HellHot! New Music Festival

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The HellHot! Festival continues to be Hong Kong new music’s sole saviour. John Yip checks out what’s in store for year three

In July 2010, Hong Kong was blessed to witness the first HellHot! new music festival, a long-awaited remedy to the city’s midsummer craving for concerts. And, now in its third year, the independent festival is aiming for something bigger and even newer.

While the festival may still be niche, the names behind this music revolution are definitely not unheard of. “William Lane, the director of the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, approached me and another active local composer Samson Young about this project,” says award-winning composer and self-professed ‘gallerist’ Aenon Loo.

Thus was born this burgeoning festival. And when three of the most avant-garde musicians in town come together, local music lovers can expect something rather out of the ordinary. Hinted in its explicit-enough title, HellHot! celebrates new music which has taken different forms across the world. “New music in Europe may be defined as the continuation of the classical contemporary tradition of Schoenberg, Messiaen, Boulez and Xenakis,” says Loo, also adding that, in places like China and America, new music has taken roots in academic classical as well as in indie and electronic traditions. However, the HellHot! trio have taken a slightly broader definition of new music to encompass contemporary tunes written by
living composers.

“In Hong Kong, new music takes a unique flavour and we would like to brand it as something relevant to our society,” says Loo, also stressing that it is in the backbone of HellHot! to ‘embrace a non-pragmatic attitude to tradition’ while keeping in mind Hong Kong’s ‘East-meets-West’ mentality.

All parties, from local or overseas, participating in this highly Hong Kong-centric festival are consequently required to play at least ‘a piece either written by a Chinese composer or a Hong Kong composer’. Bringing the festival back to its local roots, it gives local music the attention it deserves and ‘provides new kinds of music to different audiences’, which are among the many ambitions that HellHot! wants to achieve. In practice, this also means focusing on concerts which introduce a novel music-listening experience. From the conventional concert hall to the somewhat quirky galleries and hidden clubs (yes, instead of drinking, you can go for some contemporary classical music…), the festival takes place all over the city. “We try to create a community for progressive music,” says Loo, “bringing people together in our hyper-commercial city.”

Over the festival’s two-year existence, the organisers have already succeeded in creating some memorable shows. At its debut, they presented a 19-hour marathon of Satie’s Vexations at a gallery in Lan Kwai Fong, which surprisingly attracted party-goers (and an Elvis impersonator) at 3am. And, last year, they presented a rather difficult repertoire comprising pieces from Austrian composer Schoenberg, Russian pianist Stravinsky and American electronic musician Babbitt in front of 450 people in collaboration with the University of Hong Kong.

And, this year, under the festival theme of ‘one step forward’, they hope to take it to the next level. How? Perhaps via master-classes from legendary Japanese composer Jo Kondo. Or a sound installation by uprising local composer Lam Lai. Or the exceptional Ligeti Quartet from London and American pianist Thomas Rosenkranz, who just so happens to be passing through China at the time of the fest. “Our festival is reactionary and opportunistic,” says Loo.

Even though Loo emphasises that taste for contemporary music is ‘very personal’, he also reveals that the festival’s blueprint is to ‘establish a full educational component’ and eventually become ‘a residential institute for students’ over the next couple of years. “The audience for new music in Hong Kong is growing and deserves the best quality performance and the most suitable presentation,” he says.

Ultimately, it seems the purpose of HellHot! is to help spread the word of new music, part of the reason why almost the entire festival is free. Says Loo: “At the end of the day, we want people to open their ears to new kinds of music – music that has never been presented in Hong Kong before.” Amen to that.

HellHot! New Music Festival takes place Jul 4 - Aug 16; Visit here for more updates

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