“Foundation”: A New Work for Cello and Orchestra

Photo Credit: Bo Huang

The idea for “Foundation” struck Kevin Lau during an ordinary ride on the subway. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, his thesis composition had been preoccupying his subconscious. Suddenly, a novel idea struck him: his doctoral thesis would be a cello concerto, and Rachel Mercer was going to perform it.

It wasn’t a totally random thought, truth be told. In 2010, Rachel was looking for new music to perform and came upon a composition by Lau for cello and piano entitled “Starsail”, which was commissioned by Sarah Steeves in 2008. She emailed Lau for the score, and made first contact. When Lau was putting together a recital later that year, Rachel was one of the performers that he invited to perform his work. He recalls their first musical meeting:

 “When I heard her rehearse ‘Starsail‘, I knew immediately that I wanted to collaborate with her on a major project.”

After that subway ride, Lau immediately began work on “Foundation”. However, upon finishing about two minutes worth of music, it was clear that it was too ambitious a work for his thesis, and it would not be completed on time. Graduating being of utmost priority, the piece was put on the back burner. Instead, he and Rachel sought out grants that would support their musical collaboration, while he returned to his original plan for his thesis—a single movement orchestral work—which was successfully defended in the fall of 2011.

While the planning for Sneak Peek Orchestra’s “Up Close and Personal” chamber concert was getting under way, he started sketching out ideas for the cello concerto again. By the time the Sneak Peek team began to brainstorm for future concert programs, the idea of premiering a new cello concerto helmed by Rachel Mercer was met with great enthusiasm.

 “The ideas had been sitting in my head for a year, but I was always thinking about it. I started notating in mid-November, but I was sketching all throughout September and October, while Victor and I were working away at the Harry Potter Medley piano duet.”

The inspiration for “Foundation” is a core idea in mythology that many composers have explored using the orchestral form: the heroic confrontation with the unknown. In order to convey this idea, Lau experimented with composition techniques that he had never tried before, while incorporating a multitude of different styles in the piece.

 The piece begins within the context of a standard classical sonata structure, which is familiar territory for me, but then starts to venture into musical landscapes that are more alien. By the second movement, much of the music is scored using aleatoric techniques, which frees up the notation considerably and gives the music a somewhat hazy, undefined sound. It’s the sound of ‘becoming’, something in the process of being created. The challenge was making these styles coexist without sounding incoherent.

When asked whether he was concerned this approach would compromise the accessibility of the sound to a general audience, Lau admitted that the same thought had crossed his mind.

 I do worry about these things, but it’s not something you really know until it is performed. I hope whatever it means for something to be ‘accessible’, is that the expression is direct, regardless of the compositional process. In that sense, I continue to express and communicate as directly as possible in my music.”

This solo part is conceived for cello, one of the most expressive instruments in the string family. Balancing the incredible range of the cello against the grandeur of the orchestra was also a new challenge for Lau. Not to give away too much—as music needs to be heard to speak for itself—but Lau noted that the last movement is an allegro, which is unusual for him.

 “I had lunch with Rachel before writing a single note, ages ago.  I said, somewhat jokingly: ‘I’m assuming you want to go out with a bang, right?’ She said, ‘Yes!’ So I wrote that. While a lot of my pieces end on a soft note, this one ends in a roar. I had to design a whole allegro to build up to it, and realized while doing so that it is very hard to keep the music consistently fast; it’s a lot of work to maintain the energy! Ultimately, I think it is very satisfying for a soloist and it was a great personal challenge to achieve this effect.”

How aleatoric technique—a way of scoring music that allows the musicians to exercise some control over musical decisions—will be merged with a more traditional style of orchestral music will be revealed at the upcoming Sneak Peek Orchestra concert, “Dreams of Flying” on February 4th, 2012, featuring cellist Rachel Mercer as the soloist. Rob Teehan’s composition is the title piece that will also be featured at this concert. (The next post in this series will put the spotlight on him. Stay tuned.)