In collaboration with
The pandemic has kept musicians apart from each other for months and has undermined the instinctual nuance of collaboration which is at the heart of any musical performance. Since the 16th Century, spatial distance has inspired composers to write music which makes architecture resonate. As Hong Kong’s musicians re-assembled amid months of isolation, multi-media artist Oliver Shing celebrates unique architectural spaces through music and film, placing them into the iconic structures of Tai Kwun to perform the new work Social Distancing by composer James Boznos. Boznos, who is also HK Phil’s Principal Timpanist, collaborates with his colleagues to perform the work that speaks to the disconnection of the pandemic experience, and celebrates architecture, music, isolation and coming together.
Notes from the composer
The expression “social distancing” had little meaning to me until society socially distanced, and orchestras fell silent. In an effort to get some of us from the Hong Kong Philharmonic back playing together, I wrote this piece. It is a virtuosic vehicle for a mini-orchestra representing each instrumental family; wind, brass, percussion, harp, and strings, to perform together — for themselves, to make a video, or give a live socially distanced performance. Since traditional performance venues were closed, untraditional settings and iconic architecture were in my mind’s eye as alternative performance venues. I designed and composed this piece for the majestic Herzog & de Meuron staircase in the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and the Arts, Central, Hong Kong.
This piece is a sound sculpture, and there are two possibilities for its realisation. It may be played on one level stage with at least 2 metres separating any two musicians, or it may be performed with the musicians on multiple levels, like a 3D chessboard. My original conception of 4 soloists’ “characters” was reinforced by one of the iconic images/moments of the pandemic — people singing out of their windows while isolated at home. I pictured the musicians on different levels of the staircase in symbolic “windows” surrounding a central square “singing” their austere melodies.
People have given so much in these times. The mood of the music evokes isolation. The solos are laments — 4 different songs of loss, despair, agitation, dreaming, mental anguish, and hope. The healthcare workers, the grandparents who couldn't hold their grandchildren, the people who died without family at their side, and the millions who were forced to embrace lonelier times. In the final section of the work, all the melodies sound simultaneously.
The mp3 is comprised of a low drone and metallic percussion forming a backdrop to the antiphonal instruments. The low “D” sounds throughout the entire piece. Its effect can be both calm and ominous. It reflects on the ever-present power of COVID. Although we may forget about it briefly (like the effect of a drone), it saturates daily life. It also signified the commonality of the whole world’s predicament. The structure of the piece is in 7 “windows”: 1.) horn solo 2.) flute solo 3.) interlude 4.) bass clarinet solo 5.) trumpet solo 6.) interlude 7.) All windows.
Creative staging is encouraged. My dream for this work was realised in the video we made on the staircase at Tai Kwun. This pandemic has been a spiralling descent into distance for musicians craving what is most natural to us — performing together on stage with close contact. I hoped with this piece, that others around the world would record this work in an architectural gem of their own city, highlighting the virtuosi within their own orchestras as we wait for the ascent back up the staircase towards a new normal.
I have also made a version for 13 antiphonal strings, op.23b. The structure and mp3 are identical in both versions.
Bass Clarinet in B-flat
Trumpet in C
Horn in F
Director: Oliver Shing
Sound Producer: Roy Cheung
Composer & Principal Timpani: James Boznos
First Violin: Wang Liang
Second Violin: Domas Juškys
Viola: Li Jiali
Cello: Fang Xiaomu
Flute: Megan Sterling
Bass Clarinet: Lorenzo Iosco
Trumpet: Chris Moyse
Horn: Lin Jiang
Harp: Amy Tam