I’ve met Lau once or twice in the halls of the University of Toronto (where he just completed his doctorate in composition). He’s a pleasant guy: unaffected and unpretentious, and certainly no “angry young man.”
Yet I must confess that I hadn’t actually heard any of Lau’s music until I popped the Premieres disc into my CD player. And what I heard astonished me.
Joy is a beautifully written (and performed) piece, effective and surefooted. It also sounds like it could have been composed 100 years ago.
This last point left me perplexed. It’s not uncommon, in our postmodern age, for composers to incorporate historical references into their scores. But I’ve never before heard a piece by a contemporary composer that was so completely and unabashedly backward-looking.
To learn more about Lau’s music, I went to the Canadian Music Centre’s website, where I found some of his recordings on the CMC’s Centrestreams service. (See here.) I listened to the first movement of his Violin Concerto, and also a violin-and-orchestra piece called The Water of Life. Neither was as “retro” as Joy – but they left me with the impression that Lau’s strongest influences were post-romantic English composers (Holst, Delius, Vaughan Williams, et. al.) and Hollywood film scores.
Then I listened to his String Quartet – twice, as I was again astonished by what I heard. Here, Lau’s writing was subtle, sophisticated, and full of complex juxtapositions: echoes of Bach and Vivaldi surrounded by eerily dissonant textures. There was none of the film-score bluntness that leaped out of the two orchestral works I’d just heard. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was listening to a different composer.
And then I listened to Lau’s Evergreen for flute and piano. In this elegant and charming piece, Lau dons the mantle of Poulenc, Hindemith, and other mid-20th-century neoclassicists.
I listened to a few other pieces, and came to a tentative conclusion. Everything Lau does, he does very, very well. But I’m still not sure I’ve heard the voice of the “real” Kevin Lau – or even if there is such a thing. He appears to be a musical chameleon.
Some might say I’m barking up the wrong tree, or flogging a dead horse. (Insert your favourite adage here.) Perhaps some people would argue that the belief that a composer should have a strong personal style is an idea whose time has left. Or maybe they would rhetorically ask, “Who cares when, where or by whom a piece of music was written, as long as it’s a good piece?” Such folk would be quite pleased with Lau.
As for me, I don’t just look for goodness in new music, I also look for newness. And I value a distinctive personal voice – although I freely acknowledge that much horrid music was written in the last century by composers who were trying too hard to be “original.”
It will be interesting to see what Lau writes for the TSO, over the next two years. He’s full of surprises, and evidently feels that no musical style, or combination of styles, is out of bounds.
© Colin Eatock 2012