Tag: immigrants

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

Huang Ruo


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.”

“Shut up and play”—Musicians as Activists in the 21st century

orchestra in a concert hall

Shut up and dribble.” On February 16, 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized NBA players Lebron James and Kevin Durant for being “political” after seeing footage of the two expressing the view that the President “doesn’t understand the people” and that many of the President’s comments are “laughable and scary.” Ingraham’s commentary created something of a firestorm, and a talking-head debate ensued about whether or not sports figures should be advocating certain “political” positions.

Few would deny the power sports figures can wield in conveying social justice messages, whether in the form of a raised fist or the seemingly simple act of kneeling during a football game. But what about the role of classical musicians in this context? Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education? When we see discrimination in the world, when we see injustice, who are we to be the ones to speak out? Should we just “shut up and play”?

Is it appropriate for us to convey “activist” positions beyond, say, describing the inherent value of a music education?

Amid the current proliferation of nativism across the industrialized world, musicians are uniquely positioned to convey the following simple message that we should all, as artists, understand: no matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have, or what language you speak, you have inherent worth.

We know this because we live it, every day. Musicians come from, and interact with, people from all walks of life. In our career trajectories, we often start at the very bottom of the economic ladder, barely able to make ends meet. Gradually, most move into the middle class and a small number go well beyond and join higher economic brackets. We go to dinners with donors who are the richest of the rich and then partake in outreach programs with the most at-need in our communities. Our work crosses linguistic barriers and we regularly interact with people from myriad cultures. We often travel to remote corners of the world to share our craft. We find ourselves performing at symposiums thrown by the intellectuals of academia as well as crossover pop-culture events. We work in schools, and most of us have taught people from across the cultural spectrum. We are given a unique window into the world and are provided the opportunity to escape our own echo chambers, whatever those may be.

And we work together. In a single concert, we may have a 10-year-old treble singer making music with a conductor or instrumentalist who is well past 80; they perform as equals. We delve into work written by people from around the world, during a span of many hundreds of years—through this music, we get to know those who have long been dead and those whose voices are just coming to the fore. We find ways to empathize with and interpret the work of people we will never meet. We create, and hope that, long after we are gone, someone will see our world through the music we leave behind for posterity.

Consider opera: stage crews, academically minded dramaturges, white-collar administrators, and superstar artists all work intimately together, in the moment, to create a single organism. Each contributor is absolutely essential to the process, and to the product, that we deliver to our audiences.

In this way, music is enlightening: It allows us to have a wide, kaleidoscopic view of the world, and to see beauty in every corner.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is the musician’s responsibility to remind the world of this beauty. Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis, and we must make an effort to fight this hatred. It is the duty that comes with the incredible gift of music.

Exclusionary politics and the demonization of the other are utterly contrary to what musicians do on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, most of us are not policy experts, and many specific political matters are outside our purview. Yet, when it comes to matters of inclusion, collaboration and cultural understanding, musicians are better positioned than people in just about any other field. More importantly, there are some matters that are purely political and others that—in a democratic context—should never become political at all.

In spring 2016, when the Refugee Orchestra Project had its first concert showcasing the contributions of refugees to American culture, the performance was an activist, but not politically divisive, undertaking. While anti-immigrant sentiment toward particular groups seemed to be growing, it was still typically accepted that the United States had been built as a country of immigrants and could reasonably be expected to continue accepting refugees and other groups. Over the last three years, the political climate changed dramatically, and any positive attitude toward immigrant—especially refugee—communities is now viewed as an incendiary political statement. Our programming choices—featuring refugee performers and composers—were suddenly seen by some as contentious, even antagonistic. We received both hate mail and accusations of questionable patriotism. (Never mind that ROP concerts typically end with a performance of “God Bless America,” written by refugee Irving Berlin.)

I formed the Refugee Orchestra Project because the divisiveness that was taking shape in our country had a direct relationship to my own life. I then used my experience, together with my professional connections, to create a platform for change. But we do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it. Yes, it can be challenging to speak genuinely and authoritatively about the experience of an underrepresented group to which you do not belong, but every one of us can be an ally by supporting organizations that promote acceptance and plurality within our world. And the value of this plurality is something we, as classical musicians, actually understand.

We do not need to have personal history with specific kinds of hatred to fight it.

Organizations currently fighting for positive change include those promoting diversity, like Sphinx Organization and Castle of Our Skins in the U.S. and Chineke! Ensemble in the U.K. All three of these organizations use music to increase the plurality of voices in our field (see last week’s article for more on this topic). There are also many organizations working to support a very specific marginalized group within a given community—like Eureka Ensemble, which provides a musical experience for homeless women, or the numerous musical initiatives that work within prison systems. Large-scale programs like Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra and André de Quadros’s choral projects in the Middle East help foster peace on an international scale. Chicago Sinfonietta has recently gone the direction of impacting social change more widely within its mission, and has dubbed itself “an activist orchestra,” with programs that address inclusion, diversity, and environmentalism, among others.

Lidiya Yankovskaya conducting the Refugee Orchestra Project

The very first concert of the Refugee Orchestra Project took place at First Church Cambridge in Cambridge, MA on May 10, 2016 (Photo by Scott Bump, courtesy Verismo Communications)

All of these organizations have been built by musician-activists—artists who wanted to see a better world and were willing to work to make it happen. All of us can make a difference by seeking out organizations that promote causes that matter to us, taking part in their performances, and volunteering our time to spread the message. We all have personal resources – time, money, expertise, connections. I have chosen to invest mine in ROP. This includes everything from covering my own travel to/from performances, drafting press releases, seeking potential partners, and spending hours organizing parts and marking in bowings. The ROP staff are highly qualified arts leaders who have decided to volunteer large swaths of time outside of our primary careers to this undertaking because we want to make a difference. Many of the musicians who play with us have given the organization extra time on the administrative or marketing side, and some, who have the flexibility, have donated their concert fees to the refugee aid organizations which our performances support.

Organizations that do not have a specific activist mission also can and should do more. Those of us in a position of power can use our musical experience, connections, and public position to promote a message of inclusion and acceptance. It can be as easy as taking a moment to reiterate a simple and powerful message that is inherently a part of our art: we all matter. Some organizations are doing this by ensuring that their programs are inclusive of many voices or by organizing new initiatives within their organizations. An example is the Oregon Symphony’s “Sounds of Home” series, which brought attention issues such as homelessness, immigration, and the environment.

If we focus solely on overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener.

Of course, many of our musical experiences will not be activist in their primary mission—and that explicit intent is not required to make an impact. Music for its own sake is immensely valuable and has the capacity to move people on an individual level. If we focus solely on art as a means to overt activism, we may lose some of the transformative power that art can have on each listener. Last week, I sat on a lawn with hundreds of people, listening to a free performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival. It was powerful to simply experience the massive forces of Mahler 2 together with the many families and individuals—music lovers and those who just happened to stumble onto the lawn of the public park.

That being said, when we see the society around us moving in the direction of hatred, we can and should—at least occasionally—look outside our regular programming and use our skills to do more. We can join in the ceaseless fight to make our world more interconnected through mutual understanding (for more on conductors’ role in affecting change, see “The Catalyst-Conductor: Conductors as musical leaders for the 21st century”).

Last fall, the Refugee Orchestra Project performed a feature concert at the United Nations as part of the annual U.N. Day. As I sat in the small green room just behind U.N.’s Assembly Hall, I felt the weight of the many people who have sat in that very room, likely on that very chair: national leaders both revered and hated, cultural icons, makers of peace and of war, artists, politicians, scientists, and more. On stage that day, we brought together the classical music tradition of India with that of Europe, in THE American City, to a truly international audience. Next week, I have an opportunity to perform with ROP again—this time in the country of origin of North America’s first European settlers, in London. When I perform with the musicians of Refugee Orchestra Project, the deeper meaning behind the music-making gives great focus and intensity to the musical experience, often rendering it more meaningful to all involved. There is nothing more exhilarating than sharing this experience with audiences across the world, hopefully making a difference in the minds of some, and helping others feel a sense of community as they partake in our music-making.

If the recognition of every human being’s inherent value is political, then the creation and performance of classical music is irrevocably political. It is important for all of us to remember this, and to remind others—the next time we are presented with the opportunity to do so. We should never just “shut up and play.”

Whither Los Angeles: The Émigrés

For this post on new music in Los Angeles, I’d like to briefly touch on the experiences of European émigré composers in the ’30s and ’40s. As in other parts of the Los Angeles story, the filmic myth looms large, while a more fascinating reality often slips out of grasp. It’s beyond my scope to give a comprehensive history of the period. (For that I recommend Dorothy Lamb Craword’s book, A Windfall of Musicians, which I’ve referenced liberally below.) While this period is discussed quite often, I think it’s crucial to at least look at this history when thinking about our city’s current trajectory in new music.

After all, this was the period when Schoenberg and Stravinsky had rival camps dueling for musical supremacy, and it was in Schoenberg’s Hollywood home that John Cage began harmony lessons, eventually leading to his famous quote about butting his head against the wall of harmony for the rest of his life. Composers who resettled in Los Angeles included Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner, Ernst Krenek, Erich Zeisl, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others. This was art music’s golden age of Hollywood, complete with glamorous celebrity rivalries.

Although these artistic conflicts can seem distant to us now (though for me, the image of Schoenberg yelling “I do not have syphilis!” at Thomas Mann’s wife[1] in a Brentwood market will remain ever-fresh), they were powerful cultural forces at the time. Here, Californian naiveté and blatant commercialism butted heads with European rigor and elitism. This was a collision of worlds which never fully resolved or came to an agreeable integration, reflecting some of the fundamental fragmentation of Los Angeles. In this way, the peculiar contours of LA culture have made an indelible mark upon new music as a whole.

The narrative, as it is typically conceived, is that “Hitler shook the tree, and America gathered the apples,” to paraphrase Walter Cook. That is to say, artists and intellectuals fled the imminent horrors of Nazi Germany and settled in America, enriching our culture and collaborating with other émigré artists in a kind of creative expat idyll. Not surprisingly, many composers first headed for the East Coast, hoping to avail themselves of well-supported musical institutions[2]. The Depression’s effects were still resounding, however, and eventually, many of these composers moved on to Southern California in the hopes of gaining lucrative film contracts instead.

The darkness and desperation of the political backdrop seems particularly lost in this usual telling; when walking through UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, it’s easy to forget that this was a period of exile and fear. Many of these composers lost friends and family in Europe, and could have easily ended up in concentration camps themselves had they not managed to escape. These artists were alive and mostly well in America by the grace of immigration policies alone, which privileged intellectuals; a summer holiday this was not.


Arnold Schoenberg, Hollywood, 1947 (George Platt Lynes/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Adding insult to injury, Hollywood was not quite the gravy train many had expected. Then, as now, film music was oddly inhospitable to the language of the contemporary concert composer, despite a rich, shared theoretical heritage. Living here, it often feels as if the fields are cousins who speak related dialects, but have little to say to one another. Although a few composers, such as Korngold and Eisler, clambered their way through the labyrinth of the Hollywood process, the majority struggled. Hollywood has its own rhythms and hierarchies, and composers are employed at the end of the creative process. As Stravinsky noted after visiting the studios for the first time, “each…is a kind of principality, with its own borders, trenches, police, cannons, machine guns, as well as its ministers for the various technical and artistic operations.”[3]

Again, Los Angeles seems a place where cultural dichotomies are magnified—in this case, the rift between mid-century American and European musical priorities. In Europe, these composers had enjoyed prestige for their intellectual achievements. In the World War II-era United States, however, movie-goers wanted respite, escapism. At the core of the matter, American commercial art’s primary concerns and values are those of the working and middle classes, while art music’s fantasies come from a lineage of aristocratic patronage, however far receded into the past. It’s easy to see how movie studios might scoff at a European artist’s claim to creative eminence, just as Europeans turned their noses up at the thought of composing in a style suitable for the masses.

In perhaps a fitting symbol for the closest these worlds ever came to true mutual assimilation, Disney’s Fantasia—many a middle-class American’s introduction to classical music—edited Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring freely, about which the composer could do nothing, having signed over complete creative control. Stravinsky wrote of the screening in 1939, “I remember someone offering me a score and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying, ‘But it is all changed,’ … It was indeed. The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated—though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.” This is hardly the image of a cinematic gesamtkunstwerk that a European composer might have imagined.

All of this history should make an impression on us, but in our sprawl, this history seems less potent, spread thinly. In the McCarthy era, many of these artists were targeted and blacklisted; Eisler was deported for his outspoken views. In 1995, USC signed over its Schoenberg Institute archives to a Berlin foundation and renamed the building. We are still not quite sure what to do with this history.

For me, there is more than a little frustration with my own culture for not embracing these artists more fully. I have the nagging sense of missed opportunities, despite the many fruitful encounters which occurred. But maybe it wasn’t our place to fully integrate these composers into our musical culture. As Americans, we must define for ourselves the direction of our concert music, and be grateful that this creative period, with its fragmentation and disappointments, existed at all.

1. Dorothy Lamb Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 109

2. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 24.

3. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 163.