Saturday 6 March 2021

To counter the way memory disappears and fades into the background: composer Raymond Yiu on the ideas, both musical and personal, behind the works on his latest disc

Raymond Yiu (Photo Malcolm Crowthers)
Raymond Yiu (Photo Malcolm Crowthers)

This World Was Once All Miracle
, which was released last month on the Delphian label, features three symphonic works by composer Raymond Yiu, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured, Symphony and The World Was Once All Miracle performed by counter-tenor Andrew Watts, baritone Roderick Williams and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, Edward Gardner, and David Robertson. It is the first disc of Raymond's symphonic works to be released and features three live performances including the BBC Proms performance of Symphony. The subject matter of the pieces varies from the poetry of Anthony Burgess to the AIDS crisis in 1990s London. I caught up with Raymond via Zoom to find out more.

Raymond Yiu: The World Was Once All Miracle - Delphian records
Whilst Raymond admits that on the surface there is no link between the three works, he later in our conversation talked about how his works often seem to come in threes. So the three symphonic works come after each other in Raymond's output, and in retrospect, there are links between them. The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured takes its title from a pamphlet produced by London-based bookseller and editor Alexander Cruden (1699-1770) but the piece's inspiration is London-related literary and musical themes with links to George Orwell's 1984 and its depiction of a city whose sights and sounds have been erased. Orwell takes us towards writer and composer Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) whose poems are used in The World Was Once All Miracle and then Symphony includes a poem by English poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004) who was Burgess' near contemporary. And, as the works were written back to back they share musical gestures, though this is not always obvious.

The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured was Raymond's first big orchestral piece and is like a concerto for orchestra. The parts are subdivided, to what Raymond calls an insane level of detail almost to prove that he could do it and he says he will never write like that again.

The initial idea for Symphony was for a song cycle for counter-tenor Andrew Watts who Raymond has known since 2003 and for whom he has already written a song cycle and a role in his opera The Original Chinese Conjuror which premiered at the 2006 Aldeburgh Festival [see Andrew Clements' review in The Guardian]. So Raymond proposed a big orchestral song-cycle to the BBC, and the working title became Sinfonia Concertante, a sort of concerto for counter-tenor. The piece is about love and memories, and this theme gives a dramatic shape to it. Raymond set texts by John Donne, Walt Whitman, Constantine Cavafy and Thom Gunn and even the second movement, which is wordless, has text behind it, this time a poem by the British modernist poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985).

This coming together of poet, singer and music suggested the coming together of a work like Sinfonia by Luciano Berio (1925-2003) where Berio intended the title in an etymological sense, to point to a diversity of sounds and meanings coming together. And it was Edward Gardner who suggested the title Symphony as it was easier to remember, and Raymond rather liked it because the title Symphony doesn't give anything away so the work is not what people expect.

As the work was for the BBC Proms, Raymond wanted it to be about things that mattered to him. Symphony touches on difficult subjects, a friend who committed suicide and those who died from AIDS in London in the 1980s and 1990s, things that affect you as a gay man. He wanted the music to have a sense of memory, to show music's power to take you back.

The piece not only about memory but represents a deliberate sharing of personal memories. When the work was commissioned, the AIDS crisis was getting forgotten thanks to advances in medicine, so there was a danger of forgetting how painful it was. Raymond intended the piece to counter the way memory disappears and fades into the background.

After the world premiere of Symphony, Raymond Yiu with countertenor Andrew Watts, conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall, 25th August 2015 by Christopher Christodoulou
After the world premiere of Symphony, Raymond Yiu with countertenor Andrew Watts, conductor Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
at Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2015 (Photo Christopher Christodoulou

Raymond gave thought to how melancholic to make the music, he does see the Symphony as a positive piece, he didn't want it to be gloomy. It doesn't just deal with AIDS, the Cavafy poem is an homoerotic love song, whilst Thom Gunn's poem has other elements in it such as drugs and gay bars. Raymond wants Symphony to be a reflection of life as it was, not just death. In fact, death only crops up in the work at the end of the fourth movement, so the piece is a celebration of the life of those we lost.

When Raymond's friend committed suicide, a particular Scarlatti sonata stuck in his head; in fact, not just a particular sonata but a particular recording of that sonata. And he uses this Scarlatti in Symphony as a signpost to associate with her death. He knew about Basil Bunting's obsession with Scarlatti and so the music draws these threads together.

The subject matter for Symphony came first and then with an inkling about the shape of the work, Raymond looked for the poets. He wanted to set the John Donne poem (an extract from The Anniversarie from Songs and Sonnets, 1633), and he thought it would make a suitable ending for the piece, celebrating love in eternity. Raymond knows Walt Whitman's work well, and the decision to set one of his poems came second. The poem, Song of Myself (from Leaves of Grass, 1881), is an evocation of music "not just for the victor, but the victim, for the fallen", which very much fitted the shape of the piece. The Cavafy poem that he chose was Come Back (from Poems 1905-1918), whilst Thom Gunn is one of Raymond's favourite poets. The poem from the collection, The Man with the Night Sweats (1992), but Raymond chose a poem, In Time of Plague, which celebrated disco music! 

Raymond has always wanted to write a disco song, and in this context, he likes the sense of contrast brought by talking about something dark but with cheery music; the strange disparity between words and music was the whole point. Raymond admits that he has always been affected by the way the film Silence of the Lambs used the music from a Mozart concerto, or how Stephen Sondheim in Sweeney Todd wrote a cheery song, 'A Little Priest!' about turning people into pies. He finds that this dichotomy makes you think.

The World Was Once All Miracle was a commission from the Anthony Burgess Foundation. Raymond has always admired Burgess' writings but came to Burgess through his music, via the book, This Man and Music. This first encounter with Burgess happened 20 years ago when Raymond was obsessed with Paul Bowles (1910-1999), a writer who wrote music and studied with Aaron Copland (1900-1990). As a result, Raymond became fascinated with writers who wrote music, and thus discovered Burgess as a composer and only then discovered his writing.

Burgess considered himself as a composer first and tried to make a living as such, but only turned to writing because he was unable to earn a living as a composer. Raymond's commission from the Anthony Burgess Foundation came as a result of the success of Symphony, and they were interested in Raymond's different perspective on Burgess. A song cycle seemed an obvious idea, but it was difficult to find the text as Burgess had written so many books. Whilst Raymond liked the novels, it was a problem to turn them into music. But then he discovered Burgess' collection of poetry. The poems are not easy, they are quite dense, allusive and abstract with word plays. In the end, he chose six extracts, (from Revolutionary Sonnets and Other Poems, Carcanet, 2002) not to make a narrative but to create a portrait of Burgess so the work has multiple perspectives on Burgess' personae.

Anthony Burgess in Malaya in the 1950s (Photo Anthony Burgess Foundation)
Anthony Burgess in Malaya in the 1950s
(Photo Anthony Burgess Foundation)
Raymond has great sympathy for Burgess as a composer, feeling he knows where Burgess is coming from, after all both are auto-didacts. Also, Burgess lived in Malaysia during the 1950s, almost the opposite trajectory to Raymond who was born and brought up in Hong Kong and came to London; both have a way of seeing a strange a land which they made their home.

Raymond came to London when he was in his late teens and is now in his mid-forties, but on a day to day basis he still feels like a stranger. He talks about being shouted at in the street, called a Chinese Virus and told to go back. Despite living more than half his life in the UK, he is still other. In various ways, he does not have a typical musical background, which also makes him an outsider. Raymond trained as an engineer and did not go to a conservatoire.  He talks about having lessons with a distinguished composer who treated him with disdain because he didn't study at a conservatory. Raymond's response was to think 'Fuck you', and he did his own thing to prove such people wrong.

His musical background at home in Hong Kong was Cantopop which used second-hand music from the West, and Raymond does not consider pop music as any less than classical. It has taken him a while, but he no longer has an inferiority complex. As a composer he is based firmly in the Western classical tradition, he grew to know and love the Western classical canon and learned his craft to write for that tradition. But he has come to understand that the Western instruments are just a canvas, the content can be different. So that whilst he writes for a Western classical orchestra, the music he writes for it can have different contexts.

Whilst he is also a fine jazz pianist, most pieces on the disc are based on serialism; his pieces are carefully planned and nowhere near written out jazz improvisations. For instance, he took the Scarlatti sonata and used it as the basis for a tone row. In his music, tone rows might be based on a quotation, but any sense of improvisation comes later in the compositional process. He writes at a desk using paper, working out the mathematics of the piece first. To make a piece work, he has to work on its DNA, so that he might take a quotation and use this to create a tone row, the work's DNA, and from this create musical motifs, and from here he might improvise on the resulting motifs, though he does not use jazz specifically.

The sense of living in a busy metropolis is another key element in his work. He was born in the busiest part of Hong Kong, Mong Kok which at the time was one of the densest populated areas of the world.  Raymond is used to the crazy business of living in a busy city, and this comes over in the music. He loves quotation, allusion and pastiche but they collide, merge and overlap, as in living in a city where you are so close to other people and so overloaded with sound. 

The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is the work on the disc which comes closest to the chaos of the city. His ideas come strongly from Charles Ives (1874-1954) with the idea of giving an impression of the real world in all its chaos. For Raymond, lots of composers write an abstract idea of the world, whereas Ives' soundworld deals with the real thing.

Top of the list of Raymond's influences is his mentor, the German-American pianist and composer Lukas Foss (1922-2009), whose music changed Raymond's life. He came across Foss' orchestral piece Baroque Variations (1967) by chance, and the work opened things up for Raymond, showing what a composer could and should be. Raymond became friends with Foss when he came to the UK for the last time, and Foss premiered Raymond's first big piece. At the time Raymond was still working in IT and felt isolated and Foss' premiere of his piece was by way of encouragement. For someone like that to do so gave Raymond a sense of self-belief. This still affects the way Raymond teaches as he gives his students that push to go further, which is what Foss did for him.

Other influences include George Gershwin who wrote very user-friendly music, yet it is sophisticated in its detail and depth. Whilst the same could be said of Stephen Sondheim. Raymond finds Luciano Berio fascinating, how he has one foot in the past and one in the future. Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Raymond loves for his 'don't give a shit' attitude, the way he writes what he wants.

After the premiere of The World Was Once All Miracle, Raymond Yiu, baritone Roderick Williams, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the  Barbican 13 April 2018 (Photo ©BBC Mark Allen)
After the premiere of The World Was Once All Miracle, Raymond Yiu, baritone Roderick Williams, conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
at the Barbican 13 April 2018 (Photo ©BBC Mark Allen)

Currently, Raymond is working on a children's opera. But he has other works in the pipeline. He has written a Beethoven-inspired piece for the Hong Kong Philharmonic which was due to be premiered last year but is currently on the shelf. It is called Old Bei which is the Chinese nickname for Beethoven. Further ahead there is another work with a Chinese musical theme, a violin concerto which will be about classical music during the Cultural Revolution in China. This will focus on the Chinese violinist and composer, Ma Sicong (1912-1987). Some mid-20th century Chinese composers are known, thanks to the success of works like the Butterfly Lover's Violin Concerto, which was written in 1959 by He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935), and the Yellow River Piano Concerto, which was a premiered in 1969 and was a collaboration between composers including Yin Chengzong (born 1941) and Chu Wanghua (born 1941), and based on the earlier Yellow River Cantata by Xian Xinghai (1905-1945). But other works do not get played, and Ma Sicong's music was banned for 20 years after he escaped to America and wrote about his experiences in China and so was branded a traitor.

This brings us back round to the present, with the current worrying events in Hong Kong (Raymond still has family living there) and in fact, Raymond has made some musical changes to Old Bei to make it less contentious.

Raymond Yiu: The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured, The World Was Once All Miracle, Symphony - Andrew Watts, Roderick Williams, BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson, Sir Andrew Davis, Edward Gardner; Delphian - available from Amazon, from Hive.

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