Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo, gifted with the ability to transcend the conventional lines between East and West through aesthetics and cultural symbolism, uses his music to inspire and question assumptions about 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 by one or two words,” he said in a recent conversation with OperaWire
Born 1976 on Hainan Island, China, Huang began his musical training at the age of six with his composer father, and pursued serious conservatory training when he was 12. Huang moved to America at age 18 after winning the prestigious Swiss Henri Mancini Award and studied at Oberlin and Juilliard, shortly after being chosen as a Young Leader Fellow by the National Committee on United States–China Relations. Just one-year later, he received his doctorate in composition.
Moving to America
When asked about his reasons for coming to America and his feeling on the move 27 years later, Huang noted that it was his deep-set curiosity that first got him to pursue music and then to move across the world.
“I think that’s what drew me to leave my hometown and go to Shanghai when I was 12 to study music. And then it was that kind of desire and curiosity brought me to the States when I was 18.”
This need for understanding the world not only around him but the ways in which the world affects him, helped Huang transform composition into a reflection of himself.
“To me, I am writing what I experienced. Each composer has a very different journey, it’s like DNA.”
Huang possesses an unflappable need to share his life, to experience and then divulge what he has learned in the most altruistic of ways.
“It was that desire of wanting to know more, wanting to share, and wanting to communicate with other people, and with the environment and society.”
Thus, Huang’s journey to America wasn’t necessarily only to continue his studies, but something more foundational to his very being. As Huang shared with me, he views America as unique in that it allows cultures of every kind to have a place by which they can live in a larger ethno-cultural framework without having to sacrifice who they are in the process.
Huang shared stories about his music education and his thoughts about his development, relating that during his time at Shangai Conservatory, his education was a collection of Western and Chinese culture. But, much like the Chinese proverb, “If you are in the mountain, you don’t see the mountain.” His creative motivation to merge these two cultures in his compositions only came after leaving China.
“My real desire of trying to integrate the Asian culture into my new creation of works was after I left China. To me, I could see my old culture better.”
It was because of this cultural distance that Huang could realize his musical mission, stating, “I knew what I can do and what needs to be done.”
This statement encapsulates Huang’s creative ethos: a direct sense of intentionality that imbues his thoughts and creative decisions. Apart from his institutional education, Huang has an exceptional degree of lived education, and we hear his thoughts in the music.
Melting Pot Days are Over
One line of thought that kept emerging was Huang’s pronouncement that the era of the American melting pot is over, and in its place is the era of multiculturalism. He shared that during a conversation with a colleague who reduced the contemporary American opera scene to three trends, [post-]minimalism, popular music, and neo-romanticism, he emphatically disagreed. “I raised my hand and said, ‘Excuse me. There’s also multiculturalism. Don’t forget that.’”
“In today’s America, there’s 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 either one,” and he expressed adamant hesitation against cultural labels, “I’m not just a Chinese, American, or Chinese-American composer. On the other hand, I’m all the above.”
Community and Casting
When questioned about the larger Chinese composer presence in America, Huang expressed his close relationship with Du Yun, who shared not only a similar educational path but teacher and place of immigration.
“For us, the compositional world is very small,” and it certainly seems so given that works by Asian Americans only made up about 2 percent of performed pieces by American orchestras during the 2021-22 season.
Huang expressed his concern over the pernicious presence of the “model minority” trope, and shared that the premiere of his operatic setting of David Henry Hwang’s play “M. Butterfly,” originally set for Santa Fe Opera’s 2019-20 season, had to be postponed due to the concern of representation.
“We–Hwang, myself, and Santa Fe Opera–felt we must cast an Asian countertenor for the role of Song (wife/spy).”
The opera is slated to premiere this year, and while three years may be a long time, Huang stated, “It’s worth it but it’s something that you need to truly believe in. We are in the 21st century now… we should treat all stories senstivitly and cast properly to really have the roles reflect the real people, to make the stories more real and more credible instead of just for entertainment or lack of trying.”
By far the most intricate topic in the conversation was Huang’s updated take on Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk (“total work”), which he defines through the term dimensionalism. The concept is a novel approach towards aligning music with its context, the surrounding influences upon the composer, the performer, and the listener, and the experiences that are generated from blurring the performance and temporal boundaries of music.
Huang defines dimensionalism as a “compositional concept” gained from a singular thought during a concert, which in-turn has become his signature technique. The paradigm-shifting question was “Is music in front of me or am I in the music?” As a result, dimensionalism has become his way to conceptualize how a listener is immersed into and perceives a composer’s work.
“I created this concept to hear, understand, to create music. And then music is not something left to right, front and back but it’s something have multi-dimensions.”
When asked about the concept’s connection to Wagner, Huang said, “It goes beyond Wagner’s ‘total theatre’ because in today’s world we have just so much more.”
The idea of total immersion find its embodied term in dimensionalism. As Huang notes, “When one is experience music, it’s almost like diving into a universe,” adding “As a creator, the moment the audience walks into the hall that itself is the performance starting already. It expands the musical work to not have an exact beginning or ending.”
An intriguing aspect of Huang’s artistry is the way his music so capitalizes and exemplifies the semantics of his chosen texts, and he spoke of the ways in which the emotions seem to naturally diffuse into the listener.
“When I write, I read the words first [libretto]. And I try to imagine what is the drama with those words and outside of those words… let the words inspire (the music).”
Huang’s ingeniuity comes from his ability to craft 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. Blending worlds can become kitschy very fast, and as Huang stated this is something he makes sure to avoid, “I don’t like to artificially collage cultural symbolisms. I’m more curious and interested in finding the essential DNA of different styles, cultures, and knowledge.”
It is by creating music “from the clay, and powder, and everything, mixed with water” that one becomes intimately aware of how to tell a story, and not just a story but the human story. “My compositional process is this way and reflects on my own personal journey.”
When asked to list his five most impactful pieces of music, Huang noted that what struck him about a piece is the impact of the music.
“Remember the feeling of being effected, being inspired. These works come out of life, nature. That to me has more profound, eternal, lifelong impact.”
This interview was conducted in anticupation of Lincoln Center’s “An Evening with Huang Ruo” as part of its American Songbook series on Friday, April 22 at 7:30 pm.