A new disc from Delphian Records showcases the music of Raymond Yiu. If you like music that is intriguing, entertaining, challenging, sophisticated and sometimes outrageous, you'll like this.
The Dephian release includes three pieces: The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured, The World Was Once All Miracle and Symphony.
It was a pleasure to talk to Dr. Yiu earlier this week over Zoom. Yiu's musical development began in Hong Kong, where he was born in 1972 (moving to London in 1990). "Because I started as a self-taught composer for years, I just took whatever I thought was the best thing to do, I didn't follow a school. And because I came from Hong Kong, the music I listened to when I was a kid was Cantonese pop and a little Classical music. We didn't have a lot of traditional Chinese music in school. Everything was eclectic; my taste for different kinds of music was cultivated through that background. As a teenager I listened to Classical music more, then pop and later on jazz and Japanese Manga cartoon music; all very mixed. In my book, there was no sense of hierarchy, there was no sense of what was better than the other".
Yiu's debut portrait disc is certainly pluralist, and indeed we get three “angles” at him: a "symphonic game" – Yiu's own description of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured; the baritone song-cycle The World Was Once A Miracle, and a Symphony (with counter-tenor soloist) .
The London Citizen Exceedinly Injoured was inspired by a pamphlet by Alexander Cruden (1699-1770, best remembered as the compiler of the first concordance to the English Bible). "In about 2004 I was asked by the BBC to write a choral piece and I liked the idea of writing about madness. So I picked up a copy of the Faber Book of Madness (edited by Roy Porter) and I came upon this pamphlet and thought 'what an amazing title'. I knew it wasn't the right title for the piece I was writing then, but I made a note to come back to it. In about 2005/6 I started to write a brass quintet with that title, didn't get very far but I kept the sketches. At the end of my PhD, I knew I wanted to write a good piece for tthe doctoral portfolio, and that title came back. I loved the music of Elgar, I was researching Cockaigne - I love the piece, and I have an old edition, the old pocket score that tells you the story. The so-called "Citizen" theme was mentioned, and that was in the title. So the piece becomes "almost like my impression of London, a hundred years later"
To me as a listener, it frequently seems like Yiu has an idea which then explodes out in a multitude of directions. "One of the principal ways of me to compose is to look for the right subject matter: usually my pieces will have two subject matters seemingly without a link between them and I like to find the hidden link between them and put them into one entity. London Citizen is quite extreme: you have "Oranges and Lemons," Geeorge Orwell 1984, plus quotations of Vaughan Williams and John Ireland all hidden in there somewhere" .
I posit it's like a tapestry, gestures that don't have a need of reconciliation, like a patchwork quilt; but the use of quotation also touches on a connective thread in his work, memory. One performance of London Citizen was coupled with Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; and it was only after I heard that, that I started to hear Britten in Yiu's score (there are some sforzato wind accents that reminded me of "Sunday Morning" from Peter Grimes). "The Serenade is one of the first pieces of Britten that I knew, and the Spring Symphony. Those two pieces got me into Britten. I do not deny that Britten was quite a big influence; I love him and Walton and Tippett, but Britten has something sepcial in the way he deals with text and tecture, and how he manipulates text in the context of a song cycle. The way I choose texts is under the shadow of Spring Symphony".
So let's hear as sample of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured:
As one can hear, Yiu's orchestral writing has an exuberance that is infectious. One can hear another example of this in his contribution to the multi-composer Panufnik Variations, recorded here by the London Symphony Orchestra under François-Xavier Roth on LSO Live (purchase link below article):
Where does this virtuosity come from? "Thanks to LSO, that was part of the Panufnik Composers' Scheme. After I wrote the opera The Original Chinese Conjuror, I didn't write music for two years and I was still working in IT. I was exhausted, and didn't quite know what to do with manuscript paper!. And then the Panufnik Scheme came up, and that got me into composing again. It made me aware of the traps in writing for orchestra; workshops were so useful. I learned that one of the most imporrtant things is dynamics. No matter how busy the music is, if you make the dynamics right, everything can be heard. Then I went back to the scores I love, particularly Walton, a master orchestrator, and you pay more attention to the things they did. It was that scheme that gave me the confidence to write for orchestra".
The idea of a tapestry is there too in The World Was Once A Miracle, with its quotations from Arne, Purcell, Beethoven and Debussy. Which once more brings in memory - how we remember events, how memory colours what we know. "My PhD is called A Composer's Imagining of Musical Tradition and a Reinvention of Heritage, and heritage is about how we remember things. I was at the Proms once listening to a new piece once and I was talking to about ten composers in the bar afterwards, and it dawned on me that we all heard the same piece, but the way we remember the piece is so different. But if I expand the idea, 5000 people listening to the same piece, their impression is all coloured by what they know. If one sees something new, we look up in our 'database' to make connections, and it applies to listening to music, My music doen't tell people how to listen to to people pick up whatever they pick up, but I like to toy with the idea that I put so many seemingly random gestures."
A repository of experience implied an NLP aspect but there's also the semiotic idea of signs. "it's a combination fo both. A sa compsoer my job is to choose material from a sea of material and place it inot a 'container'; a listener can pick up ideas and sequence them accrording to what they know. " So it's an ever-changing loop between music and listener "I hope people listen more than once and every time they form a different memory of it. Remembering is abotu reconstructing, it's never exact."
The World Was Once All Miracle is a reframing too of Anthony Burgess, who saw hismelf as a composer first and writer second; and Yiu uses Burgess' writings as the basis. I wonder whether, in mining Burgess, Yiu discovered aspects of himself?
"In a way I did because that project was quite difficult. Finding the texts was the mst difficult part, he wrote so much. I tried to understand how he thinks, a bit like me, a bit ADHD. All his writing is so unexpected, the twists and turns are so weird. I feel for him because like me was an autodidact as a composer. There was a sense of rassurance and sympathy." A kind of mirroring, plus Yiu did a reverse journey from Burgess', moving from the Orient to the UK. Both exists in a "situation we shouldn't belong to and we look at the world around us as an outsider".
It is the singer Roderick Williams who is the soloist here, once of the finest singers around; he seems to understand the processes. "Being a composer himself, that really helped. I was lucky, throughout my career, the conductors and soloists I've worked with , they understand the music. Ed Gardner has spotted errors in my scores, which is a good sign. The two singers here did me proud". The end of The World is astonishing: it is jazzy, but it has a shadow underneath it. "It's about death, its' about departure. A sense of the macabre. The last song is similar to the Thomas Gunn setting in the Symphony, on the surface very jazz hands, but the subject, partciularly the Gunn, is so horrific. I like the juxtaposiotion of dark and light so people don't know what to think. It gives a sense of dilemma". I suggest it's discombobulating. "It's unsettling, you're in-between spaces. You can't pigeon hole it, and people can't quite pigeon hole me, which I quite like".
Here's a short excerpt from that sixth and final movement:
... and here's a short video by the Manchester International Festival in which Yiu talks about this piece:
When it comes to the Symphony, we all have a collective reaction to that term: and perhaps we should remember that Brahms delayed writing his First Symphony because of the shadow of Beethoven in this genre, for example. Interstingly, mention of Brahms brings up mention of that composer's Third Symphony's end, and the recalling of a theme. "Memory is so important for me. Originally, I didn't call my piece Symphony, it was instead what is now the title of the second movement. The conductor, Ed Gardner, said 'I will do the piece if you call it something else, for example Symphony'. And Symphony doesn't give away anything, it's such a blank but loaded title. I think of Mahler as a huge influence, and Carl Nielsen. I love Nielsen more than Sibelius, I find his symphonies so powerful. In the First Symphony you have two wordless voices, the snare drum cadenze in the Fifth, the weird Humoreske in the Sixth, the 'Sinfonia semplice'. The way he looks at a symphony is just as strange as the way Mahler did."
The soloist here is the astonishing countertenor Andrew Watts, who Yiu had previously collaborated with. Here is Yiu's contribution to NMC's A Countertenor Songbook, the toe-tapping song Forget-Me-Not with pianist Iain Burnside (and you can hear how strong Watts' voice is in this excerpt, too):
Yiu first met Watts at Aldeburgh on an opera writing course in the early 2000s; they became firm friends. Yiu was asked to write a light cabaret song for the Almeida Festival, deliciously camp and to a text by McGonegal. "Humour is so under-rated in music. I'm a real fan of things like Round the Horn. I love the double-entendres and slightly dirty jokes. Dirty jokes are needed in music". It is fascinating that Yiu can mix light-heartedness and depth so effectively. He is not afraid of deep issues: AIDS in the Symphony, for example. Here we find memory again, a gradual forgetting, and it's reinvigoration via the current epidemic of CoVID. "When I wrote the Symphony in 2013/4 it was to honour the people I knew that had died or been affected by AIDS. I was quite disappointed by how little people remember. When you live through it, the pain will stay. If you haven't, you don't know, you learn about it in history. But for those of is who were there, there's almost an obligation to keep that memory alive".
The Symphony is clearly a personal piece. Was it cathartic, too? (one movement is a memorial to a friend who committed suicide). "It was, its exorcising the ghost of the past. Her death, I'm still haunted by it in a way, every now and then I think I wish I knew what was going through her mind." And for sure one feels the strength of the emotion in the music.
Just listen to the purity of Andrew Watts' voice in this clip from the fifth movement, enclosed between a Tristan-esque cor anglais and a plaintive bassoon:
Yiu's background includes such luminaries as Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Lukas Foss (in fact Yiu is to speak about Foss on Friday March 12, around a performance of Foss' Renaissance Concerto). When I ask Yiu what he took from Foss, I get the one word retort "Everything". 'In 1997 or 1998, I went into Tower Records and randomly picked up a disc - I loved the cover - the Renaissance Concerto, Time Cycle, Baroque Variations. I was gobsmacked; this guy is alive and I want to meet him". A coincidence connection meant they did indeed meet; "and when we met he was more interested in my music [than talking about his own]. Even though I'd only just started, and he said I shouldn't ever give up composing. By just saying that, I just believe in it. Two years later I entered a piece for a composition, and didn't get it. When I told him, he did the piece. I wrote an article for Tempo and got Oliver Knussen to programme a piece for the Proms, Time Cycle, August 2000, the only piece that has been programmed of his by the Proms". Foss of course became the official piano soloist in Bernstein's Second Symphony. "Foss was there at the time when I wasn't sure what I was doing. When I did the interview with him for Tempo, I said 'just tell me what is a musical idea,' and he said 'it's a surprise that makes sense'. And that became my motto, my music is full of surprises that make sense." The composer Julian Anderson, too, was significant for Yiu, who encouraged him to do whatever he want to do. "He was really open-minded".
What's next? "I'm writing a children's opera for Mahogany Opera, they do snappy opera for children. And I have a piece I wrote fo the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for Beethoven 250, meant to be performed last September, now programmed for September this year. Hopefully this will be a new phase; my focus for the next few pieces is Classical music in China, and the idea of 'Yellow Peril' - Fu Man Chu and so on - how the Chinese have been portrayed as something evil. It's linked into the history of Hong Kong as well. The first is the Hong Kong commsission, titled with the name they give Beethoven in China. Beethoven is the most mportant composer there, more than Bach and Mozart, because of his struggle. The Chinese love struggle; I wrote a piece about how Beethoven became the imprint of Chinese culture. I'll also be writing a Violin Concerto based on the life of the Chinese violinst/composer Ma Sicong (1912-87), the best regarded violinst of his generation in China but not really known here. He was tortured during the Cultural Revolution and escaped to America. He was branded a traitor, his music was banned and he spent the rest of his life in Philadelphia. Now he's appreciated in China, but that doesn't erase the way he was treated. It's written for Esther Yoo. I got hold of the complete edition of Ma Sicong's work which is quite rare." As a taster, he says, try the Double Concerto, "quite Hindemith-ish, striking". Or maybe the Second Symphony (1958/9):
Coming up on Delphian, there are hopes for a disc of chamber music a couple of years down the line.
"I hope that I'm setting an example for composers to say you don't have to write serialism, you don't have to write minimalism. I just want to prove there's no right or wrong way to do things ..." A wonderful credo, I think we can all agree.
(All sound samples from Delphian restricted to maximum 40 seconds by request,)