Except for the courteous greetings exchanged whenever we would pass each other in the Juilliard corridors — often while we were both searching for the virtually-impossible-to-find vacant fourth floor practice room — I did not know much about Huang Ruo.
I have often wondered how the cultural mix in the student and teacher body that makes up the formidable Juilliard School impacts someone who comes from a place as far away as Huang Ruo does. What does a person have to leave behind in order to adjust to an environment such as New York City, and — although the city has a relatively large Asian student population — when and where is a person of Asian background really encouraged to integrate his or her own culture and traditions into their new life?
For a composer like Huang Ruo, these questions and challenges seem to have morphed into the intricate artistry of his work, creating a fine symbiosis between his Chinese cultural heritage and the Western counterpoints of his current life.
Born on Hainan Island, China in 1976, he was admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at the age of 12. After winning the Swiss Henri Mancini Award in 1995, he moved to the United States to further his education. He received a Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then came to Juilliard to complete his Masters of Music and then his doctorate in composition. Composers Randolph Coleman and Samuel Adler were among his teachers.
Ruo’s work is all about integrating diverse influences and turning them into something innovative and brand new. So it comes as no surprise that Ruo has actively collaborated with artists of neighboring institutions and genres, such as New York City Ballet principal dancer Damien Wetzel and celebrated choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, as well as kinetic artist Norman Perryman. Other collaborations include Ruo’s work with James Sewell of the James Sewell Ballet Company, and Charlotte Griffin of the New York Choreographic Institute. Yet his endeavors do not stop there. Drawn to visual media as well, he founded a performance company, Future in Reverse (FIRE), which is specializing in multimedia and cross-genre projects, in 2005.
For my interview with Huang Ruo we sat down at his alma mater’s cafeteria, one of my favorite places to sit and talk about music and life with other musicians.
It was very interesting to learn that long before Ruo had any exposure to formal music studies, his father, a composer of traditional Chinese music, was the biggest influence in his life, teaching young Huang all he knew about music. So not only was Huang influenced by Chinese culture in general, but he grew up with traditional music as well. He remembers: “When I was little, I tried to write music on my own. I was very much influenced by my father and I wanted to impress him, but I also wanted to write my own things. He always said to me, ‘You are going to become a composer like me.’ He was very proud of me, although it took him a while to understand my way of approaching composition. He always felt that my music was not Chinese enough; he did not get the concept of contemporary music and its Western influences.”
“But one day that all changed, when I sent a recording of violinist Cho-Liang-Lin, who premiered my composition, to my father. Called ‘Omnipresence,’ it was a concerto for solo violin, off-stage ensemble, and orchestra. It was premiered in 2003. My sister called me, explaining to me that she was worried about my father’s behavior. He had locked himself into a room and listened all day long to the recording of my violin concerto.”
“After that experience, he wrote a letter addressed to me, where he let me understand that he finally had began to comprehend and appreciate the essence of my composing, after all these years. Through this violin concerto, he could relate to my ideas, although they were different and foreign to him, compared to his own composition style.” It is precisely this kind of cultural and generational bridging which has given Huang Ruo’s oeuvre a uniquely innovative flavor. In response to my question about the influence of Chinese culture on his compositions in general, he explains:
“I never intentionally try to define my standpoint. I do what I feel and believe in. I can’t deny my background – my culture is always present. I do speak four Chinese dialects and have no fear of using Chinese elements, but not in an artificial way. It is more important to me that what I do has new substance. The term that I created, ‘dimensionalism,’ tries to define connections between space, time, and sound. It is related to architecture and modern art in general, which I am a big lover of.”
And he continues, “The structure of two-dimensional art, in my opinion, cries out to be put in perspective with more and more in-depth experiences than are visible on the canvas. In architecture I find so much newness; it is an art form that can reinvent itself constantly by changing how it relates to its environment, not only on the outside but on the inside as well. I think about music that way — in many dimensions — as space, time, color, and sound. Shapes of music are also dimensional, aren’t they?”
“I feel music is life, breathing and moving. When you sit in front of the stage at a performance, you get trapped. One should be able to walk around the sound source, or be surrounded by it. But since sound moves as well, I like to imagine sound being a solid matter, and try to describe it in abstract shapes and colors. Seeing it through different lighting would change its appearance constantly, creating a variety of endless possibilities.”
In late June, New York’s Chelsea Art Museum will, in collaboration with Greek artist Christina Mamakos, feature an installation of one of his compositions. After its New York run, the exhibit will travel to Athens, Greece. Huang Ruo describes how his collaboration with Christina Mamakos came about: “Christina videotaped the ocean, with a simple hand-held waterproof digital camera, suggesting the surface of the sea from below… When one walks into the space, the experience of what it means to be in the water will become a different concept. The view of the ocean from bottom to top, the change of perspective and sound that will come from 4 loudspeakers in the corner of the room, will create an effect beyond reality, an abstract sense of being in the ocean – not in front or opposite the artwork – but within.”
Christina Mamakos defines Huang Ruo’s ‘dimensionalism’ technique as follows: “Using an inventive musical voice which draws equal inspiration from Chinese folk, western avant-garde, rock and jazz, Ruo creates a seamless series of musical works that do not necessarily exist in the sound world of our daily life… This visual/sound installation constructs a multi-dimensional space where images and sound flow from one another in response to one another, evoking a character that is at once recognizable as an element of nature, and still an unknown, yet unambiguous creature with a voice, a language and a will.”
In 2003, when Columbia University’s Miller Theater featured Ruo as part of the Composer Portraits series, Huang Ruo gained the approval of New York Times critic Alan Kozinn, who placed the performance of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) with Huang Ruo conducting the premiere of his four chamber concerto cycle second on his list of “Top Ten Classical Moments of 2003.”
Chinese elements are sometimes thematically incorporated, as in his composition for soprano or Chinese folk voice and chamber orchestra, “Leaving Sao”, which Anthony Tommasini reviewed for the New York Times: “Huang Ruo’s fascinating ‘Leaving Sao’ for vocalist and orchestra, a 2004 memorial work for the composer’s grandmother, was an alluring patchwork of Asian folk melodies and pungent, Western classical elements. Mr. Huang was the affecting soloist, singing in a high-pitched, quasi-wailing Chinese folk style.”
In 2008, Ruo won the prestigious Luxembourg International Composition Prize. The Chinese music festival, Ancient Paths – Modern Voices, held in 2009 in cooperation with Carnegie Hall, was a great exploration of Chinese culture and its continued impact on younger, more westernized Chinese. As part of the festival, Ruo talked about integrating Chinese folk songs into Western orchestral music.
Also in 2009, Huang Ruo’s soundtracks for two films, Emperor’s New Garden and Stand Up, were released. His most recent music track accompanies PBS’s American Masters documentary, “I.M. Pei: Building China Modern.” The documentary explores the question of appropriate transformation of traditional elements into modern western vocabulary:
It makes perfect sense that Huang Ruo, who described the experience of working on the documentary as “truly awesome,” was chosen to compose the score for the film. Working on the borderlines between tradition and modernity, he, too, is in pursuit of an impossible dream — that of exploring and reconciling often opposing forces through music. The documentary can be seen on the PBS American Masters web site, until June 30, 2010. Visit Amazon for a complete list of Ruo’s recordings, including his newest release on Naxos in October of 2009 To The Four Corners.