Sonar Lands in Hong Kong, Bringing Music and Technology Along With It

DJ ShadowProcessed with VSCO with hb2 preset

To say Hong Kong produces many pioneering, internationally-recognised electronic artists would not be accurate. The city might be home to several nightclubs — its first Western-style electronic music venue Disco Disco opening in 1978 –  but for decades, few promoted the underground scenes that foster the artists who want to do more with their music than make drunk people dance.

But this does not mean the city is devoid of musical innovators, or that there isn’t potential for Hong Kong to grow. It could still become a place that fosters and recognises the kind of pioneering creative spirit that exists at the ever-diversifying — and democratised — threshold of arts and technology.

With “maker hub” Shenzhen at Hong Kong’s doorstep, and with technology playing central roles in the lives of many Hongkongers, the city could be poised for a cultural shift that would see more artists using technology to exploring a creative sphere that is becoming increasingly accessible to anyone with access to the internet. That is, it could happen as long as there are enough platforms that give it the exposure and support it needs.

This was the thinking behind the promoters responsible for bringing Sonar D+ to Hong Kong. Magnetic Asia, the team behind Clockenflap and Your Mum live music events have paired with legendary Barcelona electronic festival to help turn a city that was once not much of concert-going place into one with an increasingly interesting live music landscape.

“We felt the time was right to bring Sonar to Hong Kong, what with the city’s ever growing electronic music scene,” says Magnetic Asia’s Justin Sweeting. Clockenflap launched its first festival in 2008, and today the festival is Hong Kong’s largest, with legendary electronic acts like Chemical Brothers playing in the most recent edition.

But even in their pre-Clockenflap days, Sweeting and his two partners, Mike Hill and Jay Forster, were putting on shows in smaller venues at time when Hong Kong’s music infrastructure only made space for big Cantopop stars. Canadian neo-psychedelic electronic artist Caribou counts among their roster of thoughtfully-selected musicians.

Softlovers at Sonar Hong Kong – Courtesy of Magnetic Asia

Bringing Sonar to Hong Kong is a big coup. The three-day Barcelona event has accrued acclaim for being a leading platform for the best and brightest it is an electronic music, a diverse sphere that encompasses both niche pioneers as well as commercially-driven so-called pop music. Going strong since 1994, the festival has since grown to incorporate international editions across continents, with its first foray abroad landing in London in 2002. April 1st will see Hong Kong’s first one-day edition at Science Park, in an event that combines musical and art performances with workshops and an expo showcasing innovations in the realms of new media installations and immersive virtual technology.

Among the star-studded roster of leading artists is household name DJ Shadow, who will blend his stadium-stomping hits with a hitherto unseen-in-Hong Kong visual show. For techno-diehards, British artist Dave Clarke, a prescient and self-proclaimed “digital geek,” will bring gloomy visceral sounds to the festival.

Hong Kong’s own electronic musicians will also enjoy a platform, including Ocean Lam, a stalwart in the underground dance scene since the days of now defunct club Yumla, which in the previous decade was one of the very rare venues that played underground electronic music. “This event will change Hong Kong’s dance music scene for sure in a very good and positive way,” says Lam. “Hopefully we can get more international DJs to know more about local Hong Kong DJs.”

But as an event it is not just about dance music. A virtual reality video that was shown at Cannes film festival as part of its first-ever VR line-up is on the roster of events. Put together by a creative team including Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorrillaz fame, The Fabulous is an immersive rendition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Viewers wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles can experience the short film that also explores boundaries between our online and offline lives.

A two-and-a-half hour workshop that teaches festival-goers to create their own desktop modulator synth is also on the menu. “In general, technology is becoming more and more a part of people’s lives,” Sweeting says, adding that part of their mission plan is making the creative terrains engendered out of the technological advances, more accessible to the public.

The story of electronic music is much like the story of the computer. Electronic instruments used to be large, clunky, and extremely complex. That technology has since evolved to a point where the kind of sounds created on on unwieldy synthesisers can be replicated on extremely user-friendly devices, including fun, playful, intuitive phone apps.

The sphere of electronic art and music has opened up to include people without engineering backgrounds or years of practice. This has made experimenting with electronic music production easier, and taken elements previously crucial for artists, like recording and putting out CDs, out of the hands of music production houses and into the remit of individuals who might not have record sales as their primary concern.

Polytik Live at Sonar Hong Kong – Courtesy of Magnetic Asia

“[The event] is a rare opportunity to see all the links, from the products, to the workshops showing how to use them, to watching the artists use them,” says Lam. “There’s a real sense of a journey that will help people learn and explore and discover that can hopefully help inspire a new generation of artists.”

Musical tastes are diversifying as Hongkongers develop increasingly curious cultural appetites, thanks in part to the rise of the internet and the growing prevalence of so-called “bedroom producers,” who make music at home. This development has, to a degree, democratised music production such that making electronic music without the constraints of requiring widespread commercial success is now viable.

But this also means that those who do want to make their way in the world of music production have to take it upon themselves to make that happen. Local new media artist and musician Choi San Ho, who will be performing at Sonar, knows all too well what it means to have to pave his own way within the landscape of Hong Kong’s arts scene.

“Being a creative talent in Hong Kong, we have to do many things,” he says. “I publish my own CD albums, do multimedia performances, did concerts before as a musician.” Among Choi’s long roster of creative projects are artworks, art videos, exhibitions and pieces composed for innovative dance companies in Hong Kong. With his cross-disciplinary approach to making art, Choi represents everything that is exciting about the do-it-yourself direction of digital arts, which puts the creative power back into the hands of the people who genuinely want to make it.

“The reason I started making electronic music was because there wasn’t much music I found I liked under the local mainstream music scene, so I thought, ‘Let’s make something I want to listen to,'” he says. Things have changed over the past decade, and Hongkongers are becoming increasingly receptive to music that goes beyond mainstream tastes.

But there’s still a ways to go: in many ways, Hong Kong remains a city in which younger generations continue to be haunted by conformist standards of success that value stable career paths over creative pursuits. That’s an attitude the team at Magnetic Asia is trying to derail. “All we can do over at our end is show that cultural pursuits are commercially viable in Hong Kong, and show the various options that are available to the next generation of creatives,” says Sweeting.

More Information at Sonar Hong Kong

When: April 1st, 2017, 1st Edition
Where: Hong Kong Science Park, Shatin




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