From Hong Kong to John Donne to 1970s disco: Raymond Yiu on his composing influences

Petroc Trelawny meets the composer Raymond Yiu, who has written a new work for the BBC Proms.

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Mahler liked to write on the shores of the Wörthersee in southern Austria; Sibelius worked in his wooden villa at Ainola, 25 miles away from the distractions of Helsinki. Raymond Yiu composes right in the centre of London, in his flat overlooking one of Soho’s busiest streets. The Hong Kong-born musician grew up in Mongkok, one of the most densely packed areas in the crowded territory. “It was crazy, noisy and dirty with bustling markets and planes overhead making their final approach to the airport,” he recalls. “So I’m used to crowded environments. They don’t bother me at all.”

Soho, still the heart of gay London, indirectly influences Symphony, his new work to premiered at the BBC Proms on 25 August. The piece, for orchestra and countertenor, sets words by the poets John Donne, Walt Whitman, C P Cavafy and Thom Gunn. Cavafy’s Come Back describes physical sexual pleasure; in Gunn’s In Time of Plague the protagonist and two other gay men consider the dangers of sex at the height of the Aids epidemic in the early 1990s.

Yiu came to England from Hong Kong in 1990 to take his A-levels in Canterbury. Two years later he moved to London as an undergraduate at Imperial College. “I spent most of time clubbing at Heaven and G.A.Y.,” he recalls. “It was just before there was a successful treatment for HIV. You still saw young guys in their twenties with sticks, looking like old men. Any sort of discolouration on the skin sent us into a panic, thinking it might signify infection. And testing was a nightmare; you had to wait weeks for the results, hanging on to see if you had been given a death sentence.”

In the fourth movement of his new work, Yiu has mixed his own memories of coming of age with Gunn’s words, and the influence of the disco music of the 1970s, the era just before Aids struck. He points out that hits like Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”, or “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps were beautifully orchestrated. “They had vast string sections, and I wanted to create some sort of pastiche on that,” he says. “There are no direct quotations but subtle references and musical gestures. I wanted to get across a sense of the flamboyance of the era.”

The work has been written for the countertenor Andrew Watts, a singer Yiu has known for more than a decade. “A lot of modern composers have turned to the countertenor voice when they want a strange, other-worldly character. I wanted to Andrew to come across as a normal human being, talking about the realities of life. And I was well aware of the tradition of using high-pitched male voices in disco music – think of Sylvester, or Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees.”

This is not the first Prom this season to be inspired by dance music; a late night concert last month paid homage to the party scene on Ibiza. But don’t expect unbridled hedonism here. “It’s not a happy work at all,” says Yiu. “It’s a sort of Liebestod, the idea of love and death being inextricably linked.” The musical shape of the second movement is inspired by a Scarlatti sonata that Yiu listened to repeatedly after a friend committed suicide. “This person was one of my oldest friends, and I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let her down by not properly understanding the depression she was suffering. I’d listen to this sonata over and over again to find some consolation. I suppose over all, this work is a very reflective piece bringing together some of the most significant experiences of my life so far.”

Yiu says the mixture of influences partly reflect his Hong Kong childhood. As he grew up there in the 1980s, the British colonial administration operated alongside a seemingly indelible Chinese heritage, packed temples, walled mini-cities, bird markets. “Now it’s all very sterile and high-tech,” he reflects. “Shopping malls rather than market stalls. The place used to have personality; now it’s just like any other Chinese city. I find that very sad.”

He grew up listening to Cantopop, the blend of western music and Chinese lyrics beloved of Hong Kong teenagers. “Only later did I discover that its routes go right back to Shanghai in the 1920s, when black American jazz musicians came to work what was then an international zone. These odd musical collisions fascinate me, and I suppose I’m trying to reflect a series of strange meetings in this work.”

Yiu seems very at home in Soho. Sometimes he teaches his composition students at a table in Balans, the long established 24-hour café. He gives piano lessons to a retired actress who is a neighbour. As we walk he shows me the swimming pool and gym where he works out. He is now 42 – does he still go clubbing himself? “Very rarely these days,” he laughs. “It’s not that the music is too loud, it’s just the idea of queuing to get in. Waiting two hours for a place in the Albert Hall Arena seems fine, but two hours hanging around before going dancing doesn’t appeal so much.”

Petroc Trelawny presents the Proms on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four. The world premiere of Raymond Yiu’s Symphony is on Tuesday 25 August, 7.30pm, at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the BBC Proms 2015. Tickets are available by visiting bbc.co.uk/proms or by calling the Royal Albert Hall on 0845 401 5040. £5 promming tickets are also available on the day. The Prom will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and available afterwards via BBC iPlayer