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In the second series of interviews for Art & Music, Will Stokes paints his own portrait of the life and work of 22-year-old, Hong Kong-born composer Joanne Sy who is currently gliding onto London’s contemporary classical scene.

Joanne Sy is no stranger to uniting the visual with the aural, having had compositions performed at both the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and most recently was selected by the Royal Academy to compose music in response to its critically acclaimed, synesthetic architecture exhibition Sensing Spaces. A scholar at the Royal College of Music by way of the Croucher Foundation Hong Kong Award, Sy has studied under eminent British contemporary composer Kenneth Hesketh since 2010.

How did the composition you performed for the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces show came about?
– The RA got in touch with the Royal College of Music, and we were presented with this idea for composers to write pieces inspired particularly by the works in the exhibition. Six of us were chosen, and I consider myself really lucky – it was a really special experience.

Flung was performed around the cult Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s archway installation. Can you tell me how you approached the work?
– His particular structure was very conceptual, in the sense that instead of creating something gigantic, he rede ned the space through how people entered it – that is, through his archway set at an angle; so it diverts people from walking straight into the room and makes them enter it in a way they never ordinarily would. So it actually showed people, ‘this is a different way of viewing a room’. I really loved that: it gave me much more room to explore musically, and I thought, OK,if he’s challenging people’s perspectives, I’m going to do that texturally.I wanted to make something originally very dense, and then kind of slowly expand it, so the music would become more sparse as it moved along. The musicians were actually moving from one music stand to another as they were playing, and the intention was to illustrate how Eduardo Souto de Moura expanded the room with the archway; I wanted to almost guide the audience through that by literally taking them from point A to point B and point C. ere was enough room for that, and it was really interesting to see people’s responses when the musicians started moving… during the performance the audience was also moving around, so there was this freedom. I didn’t want people to come in and think ‘Oh, this is another concert where we have to stand still and make no noise’, and be really rigid. Because of the musicians’ movement the audience was, I think – I hope– encouraged to move around with them and be taken on a physical journey.

So there’s a dialogue there: between the physicality of literal movement and a more conceptual installation; and you also used quite a minimal ensemble of bass clarinet, oboe and violin. In practice, that’s a relatively straightforward assemblage, and it worked very well. Fundamentally, how do the concepts of physicality and space interact with sound, in your view?
– Those two things interact as my medium, and go hand in hand. Instrumentation is a way to maximise the potential of the space, and once you have the right instrumentation, that creates an environment in which the audience can experience the effect of that sound.

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So it’s symbiotic: instrumentation showing the potential of the space, and the space showing the potential of the instrumentation.
– Exactly. And I think you have to be in that physical room to experience its different effects: how loud can the violin sound when the musician plays a pizzicato?, or how loud can the bassoon play before it overpowers the oboe? So, yes, instrumentation is important with regard to how effectively the space is used. A piece that’s being played in location A will create a very different effect to the same piece being played in location B. I think it’s quite beautiful to see the difference.

So it’s the idea of unexplored territory waiting to be chartered through sound… In this way, is the concept of spatial exploration a key theme for you?
– I would definitely put it like that. Exploring space, using sound. A lot of it comes down to how intended the composition is. I could be given a space and never realise its potential, but a key intention of mine is to challenge the listener with what music can achieve.