Israel is one of the composers selected for our Opus 1 scheme for 2023. Here he takes the Opus 1 Q&A challenge.
How did you get into composing?
Throughout my life, I have had an urge to create - whether it's drawings, music, or stories. As a child, when my family took me to yumcha, I would hand-draw staves and notes behind the ordering sheets and write melodies that depicted my (purportedly) monotonous life. During my music studies at university, I realised that my relentless need of new things and ideas undermined my discipline to take on the soloist path, so I decided to focus on the creative aspect of my musicianship.
What sort of music do you like to write?
Despite my tendency to delve into abstract structural or theoretical musical constructions, I actually almost never write music that is disconnected to my personal life. I usually take one thing from my experiences and use it as the starting point for all my musical explorations. That one thing ultimately reflects my state of mind: in my late teens, I wrote a lot of music based on my journeys discovering the world around me; later, my output channelled the social unrest that engulfed my place of origin; now, my work tends to question my identities as an immigrant and a world citizen, and embody inner conflicts between the familiar and unfamiliar.
What excites you most about being part of Opus 1?
Music-making for me has always been about the people, so no matter what the project is, it's the people I work with and alongside that excite me most. Obviously, that includes the amazing musicians from the Britten Sinfonia, even if it's only over the course of one month I'm on the programme. But that also includes the peers and mentors that help me along, as my creative ideas are often triggered by hearing what other people have to say musically.
What 3 pieces of music would you have to have on your desert island?
Sibelius Violin Concerto. Even though I come from a sub-tropical land, the imaginary calm and endless Finnish snowscape that it conjures in my head is my spiritual habitat. Besides, I can never get enough of the sheer energy in the finale.
Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony. My emotional reactions to art are often unpredictable, and yet the simple C-major chord on the organ has never failed to bring a tear of joy to my eyes.
Gorecki "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs". As a self-taught Polish speaker, I often empathise with the suffering that Gorecki's countrymen have gone through in history. The themes of the piece remind me of common struggles shared by mankind, whether being stranded on a desert island or staying resilient in face of external oppression. Musically, it is a reminder that doing a simple thing in a piece of music, but well, leaves a much stronger impression than trying too hard.
What is the best snack? (We ask everyone this…it’s important research!)
Having just moved back from Lithuania, I have to recommend the unique delicacy hematogen. A Soviet-era nutrition bar made from cow's blood, it combines the (weirdly realistic) taste of chocolate with the nutritional value and (familiar, I believe) aftertaste of black pudding.
Israel Lai is an award-winning composer, collaborative pianist, and conductor from Hong Kong. His music, rich in harmony, deeply personal, and acclaimed as "thought-provoking", "visceral", and "unreservedly powerful", has been widely performed in Hong Kong, the UK, and abroad. Israel’s music is characterised by his sensitivity towards harmony, while his stylistic evolution is closely linked to his journey moving to Europe. He often draws inspiration from memories of places: his pieces for the Oxford Philharmonic, Dusk in Chiufen and Summer, were sparked by experiences in Taiwanese mountains and midsummer in Sweden. Social turmoil and his subsequent move abroad left an indelible mark on his output, most notably his opera, Bou6, and later the soundtrack for the documentary Love in the Time of Revolution. As he settled, his music started asking what it means to create in a foreign land. His latest orchestral piece, Mind the Gap, puts the journey into perspective. Nowadays, Israel is active in local contemporary music-making, as part of residencies at the Cheltenham and Vale of Glamorgan festivals. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester.