Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo, gifted with the ability to transcend conventional lines between East and West through aesthetics and cultural symbolism, uses his music to inspire and challenge assumptions about culture. western culture, exoticism and the notion of musical and cultural otherness.
Instead of conveying two cultures through music, his compositions are informed by life experiences from two distinct worlds that combine to express something that, “you can’t just describe in one or two words,” he said. -he said in a recent conversation with OperaWire.
Born in 1976 on the island of Hainan, China, Huang began his musical training at the age of six with his composer father and received serious conservatory training at the age of 12. Huang moved to America at 18 after winning the prestigious Swiss Henri Mancini Prize and studied at Oberlin and Juilliard, shortly after being selected as a Young Leader Fellow by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. A year later, he obtained his doctorate in composition.
Move to America
Asked about his reasons for coming to America and his sense of mobility 27 years later, Huang noted that it was his deep curiosity that first drove him to pursue music and then move around the world. .
“I think that’s what made me leave my hometown and go to Shanghai when I was 12 to study music. And then it was this kind of desire and curiosity that brought me to the United States when I was 18.
This need to understand not only the world around him, but also how the world affects him, helped Huang transform the composition into a reflection of himself.
“For me, I write what I have experienced. Each composer has a very different background, it’s like DNA.
Huang has an irrepressible need to share his life, to experiment and then to divulge what he has learned in the most altruistic way possible.
“It was this desire to want to know more, to want to share and to want to communicate with others, with the environment and with society.”
So Huang’s trip to America was not necessarily just to further his education, but something more fundamental to his very being. As Huang shared with me, he views America as unique in that it allows cultures of all kinds to have a place in which they can live within a larger ethnocultural framework without having to sacrifice who they are. are in the process.
Huang shared stories about his musical education and his thoughts on his development, saying that during his time at the Shanghai Conservatory, his upbringing was a collection of Western and Chinese culture. But, just like the Chinese proverb, “If you are in the mountain, you cannot see the mountain. His creative motivation to merge these two cultures in his compositions only came after he left China.
“My real desire to try to integrate Asian culture into my new creation of works was after I left China. For me, I could see my old culture better.
It was because of this cultural distance that Huang was able to realize his musical mission, stating, “I knew what I could do and what needed to be done.”
This statement encapsulates Huang’s creative ethos: a direct sense of intentionality that permeates his thoughts and creative decisions. Besides his institutional upbringing, Huang has an exceptional degree of lived upbringing, and we hear his thoughts in the music.
The Melting Pot days are over
One line of thought that continued to emerge was Huang’s statement that the era of the American melting pot is over and in its place is the era of multiculturalism. He shared this in a conversation with a colleague who narrowed down the contemporary American opera scene to three trends, [post-]minimalism, popular music and neo-romanticism, he was adamantly at odds. “I put my hand up and said, ‘Excuse me. There’s also multiculturalism. Don’t forget that.
“In America today, there are more than two cultures. Artists are now free to choose more than one culture instead of having to choose one over the other, without sacrificing one or the other”, and he expressed adamant hesitation against cultural labels , “I am not only a Chinese, an American or a Sino-American composer. On the other hand, I am all of the above.
Community and cast
Asked about the greater presence of Chinese composers in America, Huang expressed his close relationship with Du Yun, who not only shared a similar educational background, but also a teacher and a place of immigration.
“For us, the world of composition is very small,” and that certainly seems so given that works by Asian Americans made up only about 2% of pieces performed by American orchestras during the 2021-22 season.
Huang expressed concern over the pernicious presence of the “model minority” trope and shared that the premiere of his operatic staging of David Henry Hwang’s play “Mr. Butterfly,” originally scheduled for Santa Fe Opera’s 2019-20 season, had to be postponed due to performance concerns.
“We—Hwang, myself, and the Santa Fe Opera—felt that we had to cast an Asian countertenor for the role of Song (wife/spy).”
The opera is scheduled to premiere this year, and while three years might be a long time, Huang said, “It’s worth it, but it’s something you really have to believe in. We’re in the 21st century now…we should be dealing with all the stories. sensitively and cast correctly so that the roles truly reflect the real people, to make the stories feel more real and believable instead of just for entertainment or lack of trial.
By far the most complex topic of conversation was Huang’s updated version of Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk (“total work”), which he defines by the term dimensionism. The concept is a new approach to aligning music with its context, the surrounding influences on composer, performer and listener, and the experiences generated by the blurring of performance and the temporal boundaries of music.
Huang defines dimensionism as a “compositional concept” obtained from a singular thought during a concert, which in turn became his signature technique. The paradigm shifting question was “Is the music in front of me or am I in the music?” As a result, dimensionism became his way of conceptualizing how a listener is immersed in and perceives a composer’s work.
“I created this concept to hear, understand, create music. And then the music is not something from left to right, from front to back but it is something which has several dimensions.
Asked about the concept’s connection to Wagner, Huang said, “It goes beyond Wagner’s ‘total theatre’ because in today’s world we have so much more.”
The idea of total immersion finds its end embodied in Dimensionalism. As Huang notes, “When you experience music, it’s almost like stepping into a universe,” adding, “As a creator, as soon as the audience enters the room, the performance already begins. This expands the musical work to not have an exact beginning or end.
An intriguing aspect of Huang’s art is the way his music capitalizes on and so illustrates the semantics of his chosen texts, and he spoke of how emotions seem to flow naturally into the listener.
“When I write, I first read the words [libretto]. And I try to imagine what the drama is with those words and outside of those words… let the words inspire (the music).
Huang’s ingenuity comes from his ability to create a new reality through disparate cultural realities, forming something not only recognizable to both cultures, but also universal emotions and feelings with expert precision and clarity. Mixing worlds can get kitsch very quickly, and as Huang said, it’s something he makes sure to avoid: “I don’t like artificially sticking cultural symbolisms together. I’m more curious and interested in finding the essential DNA of different styles, cultures and knowledge.
It is by creating music “out of clay and gunpowder and all mixed with water” that one becomes intimately aware of how to tell a story, and not just a story. but human history. “My composition process is like this and reflects my own personal journey.”
When asked to list his five most impactful pieces of music, Huang noted that what struck him about a piece was the impact of the music.
“Remember the feeling of being affected, of being inspired. These works come out of life, out of nature. For me, it has a deeper, eternal and permanent impact.