I was delighted to be asked by the Hong Kong Philharmonic to compose the visual components of a groundbreaking experiment, one which has attracted a great deal of publicity before and since. The Metaverse Symphony is the world’s first symphonic work to be premiered in both a concert hall and the Sandbox metaverse – a fully immersive experience, showcasing the unlimited possibilities of music in a virtual world. It was also my first opportunity to work with Elliot Leung, one of Hong Kong 's most dynamic young composers, and most celebrated.
The Metaverse and the Sandbox certainly fit into my sphere of influence or interest. My artworks have always been tied to the most dramatic themes of the day, whether it be interpreting live COVID data or live Blockchain prices, and operating at the frontier of the human/digital paradigm.
My work typically involves audience interaction, and is typically tailored to the shorter attention spans of a high paced world. Historically, most artists would contend that maintaining audience engagement for a non-linear, screen-based narrative for over one hour is not for the faint of heart. The scale of interactivity within a concert hall is necessarily different from a movie, pre-recorded music video, or even VJing. My work was to be shown on a screen in the concert hall. The role of the screen is an ambiguous one. Staring at a it, we are always aware that we are looking at a portal, and therefore an illusion, and not that which it represents. This is one reason we are experimenting more with headsets, projections and holograms.
Recognizing these limitations, my first responsibility therefore, was to provide visual variety, and to present innovation. However, I tend to prefer simplicity, both in coding and in output. The software I use is merely of sufficient “complexity” to accommodate the live data with which it will react. What I seek to do, is to hint at potential, to strip out the excess, and to focus in on the essentials, similar to riding in a supercar but limiting its speed. Too much complexity of visuals would distract from the hypnotic journey, from the message of each movement, and from the music itself. It’s worth noting that most of the audience were regular visitors to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, arguably more attuned to and experienced in stimulation from classical music rather than visual imagery. My work was therefore an equal partnership with sound, but must never threaten to dominate or overshadow it.
The four symphonic movements of Elliot’s music each have their own narrative core, which in turn inspire varying emotions. I logically created four separately themed artworks to accompany the music. The on-screen flow of abstraction through colour, texture and pattern became a combination of technology and subjective human feeling. As the visuals are generative, each experience I created is unique: the audiences would see a different visual construct in every show.
To create a clear separation between each movement, consistent with the desired variety, I drew inspiration from four different visual formats, namely: film (first movement), graphic design (second movement), poetry (third movement) and contemporary painting (fourth movement). This panoply of riches reminds me of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s intention for every day: “Every day look at a beautiful picture, read a beautiful poem, listen to some beautiful music, and if possible, say some reasonable thing.”
Elliott 's first movement has a dramatic, almost blockbuster spirit, reminiscence of films such as Mission Impossible or Star Wars. I also took reference from the video game REZ (2001) which best described my feelings about the music. The form was partly inspired by the Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Angel#5, a blue shape-shifting crystal-like organism which evolves according to its surroundings.
The second movement was inspired by the legendary Japanese designer Mitsuo Katsui and generative art pioneer John Maeda. The seemingly random lines express the change of connectivity during the movement. It opens in a harsh, tense and frustrated mood, with black/white lines weaving out of the screen. The sound made by the string instruments synchronized with unexpected visual fragments. When the music changed to a warm and harmonized mood, the visuals also become colourful, with fragments twisting to embody origami flowers. The whole treatment is intended to be minimal and calm, and therefore a contrast to the dazzling experience of the first movement. The colourful broken lines also resemble a crashed phone screen, as a reminder about the experiences many of us have as daily users of technology!
The third movement is an extension of my work Under Pine which was shown at Art Basel HK 2023. It is the only piece which receives live midi signals from the musician. This is a visual poem, derived from snatches of broken words, and one which is directly influenced by live events.
The first and last movements are doubtless the most lengthy and emotionally complex. The overriding narrative is the story of painting a picture, a contemporary painting. The programme I wrote simulates the flow of ink, and allows the possibility of changes of colour and the flow pattern through a midi controller. The visual reference is actually a personal one to me; it’s from a painting I bought recently, by a Korean artist named Kim Young-Hun. His series titled Electronic Nostalgia best describes my feeling about music. My output reflected the vicissitudes of many creative journeys: the painting started with vibrant colours, laden with energy; the painter then yields to self-doubt, before reaching a triumphant breakthrough. This seemed to me the best way to end the symphony and to demonstrate the emotional heights of the human struggle, joyfully expressed, in its own fashion, by technology.
I am proud of being involved in this tremendous endeavour. Moreover, I am enormously grateful to the many messages of support and appreciation that I have received from my peers, critics, colleagues and collectors in the art world of Hong Kong.
Arts in the metaverse is in its infancy, and will radically change in coming years. My role in this performance has been to bring an entirely new medium to the attention of the public, and I’m proud to have accompanied so many on the first steps of a lifelong journey.