»I create my own habitat by trying to fit in somewhere.« Pak Yan Lau on »Bakunawa«

Pak Yan Lau has tirelessly been carving out her own niche. As part of the group Going, a collaborator of musicians such as Chris Corsano, Darin Gray and, recently, Mette Rasmussen, the Belgian artist has been exploring many different styles of music together with very different people over the past ten years. Whoever follows her work is always in for a surprise, but will have noticed that toy pianos and gong rods are a constant. Those instruments and their distinct sonic qualities inspired the improviser to take a different approach for »Bakunawa«, a two-part composition recorded together with some long-time collaborators that formed an ensemble just to perform the piece. Lau will present it on the 10th of September at the St. Elisabeth-Kirche for an edition of Kontraklang during the Month of Contemporary Music that also features Will Guthrie’s Nist-Nah Ensemble on the bill. Before that, Lau talks about how »Bakunawa« came together, her relationship with gamelan music, and working between cultures.

Coincidentally, »Bakunawa« is not the only album with that title that came out recently, another one was released by the experimental opera singer White Boy Scream. It is the name a dragon from Philippine mythology that eats moons. Pretty rude! What drew you to this particular myth?

The title actually came after the piece had been written. In the myth, the villagers are first trying to calm down the moon-eating dragon, but when that fails they try to scare him away instead. Part one of my piece is full of soothing, high-pitched, droning sounds; it creates a trance and makes you lose your sense of space and time. The second part is more rhythmic, with filtered toy piano sounds. One tames the dragon, the other scares him away! When I saw that another record called »Bakunawa« was coming out, I was really surprised! (laughs) But if you listen to that one, it becomes clear that the title and concept came first and the music second.

What was your original musical concept?

I have been playing with toy pianos and gong rods for around ten years now, but always as a soloist. In a sense, »Bakunawa« is a continuation of my work with those instruments as it had been first documented on my debut solo record, »Book of Toys.«

Why did you involve more people for this project?

Because it gave me more possibilities to enlarge the entire sonic and musical spectrum. Otherwise I would have to overdub myself, but that is not really fun and the fun and the energy that you get out of playing together is really important. I also wanted to do something that is more composed, because I usually improvise a lot. The musicians have some liberties, but I’m the boss and it’s my piece! (laughs)

Besides Vera Cavallin on prepared harp, the ensemble consists of members from one of the groups you play in, Going.

I chose those people wisely! (laughs) With the exception of Vera, they are performing on instruments that are not theirs—two are drummers, the other two pianists. But they are open-minded, great musicians. Since I have been playing with them for so long in Going, all I need to do is to describe to them the rhythmical ideas that I have in mind and they will go ahead and perform them. The musicians are very important in that sense. One of the drummers was being replaced by another and I can really feel the difference when we are performing, but since the piece has a certain structure, everything is still clear to everyone involved even though we can all have certain freedoms and can vary a bit during a performance. Basically, I’m directing it while I play.

In this edition of Kontraklang, you share the bill with the Nist-Nah Ensemble that uses gamelan instruments, though it does not really make gamelan music. What is your relationship with gamelan?

It is an incredible musical style that has been exploited a lot. That is also because it is amazing and I love it a lot. What really interests me though is not to imitate the music but instead to tap into the feeling. I like to say that I wouldn’t dare to play with actual gamelan musicians because I have so much respect for them! Gamelan tunings create wonderful frictions, all those ghost tones that I really love. If I tried to emulate that, it would just sound fake! But since the toy pianos are so out of tune, they also create a lot of friction! (laughs) That’s why I would say the music has a »gamelan-tinted feel« to it, but that’s really all. Obviously, when I play the toy piano with a ring modulator, it reminds people of gamelan music because it’s a metallophone and the ring modulator creates nice bass frequencies. I love that a lot, but because it is wrong—because it is not gamelan! (laughs)

This would make the connection with gamelan music an almost coincidental one. Are there however musical movements and ideas that you consciously pick up on in your work?

Elements in gamelan like speeding up and slowing down are something that I love a lot and have incorporated in this piece in a way that isn’t obvious. I am also very clearly influenced by minimal music—repetitive music with short motives. Then there’s drone music that moves very slowly. It is usually associated with low frequencies, but my drones are high-pitched. It sounds almost electronic, and there are indeed a lot of cues that I take from electronic music. Plus, ambient music, everything we can hear around us. We cannot forget about John Cage!

He was kind of a big deal, wasn’t he!? What’s your relationship with Will Guthrie?

I have seen him a few times, and he is amazing. I can tell from the way in which he uses polyrhythms that the gamelan comparison makes sense.

The Nist-Nah Ensemble’s debut album was released by Black Truffle and actually followed up by a recording of two pieces by Dewa Alit, an Indonesian composer who experiments with innovative approaches to gamelan music.

I think what he is doing is very cool! There is a lot of interest in mixing Western music with traditional elements, but oftentimes this includes white musicians from the West meeting musicians of colour from a specific cultural background. What I like about Alit’s approach is that he is deeply rooted in the tradition and tries to create a contemporary sound on his own terms. I think it would be great to see more of that! Gamelan is very attractive to a lot of Western musicians because the concepts of rhythm and sound are completely different from what they grew up with, but we mustn't forget that it belongs to a culture. For me, this is a tricky subject: I was born in Belgium to parents from Hong Kong and my roots aren’t very rooted, so to speak. I’m kind of in between! By trying to fit in somewhere, I create my own habitat, my own space in which I belong. And I think that makes my music very weird! (laughs)

Do you think that it can also be an advantage, not being tied so closely to just one culture?

It can be liberating, yes. For example, I have studied classical piano and always found the tradition behind it quite limiting—all those rules about how you have to play a Bach fugue, and so on. If you study like this for 20 years, it becomes an automatism. When I quit my studies, I broke free from that. I’m a bit ashamed sometimes because I don’t know as much about music as some other people. I can be quite oblivious! But that’s also the way in which I built my own universe: whenever I discover a sound that I like, I will integrate it in my music, no matter where it’s from. I’m not a fan of specific artists, which is a pity in a way, because otherwise I’d probably immerse myself very deeply in their work. But on the other hand, it is also liberating—at least I’m not trying to sound like someone whom I adore! (laughs)

However, for »Bakunawa« you somewhat conventionally work with an ensemble—as their boss, as you put it! Where would you like to take this project?

Right now I’m working on ceramic instruments and if I would like to do something with those, I would ask the same people. It is great to play »Bakunawa« because you can tell that with every concert it gets better and tighter. However, if I were to write a new piece for the same ensemble, I would use different instruments.

Are you interested in working more as a composer, though?

Yes, and I actually will! I was invited to the KEROXEN festival in Tenerife. The performances take place inside a big former gas tank that was turned into a concert hall. I was asked to work with classically trained musicians for that.

Is it important to you to be involved as a performer as well?

Yes. For now I think that is very important. I could work with scores, but I would like to move towards a type of oral tradition—working with a group of people for a long time, rehearsing and talking with them. Every musician has a very personal way of playing, and if you want to make your music sound organic, you have to get personally involved with them.

In the case of »Bakunawa,« you worked with your own friends. This would be different.

Yes, and I’m super afraid of it! (laughs) I’m trying to figure out who they are to understand what they like and what they feel comfortable with. It’s going to be a challenge. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s going to go over smoothly!

Interview by Kristoffer Cornils.