As Aldous Huxley once said, experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. At this moment of my career as a composer, Mr. Huxley’s saying rings truer than ever. I believe that a composer’s reaction to their experience is central to their entire output – and they key factor in creating great pieces.
I started learning the piano when I was four. The experience was traumatising. I knew I had a passion for music, but somehow it did not lie within the realm of piano playing. The laborious process of learning music and the lack of inspiration from my teachers left me cold. As a result, I stopped playing altogether for many years. The idea of being a composer did not even cross my mind until I started my undergraduate study in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Music was something I loved, but was not something considered a possible career path. I believe this was the result of a fear of failure caused by my strict and reasonably unsympathetic upbringing (as I discussed with Kate Silverton on BBC Radio 4 recently).
When I started to toy with the idea of writing music, I was in a lonely creative place. I did not take up A-level music because I did not think I was good enough, so I had no formal musical education. I learnt to notate music by listening to recording with scores. I broadened my knowledge by getting in touch with various composers for individual consultations. It was a slow process, but proved rewarding in the end. I had no particular interest in the pre-established forms of Western classical music. I trusted my instincts and took inspiration from my own experience. This has been the starting point of all my works.
I was born in Hong Kong in the 70’s. My coming of age coincided with the rise of the Canto-pop superstars of the 80’s – Alan Tam, Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui, Sandy Lam, to name just a few. I was obsessed with their songs, as much as the UK and US imports of the time. In fact, in many cases, they were the same thing. Many Canto-pop songs were cover versions of UK and US hits. For a long time, I felt a sense of cultural inferiority because I perceived my musical foundations were built mainly on reprocessed, second-hand ideas.
When I started investigating the history of Chinese popular music, I discovered an intriguing strand of musical history comparatively unknown. It originated in shidaiqu (時代曲), or ‘songs of the era’, of 1920s in Shanghai – and was the forerunner of Canto-pop and Mando-pop. For the first time, I was able to challenge my sense of cultural insecurity about my ‘musical heritage’. Out of this discovery, I produced a triptych of chamber pieces based on the Chinese popular music of different eras, Maomao Yü, (based on the first ever Chinese pop song, written for Lang Lang and the Silk String Quartet, which is made up of four Chinese Instruments), Northwest Wind (based on Chinese Rock, winner of a BASCA British Composer Award in 2010) and Night Shanghai (based on the eponymous song made famous by Zhou Xuan).
Beyond Canto-pop, traditional Chinese music has played an increasingly important role in my work. When I was younger, traditional Chinese instruments were not considered to be ‘trendy’ enough to learn. However after working with the wonderful Silk String Quartet, I was fascinated by the repertoire, techniques and philosophy associated with traditional Chinese music. The way music is perceived is completely different from the way I learnt from Western music. I wanted to explore further. In Jieshi, I retain the ancient qin melody Youlan (幽蘭), and surround it with spectrally related materials employed to a Western string quartet. The result is a curious composition-as-commentary work which is unique in my output. It was a one step further for me into the exploration of a whole genre of music I am relatively new to, even though it has been in the background of my memories since I was little.
My latest work, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is yet another work inspired by experience. This time, I draw my memories since I moved to London into creating an imaginary cityscape in sound. Although the fundamental materials I use are of English-origin (as a display of my admiration for English music) – a theme from Edward Elgar’s Cockagine and the English nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons – the transformations they go through during the piece are as idiosyncratic as they can possibly be. There is a transitional passage alluding to the drum introduction to Eastenders’ theme tune, à la Bejing Opera. At one point Elgar’s theme is turned into some kind of bizarre chinoiserie fairground music. Although the piece has a much darker undertone, its playful surface and compositional principles earn its subtitle ‘a symphonic game’.
We all have very different backgrounds, upbringings, educations and life encounters. This complex combination of elements is what makes us individuals. Once I understood and accepted my own experience as invaluable, I began to write my unique songs based on that experience as honestly as I can.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra gives the world premiere of Raymond Yiu’s The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured on January 18, 2013 at Barbican Hall, London, under the baton of Long Yu (Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of the Shanghai and Guanzhou Symphony Orchestras, and Artistic Director of the Beijing Music Festival). The concert also includes music by Elgar, Qigang Chen and Haydn. For details visit the BBC SO Website . The concert is also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.