This Saturday, we’re so excited to welcome back a returning collaborator for ROCO’s 90th world premiere commission – composer Kevin Lau! In this edition of ROCOInsider, we chatted with Kevin to learn more about the out-of-this-world inspiration for his newest work, “Between the Earth and Forever,” and what it’s like writing for the exotic instrument it features, the Chinese erhu.
It all started with an iconic image from space – read on to hear how it captured his imagination, sparking a musical fusion of east and west!
It’s been almost two years already since the first piece you wrote for ROCO – it’s wonderful to have you back! What do you enjoy about working with ROCO?
Working with ROCO is such a joy, I love the spirit of adventure you have! It’s a group that is so generous in the way you think about music, about performing, about communicating – and all that generosity and openness is in every facet of all you do.
How did this new commission, and the theme for it, come about?
I’ve been fortunate to know and work with concertmaster Scott St. John from my time at the University of Toronto, which led to the collaboration on my April 2018 chamber work for ROCO, The Nightingale. This commission was born out of that experience and relationship – almost right afterward, we began to discuss collaborating again.
Shortly after that trip to Houston, in which we had visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center, an idea began to take shape. I absolutely love space, and space exploration, the thought of what that’s like venturing beyond the bonds of our planet – so that came to mind first as an inspiration. I also wanted to write something for erhu – which I had never written for before, but had an interest in, as my paternal grandfather had played the instrument. I was totally fascinated by its unique sound.
Once we brought the idea of the erhu in, Alecia Lawyer made the connection with Andy Lin, who I had the chance to meet over Skype to talk through ideas (and for me to ask dumb questions about the erhu!) It was extremely helpful to have him as a sounding board, to hear him play through examples, and to learn what the erhu could really do.
If you had to say the erhu is most like another string instrument we’re familiar with, which would it be?
Definitely the violin. By no means are they the same at all, but for me, as a composer – the erhu shares approximately the same range, so I found myself relying somewhat on what is possible on the violin. Although, since the erhu has two strings instead of four, there are some things the violin can do that are troublesome on the erhu, so I had to keep that mind! Also, I had to consider that the erhu is by nature a bit quieter instrument, so I had to be very aware of balance.
Going from a collection of ideas to a composition – how did you approach translating space exploration into music?
About a year ago, I read a book by Canadian astronaut (and musician!) Chris Hadfield, with an image that really grabbed me. In its caption, Chris writes, “Suspended between the earth and forever.” Taken by fellow astronaut Scott Parazynski, the picture shows Hadfield on his historic first spacewalk, floating solo on a thin tether keeping him anchored to his ship.
In the background, you have the sphere of our planet below, and all around him as far as you can see – is this vast expanse of blackness. Unless you’ve been there, it’s something you can’t comprehend, we know this picture doesn’t do it justice – so the only way I could get into that kind of perspective, was through that evocative phrase. As soon as I adopted this caption as the title, it almost wrote the piece for me – giving me an idea of the shape of the piece, and what I would do.
It spoke to me so much. First, of that literal size – that great distance between what we’re familiar with, our home, and between the great expanse of “out there”. And then that feeling of awe you get when you look up at the night sky. That emotion was really key to this piece.
I loved the idea of the familiarity vs the unknown, and the space between those two things. That seemed to really be a metaphor for what I was going for musically, with a concerto for erhu.
The orchestra, as a Western type of ensemble, has a very familiar sound to it for us, and to put the erhu in the center of that is a very interesting place to be sonically – as it speaks in a language that’s less familiar, so it made a great starting point.
What elements should we listen out for in the piece, expressing these themes?
I wanted the piece to sound not like what one typically hears when you hear erhu with orchestra – these works tend to be very based in Chinese folk songs, which are so beautiful – but I wanted to do something different here, to treat the erhu’s voice more as a sonic character, exploring the possibilities of using the erhu in a very non-eastern context, through this framework of space exploration.
First, you’ll hear a fanfaric opening recalling Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (aka, the theme of the film 2001) with that very primordial opening, on a very large canvas, getting us into the sound and scope. This initial theme is played twice in its entirety, toward the beginning, and near the end.
Then the erhu comes in immediately for a slightly disorienting effect, going back and forth between ideas that are western sounding, almost Coplandesque – and also drawing upon idioms rooted in Chinese music, sounds that make it typically erhu.
The erhu plays an extended cadenza toward the beginning of the piece, and I wanted it to take on the voice of the lonely astronaut – completely surrounded by space. In the first half, the erhu and the orchestra represent traditional roles, engaging in interplay but keeping in character, and as the piece proceeds, they blend more and more, as the eastern and western traditions start to break down and mesh between the erhu and the orchestra – so by the end, it feels almost like the erhu has gone into orbit, as it gets farther and farther away from where it started.
What was your composing process like in creating this piece? How long did it take – from the first note to the end?
In total it took about two months, over the fall, from September to November.
Generally, I try to first think through the whole piece without committing to anything – almost treating myself as a listener, trying to hear the piece I want to write.
I don’t use the piano a whole lot here – it’s more coming up with thematic ideas, a sense of where the piece is going. Usually, there’s a point where the ideas are ripe, and then this is when I go to my computer and start writing the whole piece out.
For this work, I wanted to write it at once as a single journey, and then I sent Andy Lin a draft, to see if it would work okay for the erhu. And he said it looked good! But I’m glad we have rehearsal to check things out and make edits if needed.
When writing, do you sketch out the themes and melody first, and then write the orchestra’s parts? Or are they created together?
For me, theme and harmony go very closely together – I like to imagine harmonic landscapes and progression. I absolutely love writing for orchestra, I love the palette it provides.
Sometimes orchestral, colorific ideas come to me during the sketch phase, and I’ll make a note for later – and other times the orchestration happens during the initial writing.
In this work, I had an idea for a specific textural feeling I noted and came back to. I wanted the orchestra to eventually evoke a sense of hanging above the earth, to sound vertiginous like you’re about to fall. This is achieved through several combined elements – writing the strings and winds in the very high register, plummeting and sliding down, and writing the low instruments extremely low, and rising up – they’re doing the same thing, in opposite directions. Like orchestral plate tectonics!
Tying into our season theme “Coming of Age”, tell us about your own coming-of-age story as a musician and composer?
It all began with the piano, which I started when I was 5. According to my parents, I would always gravitate toward musical toys, so they got an upright piano and started me on lessons! I still remember that ‘wow’ moment waking up one day, to the piano being there.
Growing up I would always improvise on the piano, making up my own melodies – but I didn’t necessarily think I’d someday go into music as a career until I began to compose in high school. I had been really into creative writing as a teenager, writing a significant short story – then I thought, wait – what if I wrote music based on the story?
This inspired me to write quite a bit of music for fun over a year, pretending that my story was a movie I was scoring! It was the first time I tried my hand at writing for orchestra, using very simple notation software on the computer. I loved doing it, loved the process – and realized then that I could do this forever, wanting to explore how I could study further in college.
When I applied to university, I applied at University of Toronto for music composition, but amusingly – also for astrophysics, as a fallback. (Because I just absolutely loved space, not because I was great at physics!) And thankfully – I was accepted for music.
Did you have any mentors as a young composer who were influential?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a true mentor until I got into university, but I did have a few trusted peers who were musicians, who I did show my work to, and their feedback and encouragement were very helpful. My parents were also extremely supportive too, even though they were not musical.
Once I began studying at the University of Toronto, I wrote my first ‘real’ orchestral piece in first year, but it wasn’t until second year when I was officially accepted into the Composition program.
In my final year of my Bachelor’s degree, I started to study with the composer Christos Hatzis – who changed my life. He was a big reason I went on to do my Masters at the University of Toronto, and doctoral study – he became my main teacher, and then doctoral supervisor. We had such a great relationship, and he helped me so much to become a better composer.
Which composers do you love to listen to? Who would you consider influences in your work?
Honestly, I’m a huge film music buff – there’s so much in that genre that is interesting and exciting as a composer, and I would not be where I am today without that creative influence.
In the first year of my doctorate, I actually took a plane to New York just for a short meeting with Chris, arranged by a friend, which was a real lightbulb moment for me. He sat with me for an hour at Juilliard, and we had the most amazing conversation – he went to the piano and played a really low, dark, minor chord, then a really high, major chord – and said, these two sounds express very different things, and emotions. At that time, it was just what I needed to be reminded of the visceral power of music and of harmony, over the theory which I had been immersed in.
What do you love most about your career – and what’s the toughest part?
I think the toughest part of being a composer is that you’re always fighting for that next gig, fighting to promote your own work, and it’s balancing that with the creative side. You realize early on in your career that you’ve GOT to do that though. I didn’t have any classes in the business side when I was in college, so I had to go out and seek that experience on my own.
During graduate studies, I founded my own ensemble, the Sneak Peek Orchestra, along with several students – to give us more of an opportunity to have our music performed, but also to gain a sense of all involved in running a group – from fundraising and grant writing to production. Running for seven years, this ensemble was incredibly important to my development. I still make a point each week to spend time writing grants – the money is out there, you just have to make the effort to go after it!
Recently I’ve been doing quite a bit of teaching, at the Glenn Gould School, and in workshops at various universities – which I absolutely love. A huge part of my own education as a composer, and as a human being, has come from teaching. When you’re trying to help someone else solve their own creative issues, it can shed light on so many things you’re working on too.
A common problem I see is students getting blocked, by their own standards. They’re so worried about their writing not being good enough – and when you’re too worried about that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What I do try to say to my students is – write what you want to write. Write what makes you feel energized and excited, regardless of what anyone else says. Even if sometimes what you really want to write seems odd to others! That’s the only way to truly discover your own voice.
Hear the world premiere of “Between the Earth and Forever” – in ROCO In Concert: Beauty is in the Eye, on Saturday, February 8, 2020, 5:00 pm, at The Church of St. John the Divine. Tickets available at roco.org, or at the door.