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Behind the music with Kevin Lau

U of T alumnus Kevin Lau has spent the past decade composing and studying at the Faculty of Music (photo by Bo Huang)

Composer Kevin Lau received his bachelor's of music in composition from the University of Toronto in 2005, his master of music in composition in 2007 and his doctor of music in composition last week. The day before Lau crossed the stage at Convocation Hall to receive his degree, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra named him its RBC Affiliate Composer. Writer Aaron Wong spoke with Lau about his success.

What was your reaction to the announcement?
I was in the middle of a tutoring session when I got the call. I was preparing for rejection (as I tend to do when applying for any highly competitive appointment) so when I was told I'd gotten the position, I was speechless for a few seconds, after which I literally blurted, "Really?!" thus negating any eloquence I might have demonstrated during the interview process. After that, of course, I was absolutely thrilled, although it still took me a couple days to process the information before I told my parents. 

How has your education at U of T helped you in your career?
I have been studying at the Faculty of Music for approximately a decade, which is about the length of time I have been writing music and working (or attempting to work) as a composer, so the impact that the Faculty has had on my development as a composer, musician and citizen has been tremendous. There are many layers to my experience here that reflect the variety of influences the Faculty has had on my career and the career of others. Of course, all of my classes (and there were a lot of them) helped me expand my knowledge of craft and repertoire, and the really great ones encouraged me to ask the big questions about art and art-making in general.

The relationship I have with my composition teacher and mentor, Christos Hatzis, is one I could not have dreamed for anywhere else (more on this later). The Faculty was, in general, an invaluable resource; I spent many hours on my own in the music library, perusing through scores and recordings and generally engaging in self-directed research.

All this has helped me grow as a composer, which in turn has aided my ability to develop professionally in my work. But the most visible impact on my career comes from networking. Nearly every relationship I've had with any collaborator, commissioner or employer has been the result of some connection, however tenuous, that was established at the university and at the faculty. Most of the landmarks in my career thus far would not have been possible -- may not even have occurred to me as opportunities -- had I not been immersed within this wonderfully fertile environment.

What do you hope to achieve at your new post at the TSO?
In many ways, my new post at the TSO is an extension of all the things I am already passionate about -- composing for orchestra, collaborating with musicians, educating young people on the joys of music-making, absorbing new repertoire while advocating for the talents of undiscovered composers -- but with an added degree of responsibility and reach that comes with a position of such high repute and visibility. The TSO provides an excellent platform for artists to make a difference, and I intend to do as much as I can in that regard.

My goal in all of this -- whether it be in my own personal space as a composer and artist or in a workshop situation where I am teaching kids about music for the first time -- is to get people to perhaps think slightly differently about music, and that has something to do with the level of engagement on the part of each party (composer, performer, listener) and what we all have to bring to the table. My hope over the next two years is to enable others to discover that music, taken as a whole, is a fundamental (rather than secondary) aspect of the human experience, and that we are all richer for taking part in it. The value of music lies in its depth and complexity (that is why multiple listens are required for any great work), and in our ability to derive deep meaning from music at a level that is not precisely rational but intensely felt all the same.

How will this help you grow as a composer?
The standard of music-making at the TSO is very high, and I think this opens up many doors for me as a composer. In writing for the TSO, I feel that I will have the opportunity to broaden my musical horizons by seizing upon a wide range of musical avenues -- from technical processes to deeper issues of vision and intent -- that I have yet to explore in the past.

There is also an added element of artistic and professional responsibility which I find tremendously motivating. This is true of any position, but because I have been attending the TSO for about twenty years, I feel that my relationship with the TSO will always be grounded in my experience as a TSO subscriber and the expectations that I bring with me as a listener. As a result, I have a very personal vision of what I want to accomplish musically, based on my history of wonderfully cathartic experiences with the TSO.

Anyone to thank?
Artists depend on the generosity and goodwill of others to realize their passion, and I have been amazingly fortunate in this regard. There have been so many individuals who have guided, shaped, and in some cases built my career over the last ten years, and I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. In particular, without the support of people like Gary Kulesha, John Barnum, Ron Royer, Kerry Stratton, as well as my performer colleagues Conrad Chow, Rachel Mercer, Victor Cheng, and my composer colleague (and fellow "Boundless" campaign collaborator) Aaron Tsang, I would not be anywhere near where I am today!

I'd also like to thank my parents, family, and friends for their support and for their patience and understanding when I disappear off the face of the earth in order to meet a looming deadline (which is frequently.) Of course, the person I'd like to thank most is Christos Hatzis, my supervisor and mentor for the past eight years, who guided me not only in my career but in my development as an individual, and who revealed to me a joy in creation that is a gift I cherish every day.

I am tremendously thrilled and delighted at my composer affiliate appointment with the TSO, and I'd like to thank the University of Toronto for providing me with such a solid foundation upon which to build my career and identity. I will aspire in every way to help others realize their own dreams in the way others have helped me realize mine.