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Remy Siu Gaudeamus Award 2019 nominee

Remy Siu

For Canadian young music pioneer Remy Siu (1990), lighting and stage design are just as important as sound. He uses interactive game instructions changing in real time as alternatives to scores, resulting in ambitious, head spinning multidisciplinary performances.

When talking about his compositional process, Siu talks in the plural: ‘we’ created a piece, not ‘I’. It says a lot about the amount of interdisciplinary collaboration that takes place in his projects. And rarely is Siu’s own role confined to taking care of just the music: depending on the project, he can be in charge of live visuals, sound or ‘general direction’, which “sounds more glamorous than it is” he adds. If there’s anything that ties together his various roles, it’s his fascination for brand new technologies: “Every two years what you can do live with a laptop significantly changes. That’s the energy I gravitate towards.”

It all originates from when he began to experiment with making music for dance performances while studying composition in Vancouver. He soon got frustrated by a particular part of the process: “Often we would do rehearsals just working on the sound and then at the last moment we would get in the theatre and we would have to do the lighting really quickly and have almost no control over it. I wanted to have the same immediacy with that part of the performance.”

Then after working for a time doing lights and live visuals, he found he no longer got any gratification from traditional composing. “There I was sitting at a table again with a pen and paper, or whatever. I struggled with the score. I didn’t like that it doesn’t change based on input. I felt I couldn’t reconcile both sides of my work, the composing and the realtime systems. So I dove deeply into the latter side, because there was so much more energy and surprises there in terms of process.”

With his background as an avid video game player, Siu started creating software systems using real time game mechanics, where performers have to follow instructions just as players in a game respond to changing instructions. As in his piece Foxconn Frequency (no.3), where musicians have to perform almost impossible and constantly changing tasks. Their amount of success or failure is shown in the form of a live 3D-printed cube, while a soundtrack of electronic ambient plays on relentlessly.

The piece is a sharp commentary on both piano pedagogy and the inhumane working conditions in the factories of electronics multinational Foxconn, where the raw materials for almost all of our modern day consumer technology are made by anonymous, mostly Chinese, workers. The piece states specifically that it should be performed by ‘three visibly Chinese performers’, highlighting the conceptual part of the piece, as well as that “these works are also for the body. So how the performers look and who they are is just as important as stating that a piece is for violin or something.”

Naturally, the instruction on the ethnicity of the performers also pokes at the lack of ethnic diversity in the new music scene. “No, there’s not a lot of diversity in new music. And I think that if you truly want diversity, you can’t just ask other kinds of people to come partake in the same process that has been done for centuries. Why would they want to do that? So new music will have to expand to acommodate different practices and processes. Then people of colour could feel as if they could properly express themselves in this infrastructure.”