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Monday, July 6, 2020

The hypnotic universe of Pak Yan Lau

By Stef Gijssels

Last year, I came across Belgian pianist Pak Yan Lau, who released the phenomenal "Duo Pour 454 Chordes". Despite the fact that we're living in the same city, I never actually met her, nor did I ever see any of her performances, and the current context is not really helpful either. 

Pak Yan Lau was born in Belgium, after her parents moved here from Hong Kong. She began playing the piano at the age of six ("A girl from my neighborhood was playing, and I just wanted to do the same. My mom was convinced that it was not for me as in the Chinese culture the concept of playing the piano means “sitting still like a lady and being very disciplined". Contrary to that, I was constantly running around and sitting still was something I really couldn't do. I cried for 2 days before she gave in" (Kraak, 2019). She started a formal piano education at the age of nine and obtained her degree of classical piano at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, Belgium and at the 'Escola Superior de Música e Artes do Espectáculo' in Porto, Portugal. After her studies she expanded into jazz following workshops by Marilyn Crispell, Stefano Battaglia, Christoph Erbstösser and others. 

Like other pianists such as Magda Mayas and Eve Risser, she has left the traditional notion of her instrument as a keyboard. In her hands it has become a total instrument, with many hidden sounds and percussive possibilities. You couldn't call her music 'jazz', because it lacks the typical chord progressions or scales that are typical in the genre. Her approach is minimal in its inputs - a few notes, a few beats - that then get expanded and amplified both acoustically or electronically. 

"Improvisation is like a whole world of 'possibilities'. Depending on when, where, and with who you’re doing it, it shapes the music. So, I see it as a moment of possible things. All kind of possible things, from positive and beautiful to negative and ugly or just simply blank. However, what I love about improvisation is that it's very much always the moment. So it's a very present thing, it is alive, it follows the energy and, in a certain way, focus is required. Flexibility and open ears. Always very open ears. All my music making is very much into improvisation and experimentation. I am sure I will go on to another phase of composing one day but I really love to improvise. I love this intense being when you have to let go of yourself and connect to a bigger stream", she says in an interview in Kraak in April 2019.

She has released several albums since last year, of which I will review two duo performances who of an equally high level. 

Pak Yan Lau & Lionel Malric - TIOT - Live At Lastours (Self, 2020) ****

On TIOT she performs again a duo with Lionel Malric, also on piano. TIOT stands for "the impermanence of things", a philosophical concept that is found around the world and is possibly most  relevant to the nature of music, it is gone before you realise it. 

This album is a live recording from a concert at the Domaine de Lastours in Coursan, France in September 2017. Next to their pianos, the duo have a whole range of other instruments and materials that they use to perform their art: clavichords, cimbalom, toy pianos, synthesizers, casio keyboards, woks, old irons and electronic effects. Like on the previous album, their art gets organically structured, growing out of some initial ideas, and anchored around repeated rhythms. 

The performance consists of one long improvisation of close to one hour, and it offers a kaleidoscopic use of sound, changing into a myriad of sonic elements that alter and move, hypnotic and persistent at moments, calm and plaintive at others, resonating and intimate, but always captivating and surprising, including the use of ambient sounds (such as birds singing).     

The middle of the piece is quiet and minimal, with few notes and bass tones creating even more intensity and tension than the more voluminous moments. Minimal patterns grow with patient discipline and restraint, gradually building up their narrative with subtle sonic and rhythmic changes. And once you think you've understood their approach, they take the journey to an even stranger place, equally suprising and enjoyable. 

Like on the previous album, the question of 'how' they do it quickly disappears (because impossible to answer) and the joy of listening remains. It is strong, compelling, balanced, inviting and unusual. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Pak Yan Lau & Darin Gray - Trudge Lightly (By The Bluest Of Seas, 2020) ****½

Her second album this year is a duo with Darin Gray, who plays double bass, preparations, objects and electronics. Gray is an American bassist who may be known from his collaborations with Jim O'Rourke, Loren Mazzacane Connors or Chris Corsano. Pak Yan Lau plays prepared piano, toy pianos, synth, objects and electronics. 

This album is again something else, with six relatively short pieces, quite distinct in nature and atmosphere. The album was recorded in 2016 with little preconceptions and agreed ideas. Then Pak Yan Lau reworked the material, adding and subtracting as she saw fit. A long work of post-production, but the result is worth it. 

The album starts almost in "in medias res" as if you've entered too late into an already ongoing performance. The approach shocks, refreshens and creates a sense of urgency. It is dark, compelling, insistent and strange ... and it is over before you realise what's happening. 

The second track, "Callings" presents weird deep moaning bows accompanied by flute-like sounds, the third, "Suspended Thoughts" is an intense interaction between gamelan-like percussion, rhythmic plucked strings and a deep moaning/mooing sound from the bass. It conjures up a deep sense of sadness and despair, and has a surprisingly radical ending. "Way to Walk" is a short rhythmic piece, with ever changing structure and sounds, calmly slowing down near the end. 

"Lost" starts with light-textured eery resonating sounds, evolving in a meditative theme played on the keys of the piano (yes), gentle and spacious, and surrounded by the mystery of fragile accompanying sonic explorations. The longer title track, "Trudge Lightly" illustrates the light/darkness contrast of the music and the title itself: the moving forward through obstacles yet in an easy way. The piece develops around a simple rhythmic pattern, played on muted strings, which resonate at the same time through other devices, creating an unusual contrast of soundlessness and clarity, that develops into a hypnotic insistent and rotating repetitiveness. 

Like her other albums reviewed here, this one is equally mesmerising, fresh, inventive and intense. Her sense of spontaneous composition, the inherent intensity and musicality of it as well as the sonic arrangements are exceptional. 

Listen and downlad from Bandcamp It is also available as a vinyl production with booklet. 

I can only hope that the lockdown ends soon and that performances are allowed again. Pak Yan Lau will be high on my agenda.