching how to create sound underwater, and working with deep-sea divers, instrument makers and scientists to create highly specialised subaqueous instruments.

These include an underwater organ or hydraulophone, a crystallophone, which produces sound from glass, a rotacorda – a hurdy-gurdy-inspired instrument with six strings which can be plucked like a guitar or struck with a mechanical hammer – percussion instruments and a violin.

The team also developed a special vocal technique for submerged singing.

“When you perform in water, in one way it’s so fluent and so easy, but on the other hand it’s also very frightening because when you sing, if you don’t close your throat strongly enough, you get water into your lungs,” says Laila Skovland, artistic director of Between Music, the Danish team that created AquaSonic.

When you perform in water it’s very frightening when you sing ... if you don’t close your throat strongly enough, you get water into your lungs
Laila Skovland, artistic director, Between Music

The singing is perhaps the most unnerving part of the show, with the performers creating sounds that range from dolphin squeaks and whale moans to witchy wailing. They make these sounds often without producing air bubbles as they sing.

The show, which had its world premiere in the Netherlands in 2016, will be performed in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin Town Hall on October 26, 27 and 28.

The musicians performing AquaSonic are not the only ones to experiment with unusual environments.

Hitting the highest notes …

Some musicians have set their venue goals high – very high indeed.

While they cannot beat Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who in 2013 played a version of David Bowie’s song Space Oddity while orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station, British jazz-funk band Jamiroquai set a record in 2007 by performing 33,000 feet (10,050 feet) up in the air in a customised Boeing 757 jet.

The band’s record was broken in 2010, when James Blunt played a gig at 42,000 feet.

… and the lowest – under the sea

If Blunt is the professional musician who has given the highest performance, then jazz-pop singer Katie Melua has given the lowest.

She has performed 994 feet below sea level off the Norwegian coast, inside the submerged leg of an oil platform of the Troll Gas Rig.

On October 1, 2006, the Georgian-Irish artist and her band performed two 60-minute concerts to an audience of 20 oil-rig workers, dressed their regulation orange overalls and hard hats.

Melua played a soulful set backed by another guitarist, a drummer and a grand piano as well as screens showing giant water bubbles, fitting the underwater theme.

She flew to the platform by helicopter to play the concerts to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of natural gas production at the Troll A platform.

Katie Melua’s two shows 994 feet below sea level – inside the submerged leg of a 1,548-foot-high oil platform – make her the musician who has performed closest to the Earth’s core

Troll A, which was towed to the offshore field in 1995, stands 1,548-feet high – taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris – and was the biggest structure ever moved.

Most of the platform is underwater and supported by four enormous concrete legs resting on the ocean floor.

Melua’s shows make her musician who has performed closest to the Earth’s core.

Software creates summer soundtrack

Back at ground level, Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós has live-streamed a 24-hour road trip around their home country set to an unusual soundtrack: one of the band’s songs, Óveður, put through generative music software called Bronze.

The software randomises the various tracks in the song, so that what you hear at any one moment will probably exist in that form only once.

The video, called Route One, comprises mainly images of the beautiful scenery seen through the window during the road trip: rolling green fields, black hills and thick banks of white clouds.

The music is layered and dreamy, with flowing and repeating instrumentals, plenty of reverb and the band’s trademark swirling falsetto vocals.

It was filmed on the longest day of summer in 2016 and broadcast on national television in Iceland and globally via YouTube.

The band selected the best moments from the 1,332km (828-mile) journey and released an eight-track album of the same name.

Concert in ‘Cave Without A Name’

Other stunning natural environments have inspired music concerts.

The Axiom Quartet from Houston, Texas, has played a classical concert in a cave.

The quartet were the first classical string ensemble to perform in the natural cave called “Cave Without A Name” located in Texas Hill Country.

The quartet is known for its genre-defying choice of music.

Next year it will be playing a programme in the Palmer Memorial Episcopal church in Houston called “Black, Death, and Metal” which includes George Crumb’s iconic Black Angels, along with the Death and the Maiden quartet by Schubert.

The quartet will then move on to classical versions of songs by heavy metal bands including Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer.

Music and light show at pyramids

Musicians have also used stunning man-made backdrops to showcase their music.

On New Year’s Eve 1999, the French composer, performer and record producer Jean-Michel Jarre created an impressive music and light extravaganza in the desert near the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

The show, titled “The 12 Dreams of the Sun”, was created to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium and 5,000 years of civilisation in Egypt.

Jean-Michel Jarre’s outdoor light and music extravaganza on New Year’s Eve 1999, in the desert near the pyramids of Egypt, celebrated the dawn of the new millennium and 5,000 years of Egyptian civilisation

On New Year’s Eve 1999, the French composer, performer and record producer Jean-Michel Jarre created an impressive music and light extravaganza in the desert near the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

The show, titled “The 12 Dreams of the Sun”, was created to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium and 5,000 years of civilisation in Egypt.

It featured performances from more than 1,000 local artists and musicians and was based on ancient Egyptian mythology and the journey of the sun and its effect upon humanity.

The show blended immense fireworks, multicoloured lasers and lively, spacey beats to create an otherworldly, cosmic atmosphere for the audience of up to 120,000 who spent the night dancing under the starry skies.

The event was also an opportunity for Jarre to preview his album “Metamorphoses”.

The musician is known as a pioneer in the electronic, ambient and New Age genres.

He was the first Western musician to be officially invited to perform in the People’s Republic of China in 1981.

Jarre performed five indoor stadium concerts, two in Beijing and three in Shanghai.

Stock exchange shuts for filming

Cities have, of course, provided their own unusual venues for music performances.

In 2000, anti-establishment alternative rocker group Rage Against The Machine filmed its music video for Sleep Now in the Fire on the steps of Wall Street’s New York Stock Exchange.

The band hired director Michael Moore to direct the shoot and the filming caused the first early closure of the stock exchange.

Also on the noisier end of the musical spectrum, American rockabilly punk rock band The Cramps once played a gig in a mental asylum.

The band took over the Napa State Mental Hospital in California in June 1978.

The lo-fi film of the concert shows inmates wildly dancing and singing into the microphone of lead singer Lux Interior. The set is high octane, with the irreverent vocals shouted over stripped down, punk guitar riffs.

However, music does not always have to be played somewhere spectacular.

Classical performers stun shoppers

 Sometimes the more banal the environment, the more unexpectedly moving the effect.

To celebrate the 20th birthday of the UK’s popular classical music radio station, Classic FM, the broadcaster set up a flash mob with a group of classical musicians and a choir, who performed to unsuspecting members of the public in a supermarket.

Classic FM began its first broadcast at 6am on September 7,1992.

The 18 musicians, one conductor and eight singers surprised shoppers at a London branch of the grocery store Morrison’s by playing the first music played on Classic FM, Handel's Zadok the Priest.

Choir members and singers appeared suddenly from various supermarket aisles and converged to perform together, captivating the crowd with the rousing performance.

From concerts under water to gigs on aircraft, and from the world’s most beautiful backdrops to a transcendental moment in the ordinariness of life, music performances can thrill, delight and challenge.

And for Hong Kong audiences, the AquaSonic performances will surely be an experience never to be forgotten.