Raymond Yiu

Interview: Raymond Yiu

‘A creator should be taking risks. What’s the worst thing that could happen? That it doesn’t work? If you don’t take risks, you don’t create music that is interesting.’

  • By Olly Wareham
  • 25 Mar 2021
  • min read

Following the release of his debut album of original works, The World Was Once All Miracle, we spoke with the enigmatic composer Raymond Yiu via Zoom from his studio in Battersea Park.

The album is comprised of three pieces written over five years and includes Symphony, which is an ode to the people who lost their lives during the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The piece was performed at the Proms and covers a subject that is deeply personal to Yiu.

In conversation, it quickly becomes clear just how fascinated Yiu is with music of all types from all over the world. During his PhD. at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Yiu developed a keen sense of context and history in music, cultivating a research-based approach to his own compositions. As such, heritage plays an important role in the music that Yiu creates, particularly his childhood growing up in Hong Kong:

‘I think about that when I wonder what influence growing up in Hong Kong, in possibly the busiest part of Hong Kong (Mong Kok), has had on me. It used to be considered the busiest part of the world. I think with that kind of noise, I grew up with it and I’m quite used to it. If I grew up in the countryside, I think I might have a very different perspective.’

As he admits, Hong Kong perhaps doesn’t have quite as clear a musical identity as other places, but the search for identity itself, his unique and magpie-like approach, is what gives Yiu his heterogenous musical voice.

The album was supported by the PRS Foundation’s Composers' Fund and, in our conversation, we discuss the long journey Yiu undertook to develop his album, as well as the importance of drawing from your own life experiences in composition.

'If you don’t write from your own experience, you take away the most important thing. The way you see things and the things that you know are what make you unique.'

Congratulations on the release of your first album. How does it feel? Can you talk us through the process of how the album came together?

The whole thing was such a saga. The preparation for it took place over several years, starting with the performance at the Proms and the Burgess song cycle that was done in Manchester. After that I thought, ‘Maybe I should start thinking about getting them onto a disc.’ Of course, a lot was resting on financing it. The PRS Foundation’s Composers' Fund came up and I thought about applying for it. I first applied for it in 2017 and didn’t get it, but I got a really good response. They explained that the project was very good, but I needed to remove a lot of the budgeting ambiguity and to make sure that the figures add up and are convincing. I then applied the following year and got it, which was such a great push. It really helped gain the momentum for getting the rest of the funding needed. When you do get somebody supporting in a financial way, it gives others confidence to support it.

As a classical composer, would you say that it’s particularly special to be releasing your first album of your own work? It must feel like a significant milestone. In the pop world, people tend to release albums fairly regularly, particularly nowadays.

I think it is, especially when you consider how long it takes for a composer to write one piece of music. This album has three orchestral pieces. The first piece was written in 2012 and the last one was written in 2017. That’s five or six years of just composing music. Then there’s the process of actually recording the works.

When you think about the pop world, people tend to release an album once every two years if they’re quick enough. I’m a huge fan of Kylie Minogue. I’m always interested in how often she releases an album. My background is in Cantonese pop ties in with a lot of western pop. That Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW) style pop: Rick Astley, Bananarama. Those are the people I grew up listening to. I think honesty in music transcends genre.

The pieces that you selected for the album span across several years. What made you choose those pieces in particular for the album? Is there something that ties them together?

I think it was quite obvious that those pieces would be the ones to make the album. They were written back-to-back. I wrote smaller pieces as satellite pieces around them, but they were the core pieces that I was writing at the time. I think those three pieces are representative of what I do now compared to the music I was writing ten years before. I’m also especially proud of those three pieces. The fact that I got to have the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform all of them to such a high standard is incredible.

What did it feel like the first time you heard an orchestra playing your own works back to you?

Incredible. The first proper performance of my work was at a music workshop in Nottingham. It was run by the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM). I had three pieces on their new music shortlist. They chose an orchestral piece of mine to workshop, which they did in a school with a semi-professional orchestra. I was sitting there on a weekday morning and suddenly the whole orchestra just bloomed. It was an incredible sensation. I could feel vibrations coming through the floor. It really was incredible. There’s also a sense of bewilderment; the first feeling you get of hearing your own music played back to you. I was in awe.

You came to be a composer after a career in a totally different field. What made you take the leap?

I worked in IT for about thirteen years. However, a few years before that I wrote an opera for a festival. I was totally burnt out after that, so I didn’t compose anything for about two years. I found it very hard to get myself back into composing. I was always exhausted when I finished work. Doing eight hours in the office, then coming home and doing more work, it came to the point where I realised that I find it really hard to do both. I was writing maybe one or two short pieces a year and it wasn’t enough to keep me going. I was like trying to start a car in the winter: it just doesn’t start.

I asked myself: ‘Do I want to carry on earning good money with my day job but not really being happy?’ I realised that my job was quite mechanical, I was just going through the motions. My answer was ‘No,’ so I decided that it was time for a change. In 2009 I gave up my job and approached Guildhall to ask if I could get onto their masters programme. They, in turn, offered me a place on their three-year PhD. programme. I needed the time and the headspace to have a real go at it.

How did the PhD. at Guildhall influence the way you compose?

I think, before the PhD., I was like a magpie, picking up musical ideas from everywhere. Being a self-taught composer, I didn’t have the same constraints that other composers may do. At the same time, I think there was a problem as I wasn’t quite sure how the pieces that I’d produced fit together and whether they represented an entity of who I am as a composer. The process was slightly random and I felt like there was a kind of deficiency. I decided that the PhD. would be useful as an opportunity to sort that out for myself. It really helped me. The PhD. wasn’t just writing music but researching music as well.

I think it also helped me understand myself a lot more, as a composer and as a person. I was going through a huge identity crisis; I didn’t understand who I was. So, the PhD. asked all the right questions of me: ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I not doing that?’ That really informed the way I think, in technique, but also in subject matter and material. Those three and a half years were very important to me in many ways. I’ve become much savvier in what I choose to write and not.

There’s so much about identity in your work. It does seem to represent you, the times you have lived through and your heritage.

I think that’s the only way to do art. If you don’t write from your own experience, you take away the most important thing. The way you see things and the things that you know are what make you unique.

When you look at a painting, you’re seeing what the painter sees through their eyes. It isn’t a selfish thing. I think, with most of my music, I don’t tell the listener how to listen, I put it out there in as close a way of the sound being an objective object as closely as possible. Then they can make up their own mind. It will always create an individual recall of memories and emotion for each listener.

'If you put two impossible objects together, your job as a composer is to find a link that can draw them together; an unusual path that can be used to connect the two things.'

The piece Symphony is a tribute to the people who died during the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s. Can you talk us through the genesis of the piece and the piece itself?

It’s interesting timing now that Russell T. Davies has released It’s a Sin, it’s become something people talk about again.

I came to London in 1992. It was amazing, but it was also a very scary time. It was the first time I was properly out and could explore the gay scene. At the same time, AIDS was still incurable. You could feel it everywhere. People where nervous about it. People were talking about it. You could see people dying everywhere, in newspapers and even out on the street. People would disappear and you’d find out later that they’d died. It was omnipresent. Seeing all these young people, who hadn’t even started their lives, wasting away. It was horrendous. I know people who lost 80 percent of their friends. It stays with you for a very long time.

By about 2014 when I was first commissioned to write the piece by the Proms, I thought that we don’t talk about AIDS as much now that we have all the medicines. People who have HIV now mostly they don’t die. They can survive for a long time, which is great. But people are slowly forgetting what it was like during the period. How painful it was. It was such a big, important part of the LGBTQ history. It’s becoming a much hazier memory than it was. People don’t seem to take it as seriously. At one point the HIV infection rate was going up, which is partly to do with that.

So, I thought, if I’m doing something so public as a piece for the Proms, I want to bring that piece of history into the limelight with me.

There seems as though there’s a certain fearlessness to the way that you compose. You’re not afraid of exploring disparate influences in your compositions.

A creator should be taking risks. What’s the worst thing that could happen? That it doesn’t work? If you don’t take risks, you don’t create music that is interesting. When I look out for projects, I look at material and subject matter that allow me to look at two things that don’t belong together. I crush them into one to see what the conflict is. I like the friction that’s created, that also creates drama. For example, if I look at disco and a symphony, I want to know how they work together. If you put two impossible objects together, your job as a composer is to find a link that can draw them together; an unusual path that can be used to connect the two things.

During my PhD., I researched into Cantonese pop music. A lot of Canto pop is borrowed from English and American pop, but I didn’t believe that was the end of it. I really wanted to dig deeper and look at how Cantonese pop music came about. In the 1920s in Shanghai, a lot of black American musicians couldn’t find work at home, so they moved there. Shanghai was almost like a Berlin in Asia. There were a lot of foreigners working there and there were lots of dance halls and dance bands active there.

At the time, Pathé were working in China and paid Chinese composers to work with the dance hall bands to create a new genre that they could market to the Chinese audience. It became the music of the time and the first form of Chinese pop music. So, essentially, it came from American jazz and Chinese folk songs. The first pieces sounded quite weird, but I love things like that. The strange stories of how genres are created. You put all these things that don’t quite belong together but, eventually, they seem to work.

From that experience, I realised how you can make things interesting.

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