Huang Ruo

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space. There is also a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work, whether it is to call attention to stories of people, particularly Asians and Asian-Americans, whose voices have often not been heard, or to provide an environment for reflection and healing.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

 

Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)

So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.

In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”

There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.

There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.

According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.  One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”

  • Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • One big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • A critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. ... It was absolutely not our intention to create division.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It's not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I believe everything happens in our life for a reason.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that's the joy, the tears, that's the laughter. That's why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Read the Full Transcript

    Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Huang Ruo
    Wednesday, December 22, 2021—4:30 p.m.
    Via a Zoom Conference Call
    Transcription by Julia Lu

    Frank J. Oteri: It feels like almost every piece of music of yours, no matter what form it’s in, has some kind of theatrical element. There’s some kind of drama going on, even if it’s a completely instrumental piece with no words at all, there’s some movement. There’s something that takes it beyond the notes.

    Huang Ruo: Sometimes I do it intentionally and sometimes it’s unconsciously, [but] I always felt that there is certain degree of theatrical-ism in my music.

    FJO: What’s interesting also is that it requires a different mindset of the performer in a way. Oftentimes motion is part of it. It’s not just sitting and playing your instrument, but it’s doing other things that maybe people who are trained in a conservatory in Western classical music are not necessarily used to doing.

    HR: It’s funny you mention training in a Western conservatory setting. The very first musical performances I saw when in my childhood actually were not Western symphonic or chamber music performances. It was village operas I saw with my grandmother. And in those the villages, they have communal, open areas and during the daytime, people would bring their clothes to dry and they would bring the rice to be dried. So it was a place where people hang out and do their daily life thing. But at night, sometimes it turns into a opera performance place. It’s outdoors. Totally outdoors. There’s no fixed chairs, no hierarchy of more expensive seats or less expensive seats. It’s free. So you just bring your own chair, find your own spot, bring you own food and drink. And touring opera troupes, they go from village to village to perform. Those are my first memories of seeing performances. And not until when I was in Shanghai, maybe 13 or 14 year old, I really saw a live symphonic concert. So I think to me the definition of what is a performance was a little bit different from the Western conservatory trained tradition.

    FJO: What I find so compelling about your music is there are so many rewards from listening, but you get additional rewards from looking as well.

    HR: Absolutely. Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance. But also to me, I think classical Western music developed into a way, at least in some corners of the world, composers will put in the exact notation for dynamics or articulation. If we talk about–like–Boulez, that kind of a composer will put in every detail: differences between note to note, from note to note. So a performer in a way becomes so mechanically trained and tries to bring that exactness to life.

    But to me, there are many things existing in music that could not be put on paper. In jazz culture, you have improvisation. And in Eastern culture, improvisation and also from the memory, from on the spot, that kind of creation, it was called on quite commonly. Also, one performer tends to able to play multiple instruments, instead of just one instrument, very highly trained for the whole life for that. So I think it’s a different tradition. Each has their own beauty. But as a composer who came from the East and is living in the West, and went through both trainings and also cultures, to me, I tend to want to bring out the best of both traditions. Of course, if everything’s not written on paper, every time it’s different. There are certain degrees of differences of freedom for the singer, for the musician to offer to the audience. I also love that as well.

    FJO: For a composer, this idea that you can have everything on the page, it gives you sort of a sense that okay, my music will survive, even if I am not there doing it. They will still be doing my music if they’re following these very, very precise instructions. But of course, you’re also a conductor, so you’re actually part of most of the performances that happen, at least of the larger-scale pieces. So there is liberty in it, but you’re there to guide it as well.

    HR: Yeah.

    FJO: If somebody was not to conduct, or not to play in the piece, maybe there’d be less of them there. I don’t know.

    HR: Right. When I teach my students at Mannes, I often encourage them to conduct their own music. Composers should be able to deliver your music more directly to the audience, through conducting. It’s a good good skill to have. Some conductors also write their own music. I think the line between conductors and composers, or performers in that sense. Performers write music. Composers perform. I think has been a great tradition from the past, and we should not let that disappear. We should encourage that also. Back to the idea of having musicians to act, or to speak, or to sing, to do theatrical elements: I don’t see music just existing on paper in a two-dimensional space, but also the moment a performer creates the music, they are not just a clarinetist, a flutist, but they are a performer. They are someone who performs. They are someone who interprets. They are someone who acts to bring the music to life. So to me, it’s a ritual ceremony instead of just a machine reading, or playing, or singing whatever is on the paper.

    FJO: Of course, four dimensionality: you’re in this space, it’s not just seeing and hearing it, but seeing and hearing it in time, in a 360 kind of environment where sounds travel and you often have pieces where performers move around, so the sound is coming from different places. And you said earlier that a recording gives you only two dimensions. Of course, now, almost two years, we’ve been living in this very strange world; here we are continuing it in our Zoom conversation, where we’re not actually together in the same room. Live performance has started happening again these last few months, and it’s been wonderful to hear all this live music, but with the recent scare and everything going on, who knows if we’re going back to all our concerts on YouTube, or Zoom, or Facebook Live or what have you. But I want to say, one of the things that inspired me to want to talk to you during this time is I was so moved by A Dust in Time, when I heard the Del Sol Quartet, saw and watched them perform it online. And you know, that was the only way I heard music, the only way most of us heard music all last year.

    HR: That’s right.

    FJO: That transcended the medium even though it was on this box, through the laptop. Of course, it was so great to finally hear it live at the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown, which was actually the first concert that we were in the audience for since the pandemic.

    HR: Really?!  Oh wow!

    FJO: But you managed to capture that ritual element online.

    HR: You know, you are absolutely right. No matter what happens, our creativity and our ability to share should not be stopped, either a pandemic or whatever that will hit on us. I think with online streaming or sharing, it gives us another tool to feel connected. Right? But I also would say to see the piece, to hear the piece live, no matter what music it is, if it’s meant to be written for a live audience, I think nothing could really replace that, particularly when we talk about theater or opera. You want to see people spit at each other. You want to see close. I think opera and theater will never die for that reason: live performance. People still want to go in to feel that four-dimensional space and time. In a movie, they will need to wear glasses to see 3-D, but in theaters, we already achieved that thousand years ago. So this is something we should not give up, but should keep continuing.

    Thank you for mentioning and also viewing A Dust in Time. It was written at first just for myself as a way out, as a medication, or meditation to help me to cope with the pandemic. Like many other people, I fell into this depression or numbness, not feeling motivated or not feeling my purpose at the beginning of March 2020, when the virus came to New York. Everything got shut down. So writing this piece really helped me to move forward, to get me writing again. And then it became a one-hour long piece for that reason. Just because I don’t treat it as a commission or as fulfilling a deadline. I just felt I need to write. That helped me to feel alive, feel grounded, feel emotional again. So for that reason, that was piece was created, and then I wanted to share that with as many people as possible.

    FJO: It has a very interesting structure, too.

    HR: It was inspired by the Tibetan sand mandala. When a mandala is created, finishing the creation is only the first part. And the second part is to erase the creation. To erase the mandala. To return the colorful sands back to center. To mix them so that they became not existing as a perfect picture. You teach people living through the process, the experience of gaining and letting go is a life lesson. There are so many times when we are in good time, we just feel the need of gaining, but not necessarily, the need of letting go. And I think one big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.

    So the piece is in a palindromic form. The first 30 minutes is to start from nothing, two notes, and then slowly, like a spiral shape, ascending, building up to the most colorful, and most vibrant, and most active climactic point. And then from that point onward it’s decreasing and returning back to the beginning two notes, slowly, and in the same duration. In the same ratio. To me, it’s almost like a variation without a theme in that sense. Everyone of them is a variation connecting, reflecting to one another, so there are 13 of them. So number seven is the center pole and one to six go up to seven, and then seven down, back to the beginning, and of course, from the last two notes, you can actually go on an infinite journey and re-start the piece again without really stopping it. That’s the idea.

    FJO: We’ve got to get Del Sol to play it for 24 hours!

    HR: I would love to be there for that!

    FJO: When they did it live, they also gave everybody in the audience mandalas to color with crayons. I’ve never been at a concert where everybody’s listening so intently to the music. Even though they have paper. It was quiet. You couldn’t hear the noise. But people were engaged on this other level. It was fascinating.

    HR: They actually recently released a CD, with a coloring book designed by this young student Felicia [Lee] from California. And for people who buy the physical copy, they actually get a coloring book. They can color at home, or give it to friends, or families. To me, it’s just one more way to share, and they are connecting loosely because the structure of the piece and the newly-created mandala for coloring, but of course, you can also enjoy listening to the piece without doing anything extra. Just with your eyes closed and just let go of yourself and let go of your guard, and just accept what you will hear.

    FJO: Well I was thinking they should give everybody both crayons and erasers so that they can erase what they did at the end.

    HR: I love that idea. Maybe the next edition it will come with that.

    FJO: Del Sol did another big piece of yours recently. The Angel Island Oratorio, which is a very different kind of a piece. It’s a very disturbing story. Everybody in America knows the story of Ellis Island, and this welcoming Statue of Liberty: give us your tired, your poor, your hungry. Angel Island was a terrible entry point into this country for many people.

    HR: When Charlton Lee, the violist from the Del Sol Quartet, contacted me about applying for a grant together, he sent me this poetry book called Poems from the Islands. Most of them are from the Angel Island, but also a few poems from the Victoria Island in Canada, and also I believe a few ones from Ellis Island also. So the project started with this poetry book. Apparently on Angel Island, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge if you are on the island. It’s a very beautiful scenic island if you go to visit it. You will never imagine the dark history associated with it. But at the turn of the last century, between 1910 to 1940, a barrack was built as a detention center on the island. The purpose was to detain immigrants who wanted to come into the U.S. from Asia. Most of these newly arrivals were from China. Some were from Japan, from Korea, from India, also other Asian countries. Now the idea was to not to welcome everybody in, but to really check, physical check and also background check, every check to try to deter as many people as possible. And some people were detained on the island for weeks. Some are up to more than two years. Some people died on the island. A lot of them got sent back to Asia, so the detainees on the island, most of them are from China. They actually wrote poetry. And they cut the poems into the wooden wall of the building because the building’s made by wood for preventing earthquake purposes. So we have all these poems preserved on the wall, and printed out as a book. So the idea was to create an oratorio, to involve a choir and with Del Sol Quartet to perform this piece.

    Later on, I decided to not just set the poems from the book, from the wall, but also to bring in stories happening around those times, or even before, to make them into speaking scenes. And then have music going with it. The choir members will tell you stories. There’s one very dark story of the L.A. Massacre; it happened in 1880 or ’81. A dozen Chinese people were lynched in Chinatown L.A. because there was a conflict and they were punished. So that was one story. And I basically just had the names of the victims being read out, also their professions; to me that’s powerful enough. No need to say more with music; with the names people hear them, people get the picture.

    Then there is another scene for example, I bring the time to Hong Kong. It’s an interview scene, when the Page Act was passed, basically it prevented Chinese women to immigrate to the U.S. The idea behind the act was because when the females came, they could have children, and then you will have legal U.S. citizens being born. Then you have to accept them. By preventing the women to come, all these Chinese men have to die here without any offspring. So they are either deciding to leave or they actually went to Latin America, to Cuba, some of them, because Cuba allowed interracial marriage.

    So in this interview, they asked questions to the Chinese woman who want to get a visa. “Have you lived a life as a righteous woman? Have you engaged in any illegal transaction of sex in Hong Kong, Macau, Canton?” Some of the questions are quite comical. “Would you promise to live a righteous life after you arrive?” Then they also send you to the hospital to have a physical check by a doctor. Doctors will report back to the consulate about each woman’s character, their physical condition. Imagine in this world before you immigrate to a country, those questions are being asked for you. And of course, the larger idea of treating one race or one group of people differently because of their race and where they came from. Even in modern day, we keep repeating the same mistakes.

    FJO: Yeah, they still ask those questions. You go through this process, This is the truth about immigrating here. It isn’t the welcoming statue, the myth that we all grow up thinking. I haven’t heard the whole thing. I only heard a little excerpt from a rehearsal. It’s extremely beautiful. I hope we’ll get to hear the whole thing at some point. I imagine live if we’ll be able to do concerts live next year, but hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to hear it. And I imagine it probably could work in two dimensions on a recording.

    HR: I’m determined to bring Angel Island Oratorio to New York. New York is my home, but also, hello, we have Ellis Island here, and I think that to really connect the points to create this contrast, to tell the stories like what we are talking about here, I think more people should know about it. The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past. And that’s how I learned, and I do feel that with all the Asian hate out there, during the pandemic, or even before, some people ignore it. They just don’t know Asian or Asian Americans living here. A lot of them have been part of American history. They’re not just tourists. They’re not just parasites. They are part of the society. Part of the life of America making history. So we should be treated equally regardless as new immigrants or people have lived here for centuries.

    FJO: Another story that a lot of people don’t know, but which inspired you to create an opera, is the story of An American Soldier, which is the story of a Chinese American Army soldier in Afghanistan. Tragic story. America’s longest war, which we finally got out of, sadly, nearly a decade after he lost his life there.

    HR: Yeah. This was an opera that was originally premiered in 2014–the chamber version. President Obama was in his second term. I still remember that feeling of those days. The race issue was not really talked about as now as front and center, not to mention, racism towards Asian Americans, almost unheard of. So, David and I, David Henry Hwang, we created this opera. At that time, I remember there was a critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. I remember seeing that, feeling so beaten down in a way; it was absolutely not our intention to create division. But it’s to let people know what happened and in hope that could help to bring more awareness of the racism issues towards the minorities. And in this case to Asian Americans.

    Now the back story was Private Danny Chen who was physically and also verbally hazed and abused in Afghanistan. His life was ended and his family approached David Henry Hwang in 2012 to create a play, or create something about Danny’s story. And David felt that it was just too recent. Too real. As a play, obviously you almost like act our history in front of your eyes. Right? So at that time, I got a project to create an opera, chamber opera, and David shared with me this idea. What if we create this as an opera? Both of us felt that is the right media for that because with opera, you could have a chance to bring out the deep emotion of the character. And I think that is what this opera needs instead, not just telling what happened with Danny Chen, but also the Mother Chen and Danny Chen story, how the first and second generation Chinese Americans in this opera work out their differences. What brings them together, right? So to me it is even more so today, a very timely opera. If you look back at that moment, we don’t do it just for the sake of creating a conversation or that it’s the hot topic we created. No, none of that. We create it because we believe it. This is the right course. We need to let people know about this.

    FJO: And similarly, you have another opera that deals with the aftermath of another pointless war, the Vietnamese War, and a family of immigrants who arrived here. I’m speaking of Bound. Lack of cultural understanding between the newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants and the culture that they’re thrust in creates these tensions and problems. And, once again, I haven’t heard the whole piece. There’s the first scene, which is very beautiful, that the opera company posted online. It really makes this very recent, mundane story ritualistic. It becomes a much larger story than the original, which is something that you can do in opera.

    HR: It’s based on a true story. what happened to Diane Tran, a teenage student in Texas who, because of the parents’ divorce, has to take on the duty of earning income to support her family, so she has to take on full-time jobs. Because of these reasons she has to miss many school days. In Texas, at least in those days, there was something called a truancy law. Maybe it still exists now. So she was sentenced in juvenile court to prison because of that. She received the last warning from the judge, and she still missed class, and then she was sentenced to prison time. Bao-Long Chu is the beautiful poet and librettist who created this opera with me. He himself is a refugee and came to America with his family when he was in his very young age. So he had that very similar experience. We want to base it on this true story, but also wanted to focus on one night: the night Diane spent in the prison. She has this nightmare and memory, bringing back about what happened to her.

    Mother is leaving the family because she was coping with the war trauma. Father is never home. Her boss forced her to work long hours. And, at the court, the judge has to be bound by the American law. So each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It’s not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer. So Bound was created as a chamber opera for that reason.

    In those days, I focused on the second generation Asian American. I came to U.S. as a student. I have friends who were born and raised in America, Asian Americans. They don’t speak any language other than English. Sometimes more than one person would tell me their family doesn’t encourage them to learn about their culture because the parents want them to live a life as 100% percent American as possible: fit in to blend in, no accent, just speak English as perfect as possible, and have super heroes, none of them look like them obviously, but that is their childhood. That is their growing up, right? So I’m very curious. I came from a different background, but my children, they are born and raised in America and have a second generation life. What can I do for them?

    FJO: I hope you’re making sure that they speak other languages besides English.

    HR: Definitely. Again, this happened over the pandemic. This July 4th, my wife bought some fireworks for the two kids we have to play outdoors. I saw that and I had such an emotional outburst. I called them to me. “Do you know who invented fireworks?” I even asked the question out loud, you know. That was the first time I swallowed my words, not trying to be proud and tell them the Chinese people. I did not tell them that. Why? Constant fear suddenly appeared in my mind. What if I told them and they repeated that at school. They could be penalized or be discriminated for being Asian American. So I did not tell them this, but I hated myself for not sharing with them at that moment.

    FJO: Wow.

    HR: The second day, I thought through that; I finally shared with them. But they are so real, Frank. You know, let me tell you this. I never felt so fearful in my life at that moment to try to hide my–and also their–identity, to not to share with them who they are. Believe that in 21st century America!

    FJO: Well it’s shocking and we have to get past this moment.

    HR: And we must.

    FJO: I really feel it is through creative work–through art, through music, through paintings, through novels–that we can bring people to a zone of empathy where they can understand. If they’re paying attention, if they’re listening, if they’re watching, they can empathize with people other than themselves, and understand those people and see and hear their humanity.

    HR: Absolutely.

    FJO: It’s so divisive right now. It’s terrifying. And works like this I think are works that people need to see and hear, to hear these stories of these people and to hear that these people are people just like they are. And they have the same hopes, and fears, and dreams, and loves, and failures, and successes. Another piece I want to talk with you a little bit about is the biggest opera you’ve done to date, which is an opera about Sun Yat-sen who is probably the only person who is revered as a hero both in mainland China and in Taiwan. A very important figure, yet in the Western world, in America, I guarantee you most people in this country have never heard of Sun Yat-sen.

    HR: Right. I remember when I was a young student back in China. I will learn about Western history. We even learned the story of George Washington and the Revolution. But in America in public school at least, I don’t know about private school, I assume it’s maybe similar. Can you find a school that will teach you the Eastern history, not to say history of India or China, but just a general Eastern history? No, we don’t even learn about our own discrimination bills, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Those are not taught at school.

    This was my first opera. It was a tall task to create an opera that basically has chorus, dancers, orchestra, leads. But no matter what the art form is, the idea is to tell a story that hopefully people could learn more about another culture, So Sun Yat-sen was the founding father of modern China. And if you go to Chinatown, or go to different cities, normally you will have a Sun Yat-sen statue somewhere. I think in Vancouver there’s one, maybe in San Francisco. And in China, definitely in Taiwan also, there’s a Sun Yat-sen Park. Sun Yat-sen Road. So in that regard, he was remembered as an important figure. Political figure. But to me, another thing brought me to write this opera is he is a local hero to me. You know, he is from Canton. I visited his hometown.

    He never finished his dream. This is what interests me. To tell his human story. The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying. So that to me is important. Now, again, back to the idea of what opera is good for and what opera is about. I often want to find subjects, or objects that yes, could be a very personal story, or a specific character. Even true story. You know, this also is a true story. But I want to make the idea universal so that people could really feel related to it, to feel they’re not just seeing a beautiful landscape and it’s other people’s story. No, they want to feel it’s their story also.

    FJO: What’s interesting to me is you describe him as a local hero and a personal hero, and someone from Canton.

    HR: Yeah.

    FJO: And I know that there was a very conscious decision to set the opera in the Chinese language, but you wound up choosing to do it in Mandarin, and I know initially there was some talk of maybe doing it in Cantonese. But the idea was that more people spoke Mandarin, so it would be a more practical idea to do it that way.

    HR: Well, that is one reason. We do want to reach more audience. If you understand the language, it’s better for you to hear and see the opera without going back and down with the subtitle. But of course in real life, Sun Yat-sen when he communicated with his friends, like the Charlie Soong couple, who are Shanghainese, you know, all his friends in other place, I don’t think he will only speak Cantonese with everyone. And of course, our story goes from different places. But I do have a scene written in Cantonese; so Cantonese is also used in the opera. That was the scene when he had a very personal exchange with his first wife, Lu Muzhen, who he had to divorce in order to marry Soong Ching-ling. Lu Muzhen came to his wedding, with everybody’s surprise, but she actually gave him her consent. So in the intimate dialogue, they were set in Cantonese singing because I feel at that moment should be just two of them could understand what they are singing to each other. Even in the opera setting. All the party guests you know, his new wife or the parents of the wife, none of them should able to understand what they are singing. So for that artistic reason, and of course, that is the language they will speak to each other because they are both from Canton.

    FJO: Fascinating, this idea of purposefully using language that people might not understand. This reminds me, to take it back many, many years, this wonderful, wonderful piece you wrote for Ming Xiao-Fen–Written on the Wind.

    HR: Yeah.

    FJO: She initially asked you to set a text in Chinese, which she felt more comfortable singing. And you decided to instead use this non-existent language–your own created language. And you told her at the time, that you go to operas in languages that you don’t understand, and language takes on this other dimension, and you hear it in a new way. You’ve never given anybody a clue as to what the real meaning is of the text of Written on the Wind. You make your own interpretation.

    HR: Right. It should be kept in the wind. Maybe this has something to do with my Eastern background or aesthetics, not filling the glass full of water, just give the audience room to imagine, to create their own interpretation. It is an extension of art we create. Sometimes we do need that to complete our artform. Written on the Wind, I wrote for my dear friend Ming Xiao-Fen. I know she could sing, maybe not too many people know. This could remain still a secret. She started out as a pop singer. She sings before she plays the instrument. And singing has always been part of traditional Chinese pipa playing, play and sing at same time. However, nowadays, people just specialize in singing, or specialize in their instrument. They don’t do both anymore.

    So I say Xiao-Fen, I will write this piece for you if you could sing and play at the same time. So she happily accepted. Now the idea is I wanted to create this work I called drama theater. Back to your first comment to me, I often see drama even in instrumental music, which is true. Now in this case, it is for solo pipa player, but I want to create something what I call a miniature opera, or drama theater in that sense. I created a language that doesn’t really mean anything. Because of that, it means everything. It could mean everything.

    We have this live performance version where Xiao-Fen plays and sings as a concert version. I also invited a kinetic painter, Norman Perryman, to create a visual go with this piece. And also, this piece I was imagining could be done as a dance. I could invite a choreographer to create their own narrative. And also could create it as a drama to have a director, theater, opera director, to even have people act it out. So it could be a comedy. It could be a tragedy. It could be a fiction. It could be a meditation. There are so many things this could be just because the language itself doesn’t really tell one story. So this is the benefit of this work. And I actually wrote the music first, in this work. And then the language was added afterward. So that is also a little bit anti-normal opera writing.

    FJO: These drama pieces, you have five of them. And I remember when the disc came out on Naxos, I was initially, I have to confess, very disappointed, that all five of them were not there. That you only have three of them. And then I did some investigating, and I tracked down the very first one, Sound of Hand, and it’s this amazing, magical piece, but you couldn’t have a CD recording of it.

    HR: Right. No way.

    FJO: Because it’s not about sound. It’s a very unusual, strange piece. There’ve been other pieces that do similar things, that challenge the very definition of music, but there hasn’t been a piece quite like that in a very long time. And I’m curious when you approach that with a percussionist, the percussionist has to be a dancer. The percussionist has to be an actress. It’s not your typical percussion piece.

    HR: Frank, first of all, thank you for noticing this piece. That started my drama theater journey. I was invited to write a piece for my dear friend David Schotzko, who you might know from ICE [International Contemporary Ensemble]. For his senior recital, he wanted me write a solo piece. So he played for me all classical, contemporary, solo percussion repertoire. From Xenakis’s Répons even to some percussion piece by David Lang, a lot of great pieces obviously. After all this listening, I just told him, I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. And also I told David, I say look, I want to give this piece as a piece that everybody can do, not just a trained percussionist. A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical. So that was the original purpose. Another interesting thing about this piece is a lot of people asked me, including my publisher, whether I can write an explanation to this piece.

    If you see the score of it, it actually was drawings. I draw the whole score out just by hand on 11 times 17 paper. I was researching Labanotation, which is the dance notation. Then, I was like, hmm, that’s not what I want. If you look at the score, there are drawings of hands from box to box. I will give a time code of each box, how long that motion should last. The whole score is like seven paintings basically. I intentionally don’t want to write out what each box means, or what each notation means, because I want to have a talk with each person who wants to do this piece.

    I often welcome them to contact me, and several percussionists contacted me. I will always explain the notation to them, go through the process with them. The reason is I want each of them to take something different, or something out of this piece from my explanation to create their own version of this piece. It’s not meant to be played exactly the same. David does it very differently from another percussionist, called Ayano, who interpreted this piece in a total very Japanese, Zen-ness; it makes this piece longer for that reason. I love both interpretations equally. To me that is the beauty of this drama theater. Every time it’s performed by a different performer, it has its own life. There’s no right or wrong in that.

    FJO: Wow. There’s a more recent series of instrumental pieces that have these theatrical elements, the Resonant Theatre pieces…

    HR: Two of them.

    FJO: The Sonic Great Wall is another piece that you really can’t experience in two dimensions. You really need this full thing. But to come back full circle, seeing this now, I looked at it again earlier today before talking with you, and looking at it with a 2020’s brain, I’m thinking to myself: Wow, this is a dangerous piece. Everybody’s too close to everybody else. This is kind of a super spreader piece of music.

    HR: Right. It’s hard to do this piece in a pandemic world. That’s also why I believe everything happens in our life for a reason. I was fortunate to create this piece back in what, 2016 or ’17 now. Normally I don’t get asked to write for all these amazing ensembles from Europe. But suddenly, there was this project that is a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta. And the project is called Connect. So to their great credit, they want to have music that they could connect with the audience. So there was a purpose. I was given the task to create a piece. Maybe because of my pieces they felt I was the right person to invite to create; it was up my alley. I often want to have pieces that performers not just play and audiences not just sit there to listen. In this, this is just a perfect match. So I created The Sonic Great Wall. I start to observe, because the piece has been performed by British audience, British ensemble, German audience, German ensemble, Dutch also, and American audience in New York as well. Very different I should say. That was the beauty of this piece. Each time it should be different, no matter where it is performed.

    It’s a conceptual piece in a way that I build the Great Wall according to the space. National Sawdust could be a super spreader event if we do it today. Because people are sitting next to each other, line by line. But another version, for example, in Frankfurt they have this place called the Lab. Frankfurt Lab. It was like the Armory, smaller scale, I was able to create a really zig zag Great Wall. So it’s more spread out with the right social distancing. Performers will walk while performing between the audience, and the audience will react to the performer when they come. They are asked to create their own words, own poetry, to recite, to shout, to read from other people’s work to recreate. To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.

    Huang Ruo’s The Sonic Great Wall from National Sawdust on Vimeo.

    FJO: Wow. Well, a final question for you, since we’re talking about everything happening for a reason… an impossible question for you to answer, given this crazy time we’re in, and we don’t know when we’re going to get out of it. We thought we were getting out of it. Is there a way to create a socially fulfilling experience, or really immersive musical experience like the things that you’ve been doing live? Is there a way to do that in a world where we’re all afraid to be near each other?

    HR: I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic. One thing for sure, art and music should continue, should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. I remember having a conversation with an ensemble from Europe talking about doing my Sonic Great Wall online, because it is about travel from one place to another place, and maybe the performers can jump in and out from their own space, and the audience could participate in their own space. We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.

    Book of Mountains & Seas | PROTOTYPE 2022 from PROTOTYPE Festival on Vimeo.