ED2014 Interviews ED2014 Music ED2014 Week3 Edition

Njo Kong Kie: A musical picnic with a twist

By | Published on Tuesday 19 August 2014

Picnic In The Cemetery

‘Picnic In The Cemetery’ is one of three shows brought to the Fringe by the Macao-based collective Point View Art Association. It’s a piece of work that almost seems to defy categorisation; the composer himself struggles to place his style within a conventional genre, and while this show has music at its heart, it’s only a part of what’s on display. Our reviewer was won over by this experimental and avant-garde acoustic performance, and her enthusiasm inspired us to find out more about the show from its creator, Njo Kong Kie.

CM: Where did the idea for the ‘Picnic In The Cemetery’ show come from?
NKK: The idea for the ‘Picnic In The Cemetery’ show came about after I joined the Macao-based artist collective Point View Art Association, which is bringing three shows to the Fringe, the dance theatre piece ‘Playing Landscape’, ‘ Picnic In The Cemetery’ and an object theatre piece ‘ Puzzle The Puzzle’, all under the banner Made in Macao. Our collective is made up of artists from a cross section of disciplines, including visual artists, designers, composers, directors and producers, all behind the scene artists. Without their contributions, ‘Picnic In The Cemetery’ would only be a concert, not the multi-disciplinary experience that it is today.

CM: Some of the music in ‘Picnic In The Cemetery’ originates from an album of the same name – did you always intend for this music to become part of a performance, or did that idea come later?
NKK: I released the album in 2006, having composed the materials during a period of touring with musicians Simon Claude and Alexandre Castonguay, when we were working with the La La La Human Steps dance group. I called our trio Day Off, in reference to the fact that I wrote new music during the days off on tour in an attempt to amuse the other musicians. I’ve presented the repertoire at regular concerts, but always knew I would like to create a theatrical production. It only became reality, however, when I met the Point View Art artists in Macao.

CM: It’s an interesting title – where does that come from?
NKK: I love picnics, and I love cemeteries. For many years, I lived adjacent to a beautiful cemetery in Toronto, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and I found myself having picnics there often. The scenery is beautiful, and the setting quiet; it offers a momentary relief from the hustle and bustle of the world. It also offers the chance to reflect on life and make peace with an inevitability that we are all scared of, one way or the other. It offers a connection to, or at least a meditation on, what may lie beyond our day-to-day.

CM: There are various elements to the show – props, physical theatre, film as well as the music – was it always the intention to include those, or did they emerge as you developed the piece?
NKK: As I said, it was always my intention to build this show to include elements outside of the musical realm. Collectively they give a much more lasting impression for the audience. But this is definitely a work in progress as far as the staging elements are concerned.

Because of the specifics of the venue here, the show is rather different from the version we did last year in Macao, and is different even from the version we did at the start of our run here. We changed the configuration of the room in a major way just this past week. Doing so many shows in a row, we do take the opportunity to hone our production as we go.

Many elements of the staging come about through improvisation during the show, others are added or discarded from observation about how the show is working… I thank my team for being patient with me for changing cues every night prior to show. If you have seen the show, and if you come back again, you may have a different experience because something may have changed in the meantime.

CM: You’ve worked a lot with dance companies. Did that influence the theatrical elements of the show?
NKK: For many years I was the pianist and music director of La La La Human Steps, with whom I performed at the Edinburgh International Festival, and I have worked with other companies and choreographers. The work I did with them certainly influences the way I write music; though as for the theatrical elements I incorporate into this show, these come from working with theatre makers in general. Beside dance, I really enjoy theatre, opera and performance/live art.

Wagner called his operas Gesamtkunstwerk. With ‘ Picnic In The cemetery’, I am aiming to create an instrumental piece that can suggest that sense of completeness. By treating the cinematic and theatrical elements as a very important and crucial part of the experience, we hope to offer the audience a very different kind of concert-going experience than they have experienced before.

CM: How would you describe your music? Does it fit into any specific genre category?
NKK: This is a hard question to answer. I’ve been trying to find an apt and simple description of my work so I can market it better – it’s also easier when it comes to grant applications – but I have not succeeded. When talking to audiences, however, the words they often use are minimalism, romanticism, rhythmical, visceral, melancholic, cinematic, dance-like, Philip Glass, Takemitsu, Umebayashi. Because of its roots in classical music, my work may be attractive to an audience who enjoys classical music, but I think that it is music for those who don’t even enjoy classical music, as it definitely has a more contemporary sensibility about it.

CM: Is there a specific story you are trying to tell, or message you are trying to communicate with this show?
NKK: ‘ Picnic In The Cemetery’ juxtaposes the macabre with the light hearted. One is the inevitable destination for all of us, the other is about choices we can make. It is a musing on dying, but more importantly a reflection on how we live. Everybody will take away from the show something different. There is a lot of abstract imagery, created with videos, installations, props and live action. They can seem specific but do offer room for interpretation.

CM: Tell us more about your fellow musicians – have you performed together much before?
NKK: I recorded the album with my Canadian colleagues, but when I work abroad, I often like to work with musicians from that region. Our violinist Hong Iat U performed this piece in Macau last year. He is from Macao and a graduate of the Central Conservatory Of Music in Beijing. He has an eclectic taste in music and is an aspiring jazz musician. I find that musicians who have experience and interest in a wide range of musical genres tend to get my work a lot quicker. David Wong, our cellist, hails from Hong Kong. David comes more from an orchestral background but is adapting to playing this kind of music very quickly.

CM: How are you finding performing at the Edinburgh Fringe? Will you be back for future festivals?
NKK: I am sure every artist will say that doing the Edinburgh Fringe is a very tough exercise, because the time and energy demanded of each and everyone is enormous. Our offerings are also a little off the beaten track, with a focus on quiet meditation rather than show-stopping numbers, which perhaps makes for a harder sell. We certainly need to do better promotion and marketing, and many of us are not very good at that! And it sometimes seems that there simply isn’t enough audience to go around.

But for those that are looking for this sort of work, once we get them into the venue, I believe they do feel rewarded; and because they feel rewarded, we feel rewarded. Maybe that is why all the artists return each year, despite how hard it is to actually do this, to find those connections with the audience, whatever their numbers may be. Hope springs eternal, and we all think we can make the next outing work better for us. It’s like climbing Mount Everest, one will not be satisfied unless one has reached the peak.

But, of course, doing the Fringe is not just about ticket sales and good reviews; finding friendship with other artists and participants is also important, and making a connection with the local community is also very special. Our cello is borrowed from the Fiddle And Guitar Shop in Fintry, and our 1923 Collard And Collard piano is on loan from the Underwater piano shop in the city, and Capitol movers gave us a huge discount to help us out. Yes, we will definitely come back.

CM: You’ve performed this piece outdoors before. Does it add anything to it? Can you see yourself doing this here, given the Edinburgh weather…?
NKK: Yes, it would make sense to do this show outdoor in a cemetery. We just haven’t done it yet, though would certainly love to try it at some point. For the kind of ambience we want to create with this piece, what with the projections and the lighting designs and all that, if we were to do it outdoors, it would have to be at or after nightfall. To have a picnic at nightfall in a cemetery would be quite magical and ethereal, and would certainly bring about a heightened sense of excitement. I look forward to creating that production!

‘Picnic In The Cemetery’ was performed at C nova at Edinburgh Festival 2014.