The 50th HK Arts Festival

Reality or Illusion? An Interview with Composer Alain Chiu

Text / Elaine Ko

Fundamental Differences, the opening piece in the programme Shuffle Dimensions, was created by Alain Chiu for the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Converting environmental data from different Hong Kong locations into music, Chiu has created an enigmatic piece that works both the live magic of Cong Quartet and Keith Lam's dazzling digital art into a hybrid artwork, taking the audience on a multidimensional journey.  

Can you first tell us about your collaboration with Keith Lam and Cong Quartet? 

Chiu: Shuffle Dimensions is my first creative project with Keith. We share similar perspectives and an interest in exploring the vague spaces between reality and illusion, so we hit it off from the beginning. We often discuss when to input "real" (i.e. actual music) or "unreal" data (i.e. the sound of body movements) into the composition. The ambiguity could be confusing to many, but to look at things from an artist's perspective, if everything we thought we knew is not actually true, then anything is possible. Creators then have the perfect conditions to actualise their own truths. 

As for Cong Quartet, we always have a great time playing music; this is already our fourth collaboration. They are not only professionals in classical music, but also open to new experiments in contemporary music. We have such trust in one another that we start our projects a bit cluelessly and figure out things along the way, challenging our creative boundaries and getting out of our comfort zones. 


You have used various sets of data in your composition, for example, the biometric data of the Cong Quartet. Can you explain exactly how data sonification works? 


Chiu: Each piece of data represents a texture. The texture combines different musical elements and weaves everything into a composition. The term "data" makes me sound like a scientist, but I'm not. I start by creating a mapping system, such as correlating certain data (such as temperature, humidity, etc) with a musical note or dynamics.

Keith also gave me atmospheric data of significant historical years in Hong Kong, including 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, and the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong. I often ask myself, "What does this data represent?"  or "What does the day mean?" I realised I just needed to use the data to explain inexplicable emotions. 

Due to pandemic restrictions, Shuffle Dimensions switched its format from an immersive live concert to video format. Have the pandemic and the changes in recent years affected your compositions? Do you see the changes as a restriction or an opportunity? 


Chiu: For the original performance, the audience was to see everything happen before their eyes in real time, feel the atmosphere within the space, and experience the entire happening. Supposedly, I would capture Cong Quartet's biometric data, including their brain waves, and turn that into music. Now that we have shifted from a physical space to a video, the elements are more fixed as the sounds were captured during the recording sessions. I would have preferred to have the live performance, but the video format is the birth of something new nevertheless. 

Jockey Club InnoArts Series 2022

Shuffle Dimensions

Available from 1 December 2022 (Thu) 10:00am

Detail: https://go.hkaf.org/HevwDw