10 Questions for Kevin Lau

I first encountered composer Kevin Lau on the 2012 CD PREMIERES, where I said the following:

cd_bigSpeaking of happy, I find myself more and more impressed by the work of the most junior contributor, namely Kevin Lau’s Joy. I found myself perhaps a bit like that insomniac Princess of that fairy tale with the pea causing her to toss and turn in her bed.  Joy opens with several strong gestures from the orchestra, phrases reminding me of some compositions I’ve heard before –that I love—before moving through a series of moods.  After listening a few times, I’ve grown more and more impressed that Lau took the stage boldly, a self-assured voice with something to say.  Joy is a troubling piece precisely because it questions happiness and joy, teasing us with lovely moments that refuse to promise us an easy happily-ever-after.  Lau is to be commended for bravely undertaking the old romantic project of exploring philosophical truths in his creation.  I love his ambition, and even more, I believe he did a fair job in his exploration of the idea. (full review)

Kevin Lau has been commissioned and performed by over twenty ensembles including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, Mississauga Symphony Orchestra, Hannaford Street Silver Band, and the Afiara String Quartet. His 2014 orchestral work, “A Dream of Dawn,” was commissioned by the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and received its world premiere in Vienna, Austria. In 2010 he received the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music for his composition “Starsail,” which was recorded on Naxos Canadian Classics by the Mercer-Park Duo in 2014.  In addition to composing concert music, Kevin is also active as a film composer, conductor, pianist, and arranger.

Kevin completed his doctorate in music composition from the University of Toronto under the supervision of Christos Hatzis.  You can see the full bio here .

It’s a good time (and a busy time) to be Kevin Lau.

This summer an original full-length ballet score based on Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s novel Le Petit Prince, will receive its premiere June 4th 2016 with National Ballet of Canada.  And this weekend you can hear the World Premiere of his Concerto Grosso for orchestra, string quartet, and turntables, a TSO commission for the New Creations Festival, March 5th .

I had to interview Lau to find out more.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

I recognize equal parts of my mother and father in my own personality and in the ways I view the world, though there are other aspects of myself that I can’t easily attribute to either of them. Likewise, they both possess characteristics that I find myself lacking. (For example, they are both much more organized than I am, and they have a thing for spicy food, which I do not.) My father was a medical researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital and my mother worked as an administrator in Hong Kong. Neither of my parents had any formal musical training, although I suspect they are both more musical than they might think. From my father I inherited much of my physical likeness, but also my love for classical music. When I was young, I devoured my dad’s classical collection. I remember, very early on—maybe when I was five or six—watching a VHS tape of Leonard Bernstein conducting the fourth movement Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over and over again, mesmerized by its structural quirks (which, of course, weren’t quirks to me then.) Later, we bonded over Mahler—literally, as we once listened to the entirety of Mahler’s Sixth while camping in the woods. (The weather was appropriately gloomy.)

My mother’s influence on me is more subtle, I think. She helps me to ‘keep it real.’ But I will never forget the day I overheard her humming, casually but extremely accurately, one of my compositions—which I had been improvising on the piano at least a day or two before. For some reason, that moment really surprised me; it makes me wonder what other secret musical talents she might be harbouring.

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Composer and conductor Kevin Lau (photo: Bo Huang)

2) What is the best thing about what you do?

When I’m in the middle of a piece and the writing seems to be going well, the sometimes crushing challenge of composing suddenly feels like an acceptable toll. That’s the best thing about what I do—witnessing those moments where my subconscious mind does something that excites me, then documenting it as an external listener might. In order to do that, though, I have to enter into a delicate dialogue with my imagination. I will sometimes approach a piece of music with all sorts of agendas, internal and external—imagistic, philosophical, narrative, theoretical—that I will then try to weave into some sort of coherent plan of action, only to see myself throwing it all out the window as my imagination steers me toward places I never would have thought to explore.

I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can exercise this kind of creativity on a daily basis. There is nothing I love more than spending hours at a coffee shop with nothing but staff paper and a pencil (and a book, in case I get stuck.)  I do it partly because I find the white noise of background conversation soothing (as long as there’s no music playing!), and partly because I get easily distracted at home by things like the internet. When I’m in danger of getting too carried away in my own world, I teach composition. I love teaching, for reasons too innumerable to name here—but perhaps principally because it serves to remind me of how much I still have yet to learn.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I attend concerts when I can, though not as often as I’d like to. I am very much a fan of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Ballet of Canada, though perhaps I am biased in that regard…

At home, I listen mostly to contemporary composers on YouTube. There is a staggering amount of content available online, enough to keep me occupied for several lifetimes. I keep a list of composers and titles whose music I want to listen to, and that list gets updated every week. Last year I tried to habituate myself into listening to a new piece of music every day, with the intention of blogging my observations, but I found that I couldn’t do it—it was too much novelty for me to handle. Still, I try to listen to new music on a regular basis.

If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll turn to the classics, or I’ll listen to film music. I have a very close relationship with film music; it’s a genre that feels like an inseparable part of my identity. I also credit film scores for making me interested in composing in the first place.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

It’s hard to pick just one out of the many skills that I don’t have. I wish I could draw or paint, or be more tech-savvy. I wish I had better memory, especially when it comes to books; I love reading but I find that I need to read a book twice before anything will truly sink. I am not very good at learning languages, which is unfortunate because one of my life goals is to eventually re-learn Cantonese, and I’m not sure if it’s achievable. At this particular moment, I wish I could play jazz. One of my best friends is a jazz pianist, and we sometimes get together to play duets. Hearing him improvise is humbling. On top of this, he can also play standard repertoire really well. It’s a bit unfair, really…

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I cherish any activity that allows me to spend more time with my fiancée, friends, and parents. If I’m in a more introverted mood (or—more likely—if no one is around), my favourite thing to do is to either take myself out to dinner and a movie, or to do the same thing at home—in the company of my dog.

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Composer & pianist Kevin Lau (photo: Bo Huang)

Five more questions about Lau’s exciting projects.

1) Please talk about the collaboration of “Spin Cycle” and the process leading to your concerto grosso.

“Spin Cycle” was the brainchild of the Afiara String Quartet and composer Christos Hatzis, who mentored the project. The goal of the project was to explore the intersection of pop music and classical music and the possibilities of cross-genre fusion, with the string quartet acting as a central hub of sorts. The quartet commissioned four composers—Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan, Dinuk Wijeratne, and myself—to compose original string quartets, with the open suggestion that the quartets be in some way influenced by or related to pop.

The inclusion of Paul Murphy—also known as DJ Skratch Bastid—was the gamechanger in all this. Skratch is a huge force in the DJ world, and he had already worked with Dinuk and Adrian Fung (the quartet’s cellist and currently the TSO’s VP of Innovation) prior to our collaboration. Skratch came on board and remixed the four quartets (Stage Two), distilling them into their fundamental components and then expanding upon those components according to his own sensibilities. The composers were then invited to ‘respond’ to Skratch’s remixes, composing new versions—re-remixes—that could be performed live by both DJ and quartet. The premise was to bring everyone—the musicians, the composers, the DJ—out of their comfort zones and into an authentic, collaborative space.

During my last year as Affiliate Composer of the TSO, I was approached by both the TSO and the Afiara Quartet to discuss the possibility of a Fourth Stage—one that would incorporate full orchestra. The result is a new work for orchestra, string quartet, and turntables. At first, we thought I would merely be orchestrating the original quartet that I wrote for “Spin Cycle,” but once I started putting the piece together I knew I couldn’t get away with a straight arrangement. The orchestra is like a musical organism, with its own personality and point of view; a literal transformation of pre-existing material would stifle its potential. The new piece had to be conceived from the bottom up, and so I set out to create a unique discourse that would combine and develop material from the previous stages in (hopefully) fresh ways. 

2) What style of music should we expect to hear in your “Concerto Grosso for orchestra, string quartet, and turntables”

When I wrote my Third String Quartet (the original quartet featured on “Spin Cycle”), my goal was to give voice to my more primal influences. Being quite ill-versed in actual pop music, I chose to define pop as the web of subconscious, culturally-mediated musical expectations that underlies the particular way I listen to and appreciate music. While my influences ranged from heavy metal to film music to Bach, my hope was not to call attention to their differences but to find common ground, often through intuitive channels.

The Concerto Grosso is a bit different from the original quartet in that I was confronted head on by a host of obstacles—the kinds of obstacles one encounters with any attempt at deep fusion. It is hard enough to orchestrate well for orchestra and string quartet; throw the DJ into the mix and I literally had no idea how to proceed. In the end, I realized that the sheer impossibility (in my mind) of fusing these disparate forces together could itself be exploited as a metaphor for a cross-cultural impasse. What you will hear in the first movement is a somewhat caricatured portrait of the orchestral tradition—sweeping, lush, and (in my hands, at least) cinematic—being gradually undermined by the DJ, whose hip-hop-rooted style is brash, visceral, and relentlessly 4/4. The string quartet, meanwhile, acts as the uneasy (and eventually unsuccessful) mediator between both worlds.

The second movement is harder for me to describe, mostly because I have written so many iterations of it that a certain hall-of-mirrors effect is starting to set in, blurring my judgment of what the piece is about. (The main melody, a simple gigue in G minor, was composed in 2007 as part of a piece called “Winds of Change,” which was re-arranged several times before eventually finding its home in string quartet form.) All I will mention is that Christian Petzold’s Minuet in G (commonly mis-attributed to Bach) serves as the centrepiece of a rather wild transformational process that all three parties partake in.

3) How do you understand the difference between composing music for a concert such as the one March 5th and a ballet score?

The Concerto Grosso, despite its idiosyncrasies, was fundamentally an independent commission—meaning that although the process was collaborative, I was, in the end, calling the artistic shots. Though I would ask for advice from Skratch, who in turn very patiently indulged in my experiments, I alone was responsible for the structure of the piece, its internal pacing, its language, and its intent. I would edit my own work, and I’d like to think that I’m pretty hard on myself (I am not afraid to shave off minutes of music if it means improving the dramatic flow of the piece), but still, I’m relying on my own ears and my own standards, which has limitations.

Composing for ballet is very different, particularly when the ballet is based on a pre-existing narrative. There is of course the source material, the text, which guided my music in a more general way. But there is also the vision of Guillaume Côté (the choreographer), who has very specific ideas about how the dance will look, and also, in a different but equally specific way, what the music should sound like from scene to scene—both from an emotional perspective and in its relationship to physicality and movement.

Getting the right music for a particular scene or character was never a straightforward task, and we didn’t always end up going with my first approach. Because I revised the music a lot, and because there was a lot of music to write, I initially treated the project like a film score, trying to anticipate Guillaume’s wishes as best I could, writing music that I thought would match his vision most faithfully. He actually stopped me from doing this early on in the process. I remember him telling me, almost three years ago: “Do what you do best and be yourself.” It was freeing to hear that, in a way, but it was also a push—to be the best that I could be at all times. (Speaking of unfair skillsets, I should mention that Guillaume himself is a talented composer and pianist, so nothing gets by him!) He wanted me to rely on my own ideas and intuitions, and he worked with whatever I brought to the table, but at the end of the day the music had to inspire him. If something became unworkable we would discuss the possibility of rewriting the music. It was not always an easy process, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way as I have absolutely no doubt that the music is better for it.

One major technical difference I should mention is that for the ballet, I had to create a piano reduction of the score well before orchestrating anything, so that the dancers could rehearse to live accompaniment. I was initially worried about this process, fearing that my orchestral imagination would suffer, but I soon came to appreciate its primary benefit—which was that I could compose way, way faster! This, in turn, allowed me to ‘see’ the overall arc of the musical journey with much more fidelity, which I think was necessary given the sheer size of the score.

4- Please talk about the creation of the score for Le Petit Prince.

It all started with Guillaume Côté. He was given an amazing opportunity by Karen Kain (the NBOC’s artistic director) to choreograph and develop a brand new production, which would be his first full-length ballet. He chose Le Petit Prince as his subject, as the book was especially dear to him. When it came to music, he knew he needed an original score, and my name came up in discussions with David Briskin (the ballet’s music director). He listened to some of my music, and I guess he liked enough of what he heard to contact me!

We met for coffee in January, 2013. He discussed the project with me and said he would be interested in seeing what I had to offer musically. He was charismatic, his ideas were engaging, and I was both flattered and a little intimidated. The first thing I did after our meeting was go home and read Le Petit Prince. I cried at the end of the book, and then I read it a second time. Then I went and watched as many ballets as I could. The first live ballet I saw after meeting Guillaume was John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, with Guillaume dancing the incredibly challenging title role. It remains to this day one of the most powerful and devastating artistic experiences of my lifetime.

I started writing music not long afterward—concept pieces at first, just a bit of theme work here and there. Very little music survived that initial phase, with the exception of a little waltz I wrote for the Rose. I spent the next three years composing the score in bits and pieces, roughly in chronological order, while Michael Levine—our absolutely brilliant designer—worked on crafting the look of the ballet. Those years were punctuated by several workshops where we would sit together and discuss how to best translate Saint-Exupéry’s evocative text to the stage, scene by scene, from multiple perspectives—choreography, visual design, music, storytelling. Those were some fascinating sessions! The American writer Adam Gopnik was initially present at the very first workshop, and he helped us shape the first treatment of the ballet. After that, the adaptation continued to evolve in the hands of Guillaume and Michael. The workshops allowed Guillaume to experiment with choreography, and he would often choreograph the same scene to different pieces of music. During the first two workshops, I had an office where I could compose while the dancers rehearsed; very often I would write something in the morning, print off a draft, and Guillaume would rehearse it immediately with the dancers and the pianist that same afternoon.

Between workshops I kept sending Guillaume music as I wrote it. My pianist friend, Victor Cheng, played and recorded everything I couldn’t physically learn—which was almost everything! The music evolved in completely unpredictable ways. Sometimes I would compose for a particular scene, and then we would find that the music worked better elsewhere. Long-discarded themes would make an appearance years later. By the summer of 2015, the piano score was more or less finished; the full orchestra score was delivered in December. In January, David Brisk conducted the National Ballet Orchestra on a recorded run-through of the entire score—an absolutely thrilling moment for all of us. We are now in the process of trimming the score down to a reasonable length (90 minutes instead of 110!) I still have a couple scenes here and there that I need to rewrite, but the biggest part of the journey is over—at least for me. For Guillaume, this is the final stretch.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

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Composer & Composition Professor Christos Hatzis

There are many people in my life that deserve my gratitude, but I would especially like to single out Christos Hatzis for his mentorship. A word like ‘inspiring’ doesn’t come close to capturing the profound impact he has had on my life, both as a composer and as a human being. He was (and still is) a wonderful composition teacher whose musical insights were invaluable to my growth. More than that, though, I feel like he made me see the world with new eyes; my life is richer and more meaningful because of him.

*******

Kevin Lau premieres his Concerto Gross for Orchestra, String Quartet, and Turntables with the Toronto Symphony Saturday March 5th at Roy Thomson Hall. And the National Ballet have the World Premiere production of The Little Prince with an originals score by Lau June 4-12 at the Four Seasons Centre.

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