Another country: composer Raymond Yiu on his multicultural heritage

When composer Raymond Yiu left Hong Kong for London, he finally began to understand the concept of musical heritage.

Born in Hong Kong, a former British colony where the education system was based largely on that of Great Britain, my musical schooling had an unsurprisingly Western tint to it. As kids, my friend and I were encouraged to play piano, violin or other Western instruments. The opportunity to learn a traditional Chinese instrument in Hong Kong was rare. Growing up, I was more familiar with Mozart’s piano sonatas than Chinese folk music.

Another part of my musical exposure as a teenager was Cantonese popular music. A large proportion of these tracks were cover versions of well-known songs from the UK and US, with the occasional Jap-anese ones thrown in. Of course, there were original materials by local songwriters, but melodically, harmonically and even in terms of instrumental arrangements, these tracks were heavily ‘Westernised’.

There isn’t another place in the world that is culturally as exciting and diverse as London

When I was a teenager, I tried to write down my piano improvisations – none of these ever went beyond two pages. In 1990, I came to the UK to continue my education – two years of A-levels at Kent College, Canterbury, were followed by a four-year degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College, London. It was during my time at Imperial College that I toyed with the idea of composing; for four years I listened to music with scores borrowed from the Imperial College Library. I learned to write down the ideas I had in my head, but I did not hear any of my music being performed until 1999.

A result of my westernised musical education was the desire to understand the concept of musical heritage and this became increasingly urgent for me as I became a composer of contemporary classical music. I had grown-up listening to Cantonese pop and it had a defining influence on me. Rather then denying this seemingly less academic source of inspiration, I decided to embrace and investigate its genesis. I adore the music of Ravel and Debussy and whilst pondering their ‘Frenchness’ its genesis, legacy and influence on future French composers, I kept asking myself; what would be the equivalent of this continuum of influence for a composer from Hong Kong?

My first and rather unconscious attempt to explore my musical heritage in music was Night Shanghai (2005), a chamber work based on the eponymous song recorded by the legendary Zhou Xuan. This was follo-wed by my first stage work The Original Chinese Conjuror (2006), in which Western and Eastern music collide. Pastiches, parodies and the confusion of musical identity became the very language of the piece. As much as it was a representation of my unorthodox and untrained musical thinking, in retrospect, it was also a sign of a looming creative identity crisis. After that, I did not write a single note for two years.

In Maomao Yü (2009), a piece commission by the London Symphony Orchestra for Lang Lang and four traditional Chinese instruments (erhu, pipa, yangqin and guzheng), I picked up where I left off. This quintet took its inspiration from the first Chinese popular song, a musical genre known as Shidaiqu, the forerunner of Cantonese popular music. This music, a hybrid of Chinese folk tunes and American jazz, became a new passion for me. I started cont-emplating the idea of investigating my relationship as a composer of contemporary classical music with Chinese music: traditional and popular. That was when the idea of undertaking a doctorate in composition came about.

It seemed fitting to integrate the music, which played an important part in the student democracy movement

Even though Hong Kong still holds a special place in my heart, I feel more at home in London and I decided to stay in the UK. There isn’t another place in the world that is culturally as exciting and diverse as London. I chose to study at Guildhall School of Music & Drama partly because of its practice-based research approach, and partly because of the relevance of the two composers who became my supervisors.Julian Anderson has a strong interest in non-Western music and Paul Newland was a student of the Japanese composer, Jo Kondo. With their insightful guidance and the support of staff and students, led by the energetic and sympathetic Julian Philips, I embarked on the most productive three years of my life as a composer thus far.

Informed by folk music from the north-west of China, Northwest Wind (2010) was written to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. It seemed fitting to integrate the music, which played an important part in the student democracy movement leading up to tragic events of 4 June 1989. This work, to my surprise and pleasure, won the chamber category of the BASCA British Composer Award in 2010.

Qin (seven-stringed zither) is a Chinese instrument that I have always been aware of but never had a chance to get to know. In 2011, I was commissioned by The Prince’s Charities Foundation to write a piece for qin and string quartet, based on one of the oldest melodies recorded in Chinese music: Youlan (or Secluded Orchid). As the work was written for one of the best qin players in the world, professor Li Xiangting, I decided to take into account his experience and knowledge by req-uesting him to perform Youlan the way he always does. Every aspect of Youlan was preserved in the form of a transcription made by Master Li, including its improvisatory nature, while the string quartet played materials entirely derived from the spectral analysis of a recording of Youlan made by him. This work not only made me think outside the box in terms of notation, structure and compositional concept, it also allowed me to dig into a musical tradition that I did not have the chance to explore when I was younger.

Although I have not done this yet, writing music for a Chinese orchestra such as those in Hong Kong and Singapore is something I want to do very much. The challenge of finding the right subject matter to pro-duce a work that doesn’t sound like Western music awkwardly arranged for a Chinese Orchestra is too good to resist. Maomao Yü and Jieshi are certainly a step in this direction.  My doctorate has provided me with the time I needed to work on areas that allowed me to move forward as a composer. It also gave me an intellectual framework in which I could take advantage of my diverse and complicated cultural upbringing. Now I’m able to create something interesting and create something interesting, rather than let the disparity induce feelings of cultural inferiority.