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From Circuits to Symphonies

We conducted an interview with Raymond Yiu, an electrical engineer turned composer, on his latest commission for the BBC Symphony Orchestra


An up-and-coming name in the world of contemporary classical music is Raymond Yiu (姚恩豪), a 39 year-old Hong Kong native who is currently completing his Doctorate in Composition at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. What sets Yiu apart from the rest is his ability to effortlessly fuse different styles and genres to create a stunning final product. The Original Chinese Conjuror, Yiu’s opera that debuted at the 2006 Aldeburgh Festival to a sold out crowd, combined aspects of Western jazz with elements of Chinese music, earning him the praise and recognition among the contemporary classical community.

Yiu’s next endeavor is a commission for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His piece entitled The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured draws on inspiration from Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and the classic nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.” In order to achieve his goal of capturing the essence of London in song, Yiu entwines samples of iconic British melodies with his music. The piece is set to premiere on January 18, 2013, at the Barbican under the direction of Long Yu, Musical Director of the China Philharmonic, Shanghai and Guanzhou Symphony Orchestras and Artistic Director of the Beijing Music Festival.

Composer Raymond Yiu and pianist Lang Lang between rehearsals of Maomao Yü in 2009 at LSO St. Luke's, London

Composer Raymond Yiu and pianist Lang Lang between rehearsals of Maomao Yü in 2009 at LSO St. Luke's, London

To gain more insight into the talented mind of Mr. Yiu, we conducted an interview.

The World of Chinese: When did you first start composing, and what inspired you to start?

Raymond Yiu: When I was a teenager I tried to write down my piano improvisations, but it was not until I heard the music of American composer Lukas Foss (1922-2009) – whom I eventually met – that I decided to become a composer. I was studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College at the time, so I must have been about 20.

TWOC: What has been the biggest challenge you had to overcome since starting your career as a composer?

RY: As I never studied composition formally before, it was almost impossible to get my music played at the beginning of my career. It was a while before I got to hear my music played for the first time. Until 2009, I was working full time in the field of information technology, out of necessity. Finding time and energy to compose after a long day of work in the office was one of the biggest issues I faced. As a result, I only produced one or two pieces a year, if at all. This has changed a lot since I started my doctorate at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

TWOC: Your spectrum of work is so vast. Where do you draw your inspiration from for so many diverse pieces?

RY: For me as a composer, there is no limit to what I can use as a source of inspiration. With each new piece that I write, I find subject matter that I feel is suitable for the force that I am writing for. For example, when I was asked to write a piece for the guqin (古琴, seven-string Chinese zither)and string quartet based on one of the best-known guqin melodies Youlan (Secluded Orchid), to be played by the guqin master Li Xiangting, my instinct was to keep the original intact. I want to go ‘inside’ the piece and to magnify the uniqueness and beauty of this music and instrument. The result, Jieshi (2011), is principally a version of Youlan framed by materials inspired entirely from my spectral analysis of a recording of Youlan made by Master Li. Due to the improvisatory nature of guqin music, the string quartet members are requested to carry out guided improvisation with materials provided, led by the guqin player. Even though it employs Western musical notation, the work has an entire set of rules unlike any other piece of mine or Western music. Its inspiration could only be made possible by the performing force which I was commissioned to write for.

TWOC: Which of your pieces that you’ve written so far is your favorite?

RY: To answer this question is almost like asking a parent to pick his/her favorite child. But if I have to choose one single piece, it will have to be my first stage work The Original Chinese Conjuror (2003-06), written for the 2006 Aldeburgh Festival, mainly because I went through so much to get it completed and staged. It was a summation of me as a composer at the time, and a sort of farewell as I did not write a single note for two years after it; at the time, I thought I would not compose again at all. Maomao Yü (2009) for piano and four Chinese instruments is a close second as it gave me the privilege to work with the amazing Lang Lang and the Silk String Quartet. Another reason for making it a close second was that the premiere performance was my first professional outing as a conductor.

TWOC: What makes The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured different from your other pieces?

RY: Besides The Original Chinese Conjuror, which is 70 minutes in duration, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured is the most ambitious project that I have ever undertaken. Scored for a full symphony orchestra (88 musicians) and lasting about 15 minutes, it has one of the most intricate structures out of all my works; the amount of melodies and themes that I quote and reference – all related to London – outside and within the work is enormous. It is a love letter to my adopted home of two decades. Its unusual form and the playful nature of the quotations interacting with each other have led me to give the piece its subtitle, a ‘symphonic game’.

TWOC: What are your plans for after The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured?

RY: Right after I finish The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured, I have to start work on a short variation based on a theme by the Polish Composer Andrzej Panufnik, commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra to be premiered by them in April 2013. Then, a multi-purpose work for brass band and a little piece for solo percussion are to follow. Meanwhile I am looking for the opportunities and funding to continue developing my second stage work, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio – based on the writing of Pu Songling (1640-1715) – with Lee Warren, who wrote the libretto for The Original Chinese Conjuror. After writing Maomao Yü and Jieshi, I would like to spend more time exploring the possibilities of Chinese instruments; a piece for Chinese orchestra is forming at the back of my mind too, but it will have to wait for the right opportunity.

If you’re in the London area, then make sure to check out Raymond Yiu’s not-to-be-missed The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured coming January 18th at the Barbican. However, with his big plans for afterwards, it seems like we’ll be hearing about Mr. Yiu’s work for a long time.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mr. Yiu and his work, then check out his website.

Photos taken by Malcolm Crowthers

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