Lunar New Year Premieres: LSO composers – past and present – tell us about a night of new music

What better way to ring in the Lunar New Year than with new music? Following a sold-out debut in January 2019, artist collective Tangram return on 25 January to interweave folk melodies with brand new compositions. We caught up with composers Raymond Yiu, Jasmin Kent Rodgman and Alex Ho – all LSO composers of past and present – to find out more about the music we'll hear on Lunar New Year.

While Raymond took part in the LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme back in 2008/09, Jasmin is an alumni of our LSO Jerwood+ Composer programme (2017/18) and Alex Ho is a current member of our LSO Soundhub scheme. Tangram, the exciting artist collective made up of Chinese and western instruments (and newly appointed Associate Ensemble of SOAS University of London), will perform their new compositions, remixing ideas of what Chinese music and contemporary classical music can be.

Tell us about yourself.

Raymond: I was born and raised in Hong Kong and then came over to the UK to study when I was 17. I did not think I would become a composer – partly because it was not something that crossed my mind as a viable career option. I studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering at university, and spent 13 years working in IT. It was only in 2009 that I decided to give up work and undertook a doctorate in composition and so here I am now as a (mostly) self-taught composer!

Jasmin: I’m a British Chinese-Malaysian composer and producer who collaborates a lot with other artistic disciplines to create cross-art projects and musical experiences. My music crosses the classical, electronic and sound art worlds, and plays with a sense of narrative often with unique set ups or locations.

Alex: I am a British-Chinese composer currently studying for a doctorate in composition at the Royal College of Music. I am interested in the relationship between music and identity, particularly engaging with transnational culture and experience.

What can we expect from your Tangram commissions?

Jasmin: I’m really excited to be writing for Tangram. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore traditional Chinese instruments and the collaboration between western and eastern soundworlds. My piece is going to be quite playful, taking a look at recognisable eastern musical characteristics and turning them into something new and unknown. The work will consist of short etudes that are each accompanied by a Chinese phrase or proverb, read aloud by the Tangram musicians.

'It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore traditional Chinese instruments
and the collaboration between western and eastern soundworlds.'

Alex: Audience participation! Chinese New Year is always a special occasion and a large part of that is the sense of community. My piece will look to embody this feeling and I hope offer a glimpse of what celebrating the new year means to me.

Raymond: My Tangram commission, Corner of a Foreign Field, is a sonic commemoration for the Chinese Labour Corps, 96,000 Chinese farm labourers who were ‘recruited’ to work for Britain and France during (and slightly after) the First World War, but never received any acknowledgement for their effort during the war until Remembrance Sunday 2017.

Raymond Yiu's 'Maomao Yü'

What do you normally do on the Lunar New Year?

Raymond: Ideally I organise dinner with a few friends, though as Chinese New Year is always close to the Christmas/New Year period, I am often still suffering from holiday hangover and rarely manage to gear myself back into a celebrative mood! I do miss the buzzing frenzy of the new year in Hong Kong however and those amazing flower markets.

Jasmin: On Chinese New Year I always head back home for the biggest meal with my family and family friends. Eating so much that I can barely move is a time old tradition, as is heading out to catch the Dragon and Lion Dances in Chinatown! There have been a couple of occasions where we even flew back to Malaysia to celebrate with the larger family (there are a lot of us!) and I’ll never forget how many people we always see –dropping in to pass on gifts and angpow (a red envelope containing money which is given on special occasions), share stories and wishes for the New Year. It’s a really magical and happy time, and I’m really looking forward to celebrating the Year of the Rat by sharing some new music with y’all!

Alex: Like Jasmin and I imagine a large part of the East Asian community, just eat! My fondest memories are going to Chinatown in London with my family and family friends and eating the crispiest of crispy roast pork in a packed restaurant with the sound of Chinese percussion raucously accompanying Lion Dances outside. The spirit of celebration and community is infectious and I am sure this year will be no different!

Tell us about your relationship with the LSO.

Raymond: I was one of participants of the 2008/09 edition of LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme. Since then, the LSO have commissioned three works. Maomao Yü is a quintet for piano and four Chinese instruments written for Lang Lang to premiere during his residency with the orchestra in 2009. I also wrote one of the Panufnik Variations for recording by the LSO in 2012, and lastly And Nights Bright Days, a work for solo flute written for and premiered by LSO principal flute Gareth Davies in Beijing in 2017. During the last of these events, members of the LSO also gave the Chinese premiere of my Jieshi for qin and string quartet.

Alex: I am in the second year of the LSO’s brilliant Soundhub programme, which allows composers to create their own chamber projects with LSO musicians and guest artists. Last July, I wrote a new piece for Chinese and western instruments, yangqin, clarinet, and viola, and I’ll excitingly have a new piece for two percussion soloists and mixed ensemble premiered by the LSO in February.

Jasmin: As one of the first LSO Jerwood+ Composers in 2017/18, I created two concerts that investigated gender and race identity through music, spoken word and dance. The scheme was not only an opportunity to write new music for LSO musicians, but also one to learn better how to produce and curate innovative new music concerts. I loved my time as an LSO Jerwood+ Composer – creating the setting and context within which your music is heard was as engaging as writing the music itself.

Jasmin Kent Rodgman's 'Countour'

What did you learn from the LSO scheme and how has this affected your practice since?

Raymond: From the Panufnik Composers Scheme, I learnt how to write for the orchestra properly. As someone who never studied music in a university or a conservatory, I never had the opportunity to work with an orchestra. The three big orchestral works that I wrote after Panufnik Composers Scheme – including my Symphony for the BBC Proms 2015 – benefited a great deal from my experience working with the LSO. (Commercial break – these three works are coming out on a disc on Delphian Records in 2020!)

Jasmin: I had the opportunity to work with phenomenal artists such as Errollyn Wallen, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Salena Godden, Hemabharathy Palani, Alexandrina Hemsley and many more! My first LSO concert mixing music and performance poetry, HUH, even went on to be performed at The Albany and the Roundhouse. As a result of these performances, 2020 will see me lead a young artists’ workshop series called We Tick Other, in partnership with Roundhouse, where we will be creating four new music and spoken word pieces centred around themes of otherness, race and gender.

Alex: It was a dream working with LSO musicians and Tangram co-director/yangqin extraordinaire, Reylon Yount! The entire process was hugely generative and I felt we all learnt a great deal about how instruments and instrumentalists from different cultures can collaborate in a sensitive and stimulating manner. I have since worked on several projects involving Chinese and western instruments and can readily see the direct impact of my wonderful experience last July both in the way I write and rehearse my music.

'It was a dream working with LSO musicians and Tangram co-director/yangqin extraordinaire,
Reylon Yount! We all learnt a great deal about how instruments and instrumentalists
from different cultures can collaborate in a sensitive and stimulating manner.'

What are your next artistic projects?

Raymond: The works next in line are an orchestral piece celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and a violin concerto. Lee Warren – my librettist for my opera, The Original Chinese Conjuror – and I have been working on the outline of a new stage work, and the first draft is being developed – we are in the process of finding a producer and backers to move it further forwards.

Jasmin: Other projects for 2020 include a concert-installation at Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Chinese Arts Now Festival, recording my debut EP, a commission for the United Strings of Europe and a new production combining opera, dance, spoken word and film!

Alex: Next up is completing my Soundhub commission for February before working on a dance project showing at the V&A in the summer of 2020. I’ll then be working on a few solo projects for cello, pipa (Chinese lute), and daegum (Korean flute), and then turning my head back to developing and extending an operatic stage-work that was premiered last November for the 2020/21 season.

Alex Ho's 'Rituals and Resonances'

Raymond Yiu, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, and Alex Ho will have their Tangram commissions premiered at LSO St Luke’s on 25 January 2020, celebrating the Lunar New Year on the day itself. Tickets are available here.

Tangram is a London-based artist collective creating new music to open up spaces beyond the China-West dichotomy. Their last performance was described by David Gowland (Royal Opera House) as 'sincere, unpretentious, inclusive, inspired and inspiring. It is one of the most enjoyable performances I've attended for quite a while... [The] juxtaposition of Chinese and Western idioms and cultures was simply brilliant in its delivery.'

Photos: Malcolm Crowthers, Jonathan Hines and Peter Fingleton.