Symphony: An interview with Raymond Yiu

Reggie Myers

Raymond Yiu is a jazz pianist, musical composer, writer and conductor, and his first BBC Proms selection Symphony is set to debut tonight.

In anticipation of this event, Vada caught up with Raymond Yiu to discuss the inspiration behind Symphony, his history with music, what it was like being a part of the UK’s LGBT scene in the Nineties, and what he hopes people will take away from his new composition.

Let’s start from the beginning. Your biography says you picked up the piano at four years old and still play today. How did you get started and why?

I think it was my parents’ idea. They offered me to learn painting or playing the piano. For a reason I can no longer recall, I chose piano.

And from there you went into writing music as a teen and composing in college? How did this come about?

I gave up the piano at 12 as I didn’t enjoy playing it anymore. It was not until when I came to a boarding school in Canterbury that I picked it up again as I met an encouraging and open-minded piano teacher. It was also the head of music of the school who helped me to discover my potential as a jazz pianist.


One thing led to another. As my improvisation skills improved while playing in the school jazz band, I discovered the possibility of writing down some of my improvisations. That was my first ‘attempt’ in composition, even though I didn’t really quite know the true meaning of being a composer then.

According to your bio, you grew up in Hong Kong until you were about 17 years old. Why did you move to the UK?

My family is still in Hong Kong. I came to study in the UK in 1990.

It was partly because my father was then working for the HK/UK government, and hence I could study in the UK at a discounted rate. More importantly, however, it was because of the unsettled social climate in Hong Kong at the time.

It was shortly after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 4 June 1989.

When did you start realizing you were gay and what was it like when you entered the UK’s gay scene?

To be honest, when I was very young. I recall the impression of excitement when seeing Tarzan (i.e., Johnny Weissmuller) on the television, thinking how lucky Cheeta was … I must have been about five or six.

It was quiet when I entered the gay scene in Canterbury, but in London, it was wild. I was too young to explore the gay scene in a Hong Kong before my arrival in the UK in 1990 — I wasn’t even sure there was one to speak of in Hong Kong, so when I came to London, there was a strong sense of freedom and adventure.

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It was the first time in my life I lived in a city where I felt I could express my sexual preference freely without feeling embarrassed or threatened. It was the first time I encountered drag queens, and when Absolutely Fabulous was first broadcast.

I still have fond memories of witnessing RuPaul‘s first UK appearance at Heaven.

How did the scene change once the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit and how did that impact you?

The AIDS epidemic had been ongoing for almost a decade when I arrived in London, but its impact was so much more strongly felt there than in Canterbury or Hong Kong. I got to meet people who were HIV+, and some of them are no longer with us.

A sense of anxiety was never far away. As you get to know more people getting infected – some of them died – you get a sense of the disease closing in, and it was unsettling.

How did the idea to take all of those memories and emotions and create Symphony come about?

I wanted to write a work about memory, or to be more specific, about memories of love and loss. When I was asking myself what memories mattered most to me, I immediately pinpointed the suicide of my best friend in 2006 and living in a London under the shadow of AIDS in the early 1990s.

How long did it take for you to create Symphony?

It took me about 16 months to write.

What made you want to make HIV in the 90s the focus of Symphony?

What struck me in conversations with gay men who are younger then myself was a generally more relaxed, almost carefree attitude towards HIV/AIDS. Of course, with the advance of treatment, fatality caused by AIDS today is very low compared to two decades ago, but nonetheless, HIV/AIDS has not been completely eradicated.

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The ‘HIV is no longer a death sentence’ attitude has somehow led an increasing number of gay men to think it’s perfectly fine to have unprotected sex. Figures have shown the increase of new HIV cases in the last few years which is suspected to be directly related to this relaxed attitude, as well as the increasing popularity of chem sex.

There were also reports of the most aggressive strains of HIV had been found in Cuba last year.

What will you hope people will take away from Symphony?

I want people to be moved by the music. For those who are more curious, I hope the inclusion of my AIDS-epidemic memories in Symphony (by way of the Thom Gunn poem) will get people to think of the current situation of HIV/AIDS. It is also conceived to be a personal memorial to those whom I knew and saw were affected by the disease.

Research into your work has come back with a long and still growing resume, so I doubt you are going to sit and relax for long after your new piece has debuted. What is next for Raymond Yiu?

I am currently working two new pieces – small, but nonetheless, they are keeping me busy.

Symphony will debut tonight at 7:30pm at BBC Proms. The program will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available for 30 days on the BBC Proms website.

About Reggie Myers

Reggie Myers is a writer and communications professional living in Philadelphia, Pa., where he graduated from Temple University. Music, television, film, books, video games, politics, and human sexuality are just a few of the many things that make him tick. When he's not working behind a computer screen, you can find him looking for new adventures, practicing photography, scheming ways to get to the front row of a concert, or scouring the corners of the internet for new music to put his friends on to. @reggieakil