Entering the unknown: An interview with Pak Yan Lau
Pak Yan Lau, born in Belgium, with roots in Hong Kong and now based in Brussels, is a sound artist, improviser, musician and composer, who has developed over the years a rich, dense and captivating sound universe using prepared pianos, toy pianos, synths, electronics and various sound objects. Skilfully blending acoustic, electro-acoustic and electronic approaches, she explores sound in a bewitching way, merging these different approaches and sound sources with poetry, magic and finesse.
How have you been lately? What have you been up to?
I have been pretty good, grateful because I have been busy the last few months, and I had the chance to travel and play, (also thanks to SHAPE of course), without having any cancellations and so on. Now the fourth wave is kicking in, and I have a lot of work to do at home (recording, stewing up new stuff). Having had my dose of touring, I’m happy to cocoon and create again. I had a very enriching time playing different festivals (the Cataclysme Piano Festival in Geneve, Maintenant Festival in Rennes, Unsound in Poland, Keroxen Festival in Tenerife, ORF Musikprotokoll Festival in Graz,…) within very different contexts and environments. Yesterday, I played with my Bakunawa Ensemble (the piece I created for five players on gong rods, harp and toy pianos), which was my last gig of this year. Currently, I’m busy with some new projects; recording for two radio documentaries, (portraits of domestic workers – without legal papers) and their precarious situation.. I also have been asked to create a sound installation, using glass and water as the fundamental and inspirational materials, the premiere of which should be in March 2022. Recently, ’Traditional Noise’ (a duet with Mette Rasmussen) finally got released, and I just finished an album with the trio lauroshilau, which should get released next spring if all goes well.
Can you tell us about your background? You were born in Belgium, but have roots in Hong Kong. What were your first steps to music – your musical revelations of sorts?
I come from an immigrant family. My parents moved to Belgium from HK in the mid-seventies; we had a Chinese restaurant, where I also worked from my teens till my young adulthood. I am the first generation born outside of Hong Kong, and so I’m a bit perpetually in between. There was not really much music in my family, but there was always the opportunity to learn and to explore what I wanted. So, I went to dance school, I went to the music school. I’m a late bloomer; I found my way in my mid/late twenties, when I moved to Brussels. I did classical piano in the Conservatory before that, but didn’t find what I was subconsciously looking for (I guess it was freedom within musical creation and experimentation), and I was tired of having to deal with prejudices and rigidness. Maybe I chose the wrong course, and should have tried composition instead, who knows? The first revelations were made during improvisation sessions, meeting like-minded musicians from different parts of the world when I moved to Brussels right after my piano studies. I started moving away from the classical piano, picking up electronics, toy pianos, synths, sound objects and later prepared piano. I started playing with musicians like Giovanni Di Domenico, Joao Lobo, Chris Corsano, Daysuke Takaoka, Audrey Lauro, Mette Rasmussen, Darin Gray… I had my first tour in Japan in 2009, which completely changed my perception of listening.
I also work for an educational association called ‘Musica, Impulse Centre for Music’ in Flanders. There I mainly work with children, experimenting together in the realms of sound art. This work gave me lots of space to explore (in different directions: from radio works by Cage to gamelan playing on pots and pans) and through them I met many interesting artists. It is still giving me a lot of opportunities today. Working with children is very rewarding, surprising, and tiring as well!! They taught me to look at things from another angle and to let go of certain preconceptions.
You work with a number of instruments, including prepared pianos, toy pianos, synths, electronics and various sound objects across. How do you approach choosing and working with various musical and non-musical instruments?
There are so many factors! Like a preference for certain sounds, a preference for broken or lived objects… the space where I have to perform, or the duration… But in general…I am rather an instinctive player, and half of the time, I feel I have been chosen rather than that I actually choose. If something comes my way (because I found it, or someone gave it to me, etc…) and I like how that feels and sounds, then I integrate it in my musical set. It gets pretty aleatoric sometimes. But I definitively have a fascination with metallic sounds, harmonics and overtones. I’m also someone who needs knobs or something to manipulate or twist… The piano remains an amazing-sounding instrument. The way I use it (preparing the inside of it), I see it as a huge resonating box, where a whole (weird) orchestra could be reproduced. If you play and try long enough, amazing sounds just come out. It’s like, if you take the time to let them be, they will come out and show themselves.
So, let’s say one approach is a very natural, organic and instinctive one. The other depends on the context. If I’m asked to make a soundtrack, I choose what I will use much more, according to the images. For example, last October I was asked to play in a train station in Ostend, for a project with dancers (called DERAILED by Benjamin Vandewalle) for Europalia Trains & Tracks. It was six hours every day for five days in a row, in a public space where the dancers would interact with the travellers or commuters. I had to deal with very extreme factors, like long duration, loads of ambient noise from the station itself, a huge reverb because of the open space and five dancers who were also depending on my musical energy to let them flow. I made recordings of the trains, created tracks with the sounds of the station, the train doors and then combined them with my gong rods, a sampler, electronic FX pedals, and borrowed a drum machine (Korg Electribe) from a good friend. I have never performed live with a drum machine and it was so much fun. Just to say… it kind of depends on where and what.
What is the most important factor when you improvise?
Listening. And connecting to this big flow, where all the other musicians are. Staying in the moment and at the same time letting the music lead the way. I still love improvisation very much, although I compose more now. It is so different depending on the other musicians, the number of musicians, the space, the mood, the audience… I love the part where you enter the unknown… like travelling in a country where you have never been. You’ll get all the surprises, good and bad. A bit like real life, you know?
You’ve also collaborated with a number of musicians. How do you approach these collaborations, and do you have a dream one?
I love collaborations. I play solo a lot and I have also been leading a lot of projects, so it is really nice when you can make a real collaboration, where not all the responsibility is on your shoulders. I have mostly done small formats (like duos, trios) because I found it allows enough space to explore together without getting in each other’s way. I have a duo called Duo Pour 454 Chordes with French pianist Lionel Malric. We both play prepared grand piano, and I’m very fond of this duo, because we actually play the same instrument, but our approaches are so different, even opposite sometimes so it becomes complementary. Or Going, for instance, (a quartet with two drummers – Joao Lobo and Mathieu Calleja and two pianists – Giovanni Di Domenico and me), is a long-standing collaboration. We have played more than ten years together, so the musical understanding is strong. We play long forms, to get into a trip/trance-like state together. A dream would be to work with Ellen Fullman or Eliane Radigue one day.
You’ve done musical walks and soundtracked films. How do you translate sound into the environment or visual imagery?
I think sound is such an important factor (let’s not forget that one of the first senses we develop when we are still foetuses is hearing!). It can set the mood, and can influence our visual state. When I work in situ or for a musical walk, I always let the place inspire me and see what it evokes in me. I even like to put a joke in once in a while (like putting a sound that makes you wonder why it’s there) Then afterwards, I will look for those sounds that bring back these feelings or emotions. I mostly do things from my guts (or my heart?), and I’m not too technical about it.
What has inspired you lately?
Many things, but one of them is ceramics. I started making ceramics, and currently I’m trying to make a prototype of a ceramic instrument. I don’t know yet how it will work out, but it is certainly fascinating! Another thing is travelling. Since Covid, in the first lockdown, I (like many people) couldn’t move; to be able to travel again gave me a boost. I took long trips by train, and the act of moving has always been essential to me. It is important to arrive, but the way of getting there is equally as important to me.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova