Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
The notion of being a composer came to me by way of improvisation. As a hopeless sight-reader, I have developed the skill of playing back music that I have heard or just simply making things up as I go along.
Although I started playing the piano at a very young age, by the time I was 12, I fell out of love with music because of the pressure from my piano teacher and parents. It was only when I started my study in a boarding school in Canterbury at the age of 17 that I re-connected with music. However, as music was not one of the subjects that I took at school, I did not feel studying music in university was an option for me. I ended up studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
It was during the time at Imperial Collage that I took my composition more seriously. With the proximity of the Royal College of Music, the library of Imperial College has a large collection of scores. Seizing that opportunity, I started listening to music with scores, connecting sounds with their visual representations, discovering musical structures through makeshift analysis with the help of reference books.
Composing took second place throughout the 13 years that I worked in the I.T. industry. But after three redundancies in three years between 2006-09, I realised my time working in an office was coming to an end. So I packed up my stuff in the office, and started my DMus in composition at Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2009.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Growing up in Hong Kong, Cantonese pop music (a.k.a. Canto Pop) was my musical daily bread, alongside music by the better known Western classical composers – Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, etc. Jazz and contemporary music came into the picture a bit later.
If there is a pivotal moment when my desire as a composer came into focus, it would be the moment when I discovered the music of the German-born American composer-conductor-pianist Lukas Foss (1922-2009). When hearing his extraordinary Baroque Variations and Renaissance Concerto for the first time, a gate somewhere in my mind just swung open; musical ideas and new ways of looking at composing were just flooding in. With a little bit of luck, I got in touched with Foss, and spent a lot of time with him during his last U.K. tour. Our friendship grew, and eventually he gave the first world premiere of my work featured in a concert in 2001 (the only previous occasion of hearing my own work performed was in a workshop in Chelmsford two years prior).
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
It was not easy being a self-taught composer. As I did not know any performers in the beginning, for a long time I was composing in isolation, not knowing when I would get my music performed. For years, no one took me seriously as a composer as I was considered an amateur. If I had not had my works chosen for the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM as it was known, now part of Sound and Music) shortlist in three consecutive years, I would have possibly waited much longer before I had my second professional performance.
Also, like most creative people, having a creative block when you are under the pressure of a deadline is possibly one of the biggest challenges.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Pros: getting paid, performance guaranteed. Cons: the risk of the commissioner not liking what is produced.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
It is always useful for me to know who I am writing a work for. It is not just for the sake of the first performance, but I truly think the sound of a particular performer/singer/orchestra produce can colour the way I hear the work in my head before committing it onto paper. Sometimes, the strength, weakness and mannerisms of a performer can change the way I think about a work too.
Of which works are you most proud?
It is difficult to choose the favourite among one’s children. But if I am to highlight one particular work which has the deepest emotional connection and most representative to-date, it would be Symphony (2014-15). Not only was it commissioned and premiered at 2015 BBC Proms (and hence brought my music to a bigger audience), its subject matter – memory, love, remembrance of the AIDS crisis – and the technical challenge I set for myself made it a very personal work.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Eclectic and unpredictable.
How do you work?
Before I write a single note, I usually do a large amount of research once I settle on the general concept or theme for a new work. I find it hard not to have a view of the overall structure of a work up front. Sometimes, I need a strong title to get the process started. As for the more detailed part of the compositional process, it varies between works.
For larger-scale works (orchestral pieces and stage works) I would first work on a short score, or continuity draft as some might call it. Once I am happy with it, I expand it onto the bigger canvas. Orchestration is often a distraction from the actual music, i.e. the flow of sonic events in time. Excellent orchestration cannot hide structural defects of a work, nor the dissatisfaction in listening that brings.
Who are your favourite composers?
The list varies over time, but there are several constant presences – Dowland, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Chopin (his e-minor concerto was my gateway into Western Classical music), Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Ravel, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Luciano Berio, Harrison Birtwistle, Lukas Foss (of course), Gérard Grisey, José Maceda, Julian Anderson (not because he was my teacher) and Stephen Sondheim.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
The main purpose for me as a composer is to communicate ideas, ask questions and trigger emotion in my audience and performers. If someone comes up to me and expresses some form of reaction and thoughts after hearing my music, I think I have succeeded.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Be open-minded, take risks, and do not be afraid to be yourself. Imitation is part of the learning process, but without taking risks and do something different (or to do things differently), you will always be someone else.
What is your most treasured possession?
Signed photographs of Lukas Foss, Witold Lutosławski, Elliott Carter, and a beautiful portrait of Peter Pears by my good friend Malcolm Crowthers, with the exact copy in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Going to the theatre, exhibitions, long walks in the countryside, impromptu jamming, travelling and cooking.
What is your present state of mind?
Trying to get the revision of an old orchestral work finished and start work on a new one.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra performs Raymond Yiu’s The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured at the Barbican on 15 May, conducted by David Robertson. Further information and tickets
Raymond Yiu (姚恩豪, b.1973) is a Hong-Kong born, London-based composer, jazz pianist, conductor and writer on music. He is the winner of a BASCA British Composer Award in 2010 (Northwest Wind), and nominated for the same award in 2004 (Beyond the Glass), 2012 (Les Etoiles au Front) and 2013 (The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured) respectively. Originally trained as an engineer, Yiu was self-taught as a composer until he undertook his DMus under the auspice of Julian Anderson at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2009.
His early work received the advocacy of the American composer-pianist-conductor Lukas Foss. He has worked with ensembles and artists including BBC Singers, BBCSO, Chroma, Concorde Ensemble, Ensemble 10/10, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, London Sinfonietta, Lontano and LSO.
Raymond Yiu’s Lullaby (for Edna Trident Hornbryce) (2017) was commissioned by the ABRSM for the 2019-2020 Grade 8 piano syllabus
(photo: Malcolm Crowthers)