Chamberfest: A drop of musical light from Kevin Lau

Kevin Lau Photo: Bo Huang

Kevin Lau is one of Canada’s busiest contemporary composers. His work ranges from orchestral projects such as the NAC Orchestra commissioned ballet score for Dark Angels to solo works for piano.

He is serious about his work. Even his titles are carefull chosen and matter a great deal. For example, take the title of an octet for the Canadian classical music supergroup, the Octagon Ensemble, that will premiere on Nov. 24 in Ottawa in a Chamberfest concert. The Octagon Ensemble features violinists Martin Beaver and Mark Fewer, violist Rivka Golani, NACO’s principal cellist Rachel Mercer and principal bassist Joel Quarrington, horn player Ken MacDonald, bassoonist Kathleen McLean and clarinetist James Campbell.

The title of the piece is A Drop of Light.

“I am drawn to the visual aspect of the metaphor.” Along with Dark Angels, “these titles are very strong to me and they have an association with colour. I like that.”

“I have visual synesthesia. I really associate strong colours with words and symbols. It is a low level thing, but somehow there is an association with a colour. Every time I choose a title I am also drawn to a colour, as well as the meaning (of the words). The overall aesthetic is interesting to me.”

A Drop of Light offers something shining in the darkness, he says, and a water droplet. It’s kind of metaphysical.

“It’s all of those things. For me, the precise articulation of an idea comes at the end. Music is the first place for me to go. After that comes the title. I’m not really sure why, but the image of a drop of light in a sea of darkness was very compelling to me.”

Lau calls this piece one of his most personal works if not the most personal. There is an element of the spiritual, he says, and there is a sense of yearning or crisis in the music.

“When Octagon first approached me (in 2016), we talked about exploring personal identity. I started to think about my parents and their own experiences. My mother, in particular, had a difficult childhood.” (He finished the piece in September).

“The piece, in the end, isn’t about that journey, but those memories were floating around at the time as I began writing.”

He was initially thinking about exploring his own journey. Lau was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a boy.

Along the way he realized “my journey is not that interesting. My parents have interesting stories, but in the end I decided not to literalize this in music.

“Sometimes it is very hard to pin down the emotions.”

Still, he said, the piece is moody, strange and unpredictable.

“It contrasts very lyrical ideas with things that are more fragmented. First movement is this crazy allegro. The second movement is immensely lyrical in a way that almost contradicts what comes before.

“It is a weird thing to describe because my emotions were so charged in the beginning that I was almost writing it automatically without knowing what it really meant.”

Fittingly, each movement has it’s own title.

“This is a piece where there is a strong relationship between the music and the titles. They helped me get into deep, personal, gritty stuff.”

The first movement is called The Temple of A Thousands Doors which is a reference to The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

“It’s a book I really liked as a child. The Temple is a place where the only way to get out of it is to make a genuine wish to act upon one’s own desires. This image of the temple and that kind of metaphor of choosing a path was intriguing to me.”

The second movement is based on Lau’s own fiction writing. He used to write a lot, he said.

“I went through phase while writing this music of reviving that writing.” He’d compose music one day and write some fiction the next day. “That took me back into childhood.”

The second movement is called The Garden of Mythalla which is a reference to a place where the inhabitants have built a place free of conflict. He came up with that name when he was a child.

The third movement is called The Dying Lights which references Dylan Thomas and the poem Do not go gentle into that good night.

“I struggled with the third movement,” he said, adding it tries to battle against the darkness or the death of imagination.

“There is something very cathartic about writing (fiction). I hadn’t done it for so long and when I started doing it again this year, light bulbs were going off in my head.”

He hasn’t — and likely won’t — do anything public with this writing. It’s a private hobby that he stopped when composition took over. But the one seems to feed the other.

“I started composing music because I was writing. Music came later and for whatever reason I felt I needed to compose.” First came the piano which he started playing at age five.

There are a lot of factors in Lau’s composition process. For example,

“I was driving to visit my in-laws near Ottawa. Driving for me is a prime incubation time for ideas.

“I had a tune running through my head. I pulled off the 401 in Trenton at the En Route stop because I had to write it down. That triggered a whole set of associations which ultimately led to the piece for Octagon.

“I like to watch unconscious parts of myself play out and be in a carful dialogue with it.”

The tune that started it all makes its way into A Drop of Light in the second and third movements. “I think of it as the whiff of nostalgia. Both times it emerges and fades away. I originally intended it for a set of piano pieces on childhood that I have started.”

Another thing that got him thinking was a visit to Hong Kong last February. It was his first trip back since he was nine years old.

“That trip was partly responsible for my thinking about my family and my identity. It is weird to go back to a place you remember but it’s a lifetime ago. You meet people you knew when nine and they are your age now.”

Octagon is a composed of some amazing Canadian musicians. For Lau, “I know Rachel Mercer well. I know of them all, but she is my link.”

The talent in the group is “one of those things you are aware of it but if you think about it too much … I don’t want to let that affect things in any kind of limiting way. If anything writing for this group gave me licence to push the range of expression and be a bit virtuosic.”

This is the first octet he’s written. It’s 25 minutes long which is “a pretty atypical length. I call it luxurious.

“I like long pieces. Contemporary composers are used to writing short pieces because of the nature of programming. Because it is long it is a rarity and it’s treasured. I love the experience of spreading wings a little bit.”

Chamberfest presents the Octagon Ensemble
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Next: Watch for an interview with the violinist Martin Beaver.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.