The Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo (Hainan, 1976) was composer in residence with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in the season of 2015-16. During the three months he spent in the Netherlands, he immersed himself in both culture and nature.
The Concertgebouw teamed him up with landscape artist Adriaan Geuze, and their cooperation resulted in the new work Woven, that will be premièred on Thursday 2 March by Asko|Schönberg in the series ‘Scherpdenkers’ (“sharp thinkers”).
I interviewed Huang Ruo in June 2016 about his experiences and about his ideas on the new composition.
You spent a month in the Netherlands in December and now you’ve been here for another month. What are the most striking things you’ve learnt?
Most important for me was to really understand the culture and the place. I used to visit Amsterdam before, but always for a very short time, like a tourist. The first time I came was in 2000, before the Netherlands joined the euro. Having been here in the winter and now in the summer provided me two very different perspectives. It enabled me to really experience Dutch life.
I remember a great day away in December. The sky was overcast, there wasn’t much sunlight, sometimes we just went through the clouds. Later that day I was sitting in a café talking with someone, and suddenly a ray of sunshine pierced the black sky. Through the window it fell upon the person sitting across from me. I felt as if I saw a canvas by Rembrandt or other Dutch painters. That use of light and darkness, the famous chiaroscuro!
I at once realized this wasn’t just an invention out of nowhere, it came from real life. This made it quite special to me: the precious light that provides focus, that gives life. The contrast between light and dark was very inspiring. It’s not something you experience everywhere, nor every day. It helped me understand the great Dutch painters. This was a very important lesson to me.
Has it inspired you musically?
In a very abstract way, in a broad sense it will be inspiring I’m sure. For my upcoming project I spent a day in Rotterdam with landscape architect Adriaan Geuze. We were introduced by Simon Reinink, director of the Concertgebouw.
I’ve always loved architecture and nature and during my travels around the world I see a lot of architecture designed by Dutch architects. In Xi’an I was impressed by Adriaan’s Garden of 10,000 Bridges, a bamboo wood through which a string of red bridges is woven, like a Chinese dragon. This wonderful design reminded me of my own Concerto nr. 2: The Lost Garden.
Adriaan took me, my wife Shelley and my son Nyquist on a road trip. He wanted to show us the Dutch landscape and we drove along lots of ducks and dikes. He is such a unique artist. And so knowledgeable! He knows both the artistic and the engineering side of things.
What really inspired me is how the dikes-system works in the Netherlands. I think it’s fascinating how your country was founded on creativity. People have to work with nature in order to survive, in order to be productive. Adriaan took me to the beach. He showed me that on the very edge of the water there is this natural sand dome. It was formed by ocean waves. There is a big dike, and in front of this the water deposits sand. Little hills, like dunes in the desert.
This beautiful landscape was created naturally, but is also partially man-made, because of the dike. So we climbed up the sand dune, and looked over the ocean. Then he showed me some seedlings they’d planted, that would help solidify the sand. It was a magical moment.
It would be wonderful to import some sand onto the Concertgebouw stage, putting it on the edge to create this mini-landscape. Thus you’d create a barrier between the stage and the audience, resembling the one between the land and the ocean.
The relationship between the performer on stage and the audience off stage is analogous to this barrier. I’m still thinking of how to spatialize and theatricalize the piece. Throughout the performance maybe the musicians cross over the line. One by one, and the sand goes by. It gets carried out, like the water that’s being pulled out toward the ocean.
Also I have this image of a percussionist playing a bull’s roar. It’s a piece of wood tied to a long string, which you swing in the air. It looks a bit like a windmill and creates this whirling sound. Visually and sonically this could be quite interesting. But at this moment I’m just envisioning, I still have to talk more with Adriaan and with Concertgebouw about this idea. It could or could not work. – Let’s wait and see.
Asko|Schönberg, conductor Huang Ruo
2 March Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 3 March Muziekgebouw Eindhoven
Huang Ruo – The Lost Garden: Concerto no. 2
J.L. Adams – The Light Within
Cage – In a Landscape
Huang Ruo – Woven (commissioned by Royal Concertgebouw, world première)