“Erase the notes you don’t need.”
Robert Lau talks to us about life as a composer.
How did you get involved with music, and what drew you to composing?
I began violin lessons at the age of seven. Interest in other instruments soon followed, so that by my high school years I played violin in the orchestra, oboe and flute in the band, piano in the jazz band, sang in the choir and played the organ in church. Many of my colleagues (and people of the choral and organ world) don’t know that I was a string player all my life — violin in under- graduate school and viola in graduate school. I also taught both instruments privately and played viola professionally in a string quartet.
I was drawn into composing through church music. As a church organist and choir director for many years I saw pieces and texts that I thought I might like to set. I began to compose and gradually got works published. In a more personal way, I have found that composition has became a part of the way I worship.
MorningStar recently released your work, Lamb of God Most Holy: Five Postludes for Lent. What inspired you to write these arrangements?
Unlike many of my composing colleagues (so I have been told), I am very motivated by suggestion. Perhaps it is the idea that I can fill a need that inspires me. How did this apply to Lamb of God Most Holy? Other organists have told me that they worry about what to play for postludes during Lent. As I said in the preface to the work, on one hand we want to “send them out rejoicing”, but on the other we want to maintain the solemnity of the season. I thought a book like this would help to fill that need.
Is there a method you use to motivate yourself to write new music? What is your process for writing music?
I am not a person who sits at a piano (or computer) for a set number of hours each day, composing anything and/or waiting for inspiration. Instead I allow my ideas to “simmer on a back burner” until I think they are ready to be written down. Fortunately, two advanced degrees in music theory and a strong interest in keyboard improvisation allow me to harmonize voice parts and arrange accompaniments quickly.
Describe life as a composer. What are the most gratifying and difficult aspects of the career?
To me the most gratifying experience is to hear that something I have written fills a need and appeals to a wide range of performers and their abilities. My most vivid example occurred several years ago when I had an anthem sung at St. Peter’s in Rome by a touring choir from the United States. To “fill a need” in that venue was certainly gratifying. But what really struck me was a letter I received about 10 days later from a woman who told me she and her small choir on an American Indian reservation in New Mexico had performed one of my anthems and it went well. It was the SAME anthem!
Difficulty? Having to re-write or reject a section of a piece (or an entire piece) that originally pleased me, but for some reason doesn’t “fit” any more.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers?
Listen to and analyze as much music as possible. Do composers have a distinct melodic/harmonic/rhythmic style which attracts your attention? What makes their music interesting? And two suggestions of a more practical nature. 1) If you are interested in the commercial world of church music, know the “profile” of a music publishing company. Are you writing the kind of music they publish? And, 2) erase the notes you don’t need (my pet peeve: unnecessary doubling, especially in keyboard accompaniments).
What can you be found doing when you’re not writing or editing new music?
I am a reader — papers, magazines, biographies, fiction, mystery novels, books on music. I also like travel (I could easily call France or Italy home), good food, listening to music and exercising to stay healthy. Although I am retired after a career as a college prof (40+ years), I still substitute as a church organist on a regular basis.
Is there any recent or upcoming news you’d like to share?
I recently completed three choral commissions from churches whose directors are my fellow chapter members of the Harrisburg (PA) Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I think it is special to be asked by your peers to write for them.
And, by the time this interview appears I will be celebrating (to me) a significant milestone in my career: 500 published keyboard and choral works. Beyond my dreams!
Robert Lau is a composer of keyboard and choral music with hundreds of publications to his name. He has received 15 ASCAP awards, as well as awards from his alma mater, Lebanon Valley College, and Theatre Harrisburg (PA). He has held positions as organist and director of music in various denominations in central Pennsylvania. He studied at Lebanon Valley College (where he is now Professor Emeritus), the Eastman School of Music, and The Catholic University of America.