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7 September 2022

Alex Lau: Composer for Children's Book, Violin & Cello

Alex Lau Image: Alex Lau  

Alexander Lau is an emerging Sydney-based composer and violinist. His second children's book collaboration with author Catherine Greer, Violin & Cello, has recently hit bookshelves across Australia and is due for release in USA and UK in November. The book carries a heart-warming story about making friends with music, and making music with friends. We caught up with Alexander to talk about the collaboration, his approach to composing for a children's book, and musical recommendations for young children.

This book marks your second collaboration with Catherine Greer - how did this partnership come about?

It's quite a unique partnership! I used to go to school with Catherine's son, Luke, and we would play music in small ensembles together. At the time, I had only written music for our ensembles to play, but Catherine approached me with an exciting opportunity. She proposed that I write a chamber work for her book Jacaranda Snow. She's always been a big supporter of my music and has been the most amazing partner to work with!

Unlike some children's music written for narrator and instruments, The Mystery Friends is a duet written as an accompaniment to the book Violin & Cello. Tell us how you approached the composition of this piece.

The Mystery Friends duet is different to most children's music because it's integrated into the narrative, rather than just being supplementary to it. Despite the simplicity of the music, it was actually quite a challenge to write. I wanted to write something with musical substance rather than just a jingle, but it also had to be playable by young children. The idea of the two movements is meant to reflect the different individual personalities and cultures of the two characters. This duality is written into the musical decisions. As an example, the first movement has a fast tempo, with short and spiky articulation. The second movement is slower and has much sweeter, legato articulations. But of course, the two movements are part of the greater work, which is symbolic of how it brings the two characters together through music.

Image: Violin & Cello book cover

What role did playing music have for you growing up?

Music has been around since I was very young. My very first memories were from when I was a very young toddler. I remember that my dad would play classical music on the cassette player (yes, cast your minds back to a different time!) to help me fall asleep. In particular, I remember listening to this beautiful piano piece (which, I later identified as Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto).

As a young kid, I used to enjoy harmonising tunes in pop songs. At the end of primary school, I was starting to transpose tunes I'd heard in musicals onto paper. From then, I started writing music in early high school as part of a club. I think music has always been treated as a very academic field at school. So for me, music has always been both a task of engineering, but it also provides a medium to tell stories and express creativity.

What do you hope to impart for children (and parents and teachers) reading Violin & Cello?

I find that the music written for very young musicians can sometimes be a bit bland since it's restricted on a technical level. I hope that the music I've written for Violin & Cello makes music interesting for young musicians by tying it to both a narrative and also introducing the idea of playing in chamber ensembles. When I taught violin to kids, I found they were much more engaged when they finally played with accompaniment. I have to admit, the technical difficulty of the pieces is on the more advanced side for beginner musicians. To some extent, this was done on purpose because I hope it inspires them to learn the instrument more and gives them something exciting to work towards.

For parents and teachers, I hope Violin & Cello becomes a new, exciting resource to engage kids to appreciate classical music. The challenge is that classical music is stereotypically regarded as highly academic, making it inaccessible to many listeners. For young kids, there might not seem like there's an end goal except for music exams. In my opinion, music can serve much greater purposes. I think about the times I've played the violin for weddings, concerts and even for patients in hospitals. If I told a kid that over doing well in their music exam, I think they would be much more excited to learn.

What are some of your favourite string works for children? Any by Australian composers?

I think Syncopation by Fritz Kreisler is a classic work for developing violinists. For ensemble works, I remember I enjoyed playing Gustav Holst's St Paul's Suite and Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony in primary school. Maurice Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye isn't a string work, but it's amazing and was originally written for children. The last movement is especially beautiful (there are also string ensemble arrangements).

And of course, in the spirit of Violin & Cello, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't recommend some more advanced works for young musicians to listen to and appreciate. He Zhan Hao and Chen Gang's The Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto is a beautiful piece that fuses Asian and Western music. Another good work is Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum's Sonata for violin and piano. Both of these pieces have extramusical material, which means they both reflect some kind of story or non-musical idea in their music.

Violin & Cello, written by Catherine Greer, and illustrated by Joanna Bartel with music by Alexander Lau is available from ekbooks.org and wherever great books are sold.

Alex Lau's score for Violin & Cello can be downloaded here, and audio recordings are available here.

Alexander Lau is an emerging contemporary classical composer. He studied composition for six years under Dr Nicholas Vines. Having played violin for 15 years, Alex often writes chamber music for strings. He is also a member of the Seraphim String Trio, established in 2015. Alex's compositional style is diverse and often changes. Most recently, his works have been influenced by Jazz and American minimalism. Alex is also the composer of ‘Jacaranda Snow’, a piano quartet for the growth mindset picture book, Jacaranda Snow. Alex lives with his family in Sydney and currently studies at the University of New South Wales.


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