Huang Ruo: Interview about his new portrait album

Huang Ruo: Interview about his new portrait album

Huang Ruo's new portrait album "into the vast world" presents a broad selection of his symphonic music. Released in June 2020 by the American Composers Forum’s own Innova label, the track list consists exclusively of live recordings, including a performance of Shattered Steps featuring the composer himself as the vocalist. In this interview, Huang Ruo talks about the concept of his new album, unexpected challenges of being a performing composer, and new hope for the musical world in times of the pandemic.

Listen to into the vast world

You can order the album here.


All the pieces put together in your new CD explore dualities of life – motion vs stillness, timelessness vs momentousness, wildness vs solemnity. How does the CD title “into the vast world” correspond to these ideas?

Without a doubt, duality exists in my music, as it does in life and in the Universe. I am interested in contrasting points, the space and time between them, and how these two points travel, interact, interchange, and integrate with one another. I believe that who and where we are, and when we exist ultimately defines our music. For example, Cage and Boulez wouldn’t be the same composers if they were both born and raised in the East in the 70s and 80s. My new CD “into the vast world” documents my own journey from the East to the West through my symphonic and operatic works over the years. It is a collection of thoughts and moments from my life in a vast world that is full of currents and countercurrents. Therefore, in this album, my writing covers a selection of the dualities that exist across this time and space. My compositions are grounded in what I created and labeled “dimensionalism”, which connects all things from all directions through space and time.

What fascinates you most about working with orchestras? 

Speaking of duality, writing for orchestra has always been both amazing and challenging. On one hand, the orchestra provides tremendous potential to create symphonic structures through its infinite combinations of colors and timbres. On the other hand, how to use all these amazing sonic materials to create a personal voice has always been my quest and destiny. What fascinates me the most about working with orchestras is that each orchestra itself is like a universe of its own. Each symphonic space and time allows me to create a multi-dimensional soundscape that evolves, transforms, and changes from second to second, from position to position. 

How does your job as a conductor influence your compositional style?

Being a conductor helps me to hear and see my music from the other side of the spectrum. It doesn’t influence my compositional style, but it informs my writing through the experience and perspective I gain. It has been a long tradition throughout history that composers also conduct their own works, but also other composers’ music. I still believe in this great tradition, not to mention that for composers to be able to support each other’s music is always a fantastic idea. I recommend that every composer should learn how to conduct.   

As a vocalist, you find yourself on stage: Did this change your perception of your own music?

Being a vocalist myself helps me to understand not only how to write for voice, but also how to create drama with the voice. This is particularly vital while writing opera, music theater, and vocal theater. In orchestra, every instrument tends to tune to the oboe and every string section wants to sound as one sound, one body. In vocal music, every singer has a unique and individual voice.  How to showcase, dramatize, and personalize that individual voice is also what draws me to writing vocal music, which is full of possibilities and surprises. One of the greatest challenges composers must face is how to start a symphonic work?  I like to improvise a lot with my own singing. One time, I decided to start improvising with my voice and recorded what I sang. Subsequently, I used one of the recorded improvisations to start my symphonic work SHATTERED STEPS, which works out magically as you can hear on this new album. I am sure that there are many orchestral works throughout history that start with instrumental sounds, but how many of them start with vocal improvisation? If I can’t think of any, that’s a very good sign.

Over the last months, our world has been forced to undergo many changes – cultural, social, political. How did the pandemic affect you personally and professionally? 

Our life and our world are in this horrific COVID-19-induced coma now with no end in sight. No matter where you are and who you are, we are all affected by this reality. Most of us have experienced moments during this global pandemic where time and space seem to become frozen. For some of us, memories, feelings, and lives are forever trapped in that frozen time and space. Even after this crisis passes, our lives won't be the same anymore.

We currently live in a time when the Black Lives Matter movement resonates throughout various countries, and when anti-Asian racism has surged in a divisive COVID-19 world. Unfortunately, racism has been part of our lives for a long time and the situation is still grave. As an Asian-American composer, I have a social duty to create works to address the constant struggles and challenges we are facing. My recent opera AN AMERICAN SOLDIER reveals a realistic world and society where people in power are mistreating and abusing others simply because of their skin color, their name, their look and appearance regardless that they are born and raised in the same land and serving under the same flag. My new opera M. BUTTERFLY, for example, deals with the stereotypes and misperceptions the West holds towards the East.

Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming projects?

I just finished my 6th opera BOOK OF MOUNTAINS AND SEAS. It is a vocal theater for 12 singers and 2 percussionists, and it will be staged by puppeteer Basil Twist. It has four chapters and runs for around 80 minutes in duration. It is scheduled to open at the Royal Danish Opera, Hong Kong New Vision Festival, Prototype Festival, Soundstreams Canada, and Holland Choral Biennale, among others. Currently, I am composing a symphonic work, THE BUTTERFLY EXCHANGE, for the NTR ZaterdagMatinee and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic to be premiered at Het Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Theater und Philharmonie Essen GmbH in Germany, and with the NCPA Orchestra at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing, China. My next opera will be written for the Washington National Opera in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Photo: Wenjun Miakoda