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Pak Yan Lau describes her sound universe, full of surprises

The Brussels-based sound artist, improviser, musician, and composer Pak Yan Lau creates layered sonic constellations through a set-up of prepared pianos, toy pianos, synths, electronics, and various sound objects — skilfully blending electro-acoustic approaches for a bewildering universe of sound, tone, and texture. During Rewire 2023, she performs her album Bakunawa (2021) in full, delving and digging deep into the sound spectrum of a plethora of instruments. “I find it very fascinating to be able to hear a whole world inside just one or two notes.”

What is the process like of developing your own instrumental ecology, the way you set-up, build, and arrange a set-up of instruments to compose, record, and perform your music on?

Not only do I have an obsession with toy pianos, but also with all sounding objects that resonate in a, for me, surprising way. Some of the instruments are found, some happen to cross my path by chance, some are made by limitations, and some are simply existing but modifiable or transformable. The first spark is always a kind of "wonder" of how it sounds or what could be done with it. The next is working with it and discovering the qualities and sonorities that then again inspire me to fuse it or combine it with other instruments or electronics. The overall process is generally very intuitive. I base myself mostly on what I hear and feel while working with sounds, leaving a lot of space open for "accidents" and "surprises". When I record or perform (especially when I play alone), I also base my set-up on which space I would be sounding or playing. I might add or leave some instruments exactly because the room/church/space I’ll record/play in is very wet or just really dry. On the other hand, when I play with other musicians, I would base my set-up on what other musicians would already be bringing, and what I could add as an interesting or colourful touch.

Exploring acoustics, vibration, and overtones plays an important role in your music. What specific qualities are you looking for when you’re exploring new (or old) instruments to incorporate in your artistic process?

This "wondrous" feeling that questions and intrigues me when I hear a certain sound is a very important aspect. I find it very fascinating to be able to hear a whole world inside just one or two notes. The fact that some of these instruments are "out of tune" creates incredibly crazy overtones. As I have a background of classical piano (with its fixed tempered tuning), I am drawn to other tunings, where the frequencies can tell a very different story. Usually I love to play with old objects, because somehow I think time has left an imprint, and they carry that within them when you make them sound.

In the case of Bakunawa, which you’ll perform during Rewire 2023, how do you know when you’ve found the constellation of instruments that works for you — when the possibilities of adding or changing instruments seem endless?

With Bakunawa it was a very specific desire. I wanted to maximise my solo set-up, by not playing it by myself but with other musicians. It is true that you could add and change the constellation endlessly, but I have let my ears guide me. Somehow I knew exactly what I wanted. The music that could be, the different sounds, what I needed to create contrast and also who I wanted to play it — It was all there in my head. By having each musician (Giovanni Di Domenico, Vera Cavallin, João Lobo, Théo Lanau) already in my mind, I also wrote according to how I knew we would function as an ensemble. I ask these musicians to not play their own instruments, but to play mine. Not everyone would like to do so. I'm very lucky with these incredible musicians.

What are some of the possibilities that excite you when working with these instruments in a live context, vis-à-vis preparing your set-up for a studio recording?

"Accidents" and "surprises" are the things I like the most, the risk of something not going accordingly. Some of my instruments are pretty old, not to mention fragile. Honestly, if we would make a huge tour with Bakunawa, we probably won’t get very far. I think after five concerts in a row we’ll probably have broken half of the instruments. I like this challenge of having to make do with what you’ve chosen. When recording I can still change aspects that I don’t like, but in a live context every sound counts. Then a mistake becomes a workable matter, a broken tone will give a new kind of sound. I like that.

Considering your wide-ranging and open-minded approach to instruments and their sonic characteristics, what would be some of the sonic territories and applications that you want to explore more in the future?

Currently I have started to make a few tiny steps into the world of water, glass and ceramics.

I have made music for inside a swimming pool (Sogni Liquidi / AMOK festival). Underwater music fascinates me because sound behaves very differently underwater. We don’t hear with our ears, but through bone-conduction . . . not to mention that we ourselves consist of like 60% of water? Imagine how we feel music there! For OORtreders festival I have created an installation about water and glass called (t)ears, based on human emotions. 22 mouth-blown glass tears are hanging in the space. Inside those glass tears are 6 hydrophones catching drops of water falling down at different speeds (I call it techno-tears), and some 12 passive speakers with each their own sound source. It’s like a small glass acousmonium. I would love to have the chance to further explore this installation. Last year I started making ceramic instruments, called ceramic wokalimba (originally invented by Giovanni Di Domenico, who fused a metal wok with metal spikes and created the wokalimba). This ceramic version surprised me with its high frequencies. I’m still working on it, but I have started to incorporate it in my set-up. So there’s still lots of experimenting to do, especially considering how fragile these instruments are. I have already broken a few, but there is this desire to make an album only out of ceramic wokalimbas and electronics.

Pak Yan Lau performs at Rewire 2023 on Sunday 9 April.