The Kites of Tianjin was the fifth and final set of performances by composer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons in his series The Usefulness of Art, inaugurated back in March 2017 with Concerto for Piano and Toy Band. It has proven to be an ambitious cycle, with each concert unveiling a recent or newly composed work, written specifically for a large ensemble.
In composing these new works, Simmons has intentionally drawn from his own life, and The Kites of Tianjin is no exception. Its genesis lay in a visit Simmons and Australian-Chinese musician Wang Zheng-Ting made to the city of Tianjin, in China, in April 2018. Tianjin is renowned for its ‘Wei Kites’, created by Wei Yuantai (1872–1961), and Simmons and Ting found themselves hosted by his great-grandson Wei Guoqiu, who continues the tradition today.
The Kites of Tianjin is a seven-part suite that highlights the playing of Wang Zhen-Ting, a specialist in the ancient Chinese instrument sheng, a reed instrument comprising a series of vertical pipes, often referred to as the Chinese mouth organ. Kites, in particular, assigns the principal role to wind instruments, a direct reference to the movement of air that brings a kite to life, and which allows a musician to produce sound.
The central metaphor for the composition is the function of breathing in our lives. Simmons remarked at the outset that his entire instrumental education has been about learning how to breathe. If earlier concerts in the series explored art, travel, and ideas, focusing on our place in the world, Kites intentionally narrows this focus: instead of what’s my place, it posits how can I be?