Professor Gillian MacKay conducts the fanfare composed by alumnus Aaron Tsang. (Photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas)

Graduate student, alumnus give voice to U of T campaign

Original compositions sparkle

Your university calls and wants you to compose a musical score for its fundraising campaign launch. No pressure.

Well, at least not for Aaron Tsang and Kevin Lau.

Tsang, an alumnus of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, and Lau, who recently defended his musical arts doctorate, were asked to compose music for the launch of U of T’s historic $2-billion fundraising campaign. Both musicians, good friends, said that from start to finish their projects came together quickly.

Although Tsang and Lau had a few weeks to prepare, they said even shorter deadlines are common for these types of commissions.

“It’s not unreasonable in the commercial world,” said Tsang. “They will tell you at 9 a.m. in the morning they need this at 9 a.m. the next morning.”

Tsang, who knew at the age of 15 he wanted to be a Hollywood film score composer, wrote the opening and closing fanfare for the ceremony. Lau, currently the composer-in-residence for the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra, scored the music for the campaign video presentation, a funny twist in itself. Tsang usually scores music for visual media and Lau typically composes for orchestras. “We were a little bit outside our usual environments,” added Lau.

When asked what inspired their compositions the pair said it was a combination of the client’s ideas for the campaign and their own sensibilities.  For both Tsang and Lau, the music had to celebrate a storied past while looking towards a future filled with promise. 

View Tsang's musical composition below.

Tsang said he turned to the Olympics for inspiration.

“I felt that a good starting point was looking at Olympic fanfares,” said Tsang. “They’re celebratory in nature, there’s a lot of bright energy, optimism and lots of pride in the sound.” He also noted that his fanfare needed to be something that made people stand, be solemn and be proud.

“I didn’t just want to play a big blasting fanfare; I wanted to infuse retrospection and nostalgia,” Tsang noted.
Tsang credits the conductor, Professor Gillian MacKay of the Faculty of Music, for her work organizing the musicians and bringing his music to life.

“She was amazing; none of this would have happened without her,” he said.

Lau said after his initial discussion with the campaign organizers, he prepared a 30-second sample based on his reaction to their ideas to make sure he was on the same page as the client.

After presenting his sample, Lau incorporated client feedback and began working on the score. Lau said watching the alumni interviews in the video provided further inspiration for this work and that in a way, his score paid tribute to what he’d learned at U of T.

“The style of writing I developed here was given back in spades in this piece,” said Lau.

He also said he discovered a kinship with alumni that he didn’t know he felt.

“As a composer you spend a lot of time by yourself; your creativity is fairly solitary,” said Lau. “I think I didn’t really feel a tactile connection to U of T that I thought much about until working on this video.”

Both Lau and Tsang said they were flattered and gratified by the experience.

“To be chosen for this occasion and being trusted with this opportunity is really a great honour. It’s an experience I don’t think you can even look for,” said Tsang.



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