Monday, 16 April 2012

Huang Ruo and the Asian Connection

Excerpts from Chapter Eleven:
Huang Ruo and the Asian Connection.

Asian design, the use of space, the harmony of elegance and strength that conveys a feeling of stability or timelessness – all these speak to my soul.  And of course, the dynamic language of Asian brush calligraphy is close to my own language with a paintbrush.  After visiting Japan and China, in 2007 I finally got the opportunity to take my performance work to Asia, specifically South Korea.  I was convinced they would understand my use of the brush in kinetic painting – and they did! More on this next time, but first the Chinese connection.

After my performances of John Adams’ El Dorado with the Flemish Radio Orchestra, I sent a DVD of this piece to Adams’ publisher, Boosey and Hawkes in New York, asking for his reactions to my visual interpretation of his work.  I never heard from him, but someone working at Boosey’s showed the DVD to a friend of hers, the young New York-based Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo, with the message “Hey, you’ve got to work with this guy!”  She knew that Huang Ruo thought very much in visual concepts and intuited that we would get on well together.  Immediately he sent me a long e-mail proposing that we create a new work together.  This marked the beginning of a great friendship and creative collaboration.
About eighteen bars into Huang Ruo’s Confluences, for live kinetic painting and ensemble, performed with the ASKO Ensemble in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw in 2005.  Note the sprinkling of Chinese noodles on the left.

I replied: “Dear Huang Ruo, I’ve been sitting in a sunny Amsterdam park, meditating a bit and thinking about our new piece.  I’m sending you lots of elementary ideas, as food for thought.  No composer has ever written a work for paintbrush and ensemble before!  To avoid the clich├ęs of film background music, or of mere illustrations of the music, the brushes and instruments can alternately take the lead.  Like the violinist’s bow, the brush is an instrument made of wood and hair and it makes its own sounds: dragging, scratching, slapping, dripping, pounding rhythmically or juddering.  Brushes could also be used as wind chimes.  Brush characteristics in action can be threatening, caressing, dancing, swimming, whimsical, rhythmical, surprising in exits and entrances, moving with diminuendo, crescendo, or rubato.  The brush makes signs that carry power.  The Way of the brush and the Song of the brush carry many ideas for us.  I now have to leave for a performance in Eindhoven with Japanese drums and a beautiful huge Odaiko (1.86 metres in diameter).  Then I’m on tour in Belgium.  More later…” 

After reading my reply, Huang Ruo wrote: “… my mind is spinning.  I love your e-mail and am amazed by your ideas.  If I didn’t know you I would guess you are Chinese.  Brush is such an important factor in the Chinese arts.  A Chinese character is very similar to the actual object, such as the word “fire” looks just like fire.  People are not only able to see the object through calligraphy, but also the painter’s character, mood and level of practicing.  In the film Hero, a man’s calligraphy reveals the secrets of his swordsmanship.  There is a Taoist master who is the curator of the Tai Chi Sword.  He creates his own Kung Fu by drawing poems with a sword in the air, using his weapon as a brush. When he reaches the highest level, he only uses his fingers instead of a sword.

Just as we see the music, one can also hear the brush when it’s moving. The soloist in our new work – in this case you and your brush – can sometimes agree with the orchestra or sometimes go against it, can accompany or lead.  Why not have a cadenza for the brush alone?   So many ideas, I am overwhelmed.”   There was much more, but this is how we started.

We were so swept away with enthusiasm to get started that we agreed to collaborate in a performance of an existing work by Huang Ruo, in September 2005, in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw, with the ASKO Ensemble: Confluences: Concerto Number Four for fifteen players (and kinetic painting – added later by Huang Ruo).
Bar 239, just after the double-bass and cello duet of Confluences, by Huang Ruo.

Several months later I joined Huang Ruo in a composer portrait evening organized by the Sejong ensemble in the Samsung showroom at the New York Time Warner Center. Surrounded by a plethora of Samsung super high-tech audio-visual products, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself as I stood with my low-tech, comparatively primitive overhead projectors to demonstrate my simple message.  It was an evening of live music and some kinetic painting.  Although my contribution was a modest one that evening, it had significant repercussions.  After the concert, the renowned violin teacher Hyo Kang and his wife Kyung Kang (the visionary directors of the Sejong ensemble) came up to me with an invitation to join them in 2007 at their Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea.  I felt honoured and delighted with the opportunity to take my brushes back to one of the origins of the art of the brush. But more on this later.


Next Monday: Meet Alex Scriabin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.


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