The World Was Once All Miracle: Raymond Yiu Preserves LGBTQ+ History

Once a death sentence, AIDS is thankfully now a condition that can be managed, and while the fear of this epidemic of the 80s and 90s has started to fade from memory, composer Raymond Yiu has taken it upon himself to keep this history from vanishing. Released February 12, 2021, Yiu’s debut album, The World Was Once All Miracle (Delphian Records), features baritone Roderick Williams and countertenor Andrew Watts along with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Throughout the eponymous song cycle and his Symphony, Yiu highlights texts by three gay poets–Walt Whitman, C.P. Cavafy, and Thom Gunn–to shed light on the AIDS epidemic and its importance in the LGBTQ+ community as well as the collective public consciousness. Yiu’s writing brings awareness to AIDS and its lasting legacy of those we’ve lost and those who continue to be live with its long-term effects.

The opening piece of the album, The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured, is a deftly crafted collection of disparate sounds and textures that weave through one another in a quick succession of cuts and crossfades. Yiu flits effortlessly from melodic texture to timbral texture, all vying for the listener’s attention. As the piece progresses, Yiu allows for a cacophony of competing rhythms and melodies to intersect and interrupt one another, at times clashing, and other times creating polyrhythmic symbiosis with one another.

Roderick Williams--Photo courtesy Groves Artists

Roderick Williams–Photo courtesy Groves Artists

The title piece, The World Was Once All Miracle Symphony, is a song cycle featuring the rich, golden tones of baritone Roderick Williams. In the opening exclamation, “Sick,” Williams shines forth with his brilliant, clear quality over the ensemble’s lush orchestration. In the “adagio pensieroso” movement, Yiu skillfully watercolors with the strings around the voice, showing off his clear talent for orchestration. The whimsical text of Anthony Burgess contains delightful alliteration (“sick of the sycophantic singing”), which Yiu masterfully explores through melodic range and contour. The timbral possibilities for Yiu seem endless in this striking opening.

In the third movement, “adagio malinconico, poco austere,” Yiu creates a delightful contrast of percussion, high winds, and the voice, which swirl around each other like leaves tossed by a breeze. This texture is broken by sharp staccato attacks in the fourth movement, “allegro scorrevole.” The final movement, “lento inquieto,” starts with the clangs of tubular bells and tritone dissonances that evoke otherworldliness in the searching quality of the melodic lines, punctuated by bleating brass crescendi. The piece’s trajectory comes to a close with lush extended harmonies in the orchestra, while a wistful foxtrot emerges and collapses as quickly as it comes to light, dissipating at the final line of text, “The final kiss and final tight pressure of hands.”

The final piece, Symphony, is the pièce de résistance of the album, showcasing Yiu’s more experimental and timbral prowess. Opening with a striking combination of rustling and whispering, countertenor Andrew Watts’s angelic voice shatters the texture with an exclamatory tone on the word “strong.” The disparate leaps in the voice underscore Watts’s extreme versatility in range and dynamic contrast between full-bodied falsetto and deep, rich tenor-range lows, creating a disorienting yet captivating opening. Yiu continues to set the text in unexpected ways, breaking apart the syllables into phonemes and morphemes in such a way that alters and, at times, obscures the original meaning of the phrase.

Raymond Yiu--Photo by Malcolm Crowthers

Raymond Yiu–Photo by Malcolm Crowthers

Another standout moment comes in the third movement: a distinct clatter of various metallic percussion instruments, as if shattering the glass silence that AIDS has left behind. Through this chaos emerges crystalline violin and wind solos that intermingle seamlessly before Watts reappears in long, sweeping phrases that bring about a somber undertone to the piece, underscored by the beating heart of the timpani in the background. The final movement opens with soft swells in the strings and a melancholy English horn and bassoon soli that interacts with and comments on the long sustains of Watts’ soaring voice. As the range gradually climbs into the stratosphere, almost as if the soul is departing, Watts fades off into the texture of the high violin harmonics, which remain hauntingly in the air at the conclusion of the piece. The final line of the text by John Donne, “first, last, everlasting day,” clings to the air with poignant melancholy.

Yiu’s beautiful debut album is a reminder of the destruction that the AIDS epidemic left in its wake, and the memories and legacies of those he honors in these pieces certainly live on in a multiplicity of emotion and storytelling Yiu brings in his writing. The haunting melodies brought to life by Williams and Watts are a lasting echo of those who were lost but not forgotten, those whose lives were encapsulated by the at times humorous, at times tragic, at times contemplative text setting.


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