How his musical, methodical mind works
By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
One of the most prominent Chinese artists currently based in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Austin Huang, a native of China, is both a mining engineer and a composer, with a total of 14 musical pieces performed in America and China. He’s currently an Honorary Affiliate Professor at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham.
Dr. Huang sees many similarities between writing a research paper and composing a concerto. His analytical way of thinking enhances his technical pursuits, as well his creative musical endeavors.
What follows is an edited transcript of an interview of Dr. Huang by Northwest Asian Weekly reporter Andrew Hamlin.
NWAW: Describe your early childhood to age 15. Which village did you grow up in? What was life like? What were the biggest differences between small-village Chinese life, Chinese life in larger towns and cities, and life in America? What were your earliest musical influences?
Huang: Because of my parents’ work, I grew up in a kind of isolated environment with other kids whose parents were from the same business, but in a rural area surrounded by adjacent peasants and their children. The schools I went to had a mix of kids from business families and from the surrounding villagers’ families. I enjoyed it a lot and was happy to play in the mountain with villagers’ kids.
In China, the resources are basically concentrated in larger cities, where the schools have much better conditions and the children have a lot more opportunities to develop their interests in extracurricular activities. Of course, larger cities have better teachers also.
My early childhood did not involve music at all. At best, our school music lessons involved a teacher playing an organ (the old style powered by foot pedal) and teaching us to sing song
NWAW: You purchased an erhu [a two-stringed, bowed instrument] for yourself during this trip. Had you ever played musical instruments before? What were the greatest challenges in learning to play erhu? Did you teach yourself or utilize a teacher?
Huang: No, I hadn’t played any instrument before this. I first had to figure out the relationship between the two strings in order to correctly tune it, then I just practiced over and over
NWAW: Describe your further education in Chaoyang. How did you end up in a school there? Which instruments and new skills did you pick up?
Huang: One of my family friends, I call him “Uncle,” talked to my father. He said, “Austin is a very smart kid with talent, and staying here will prevent him from developing and restrict his potential, so he will be wasted.” He said, “I know the principal in the school — let me introduce Austin to him.” That was how I enrolled.
There, I met my first music teacher who brought me into the music world. I started to study violin with him. In the school performing art group, I was assigned to play a banhu (a two-string instrument similar to erhu, but higher in pitch) because no one else in the group played it.
NWAW: How did you go about studying mining and which, if any, skills in that area helped you with your music?
Huang: Because I was “handicapped” by limited resources and restricted opportunities, I did not think that I would be able to pursue music further. So, in 1978, after China reopened college admissions through national examinations, I was admitted into China University of Mining.
I think that my training in science and engineering, as well as research — including writing papers and dissertations — help me tremendously in music composition. There are a lot of similarities in composing a symphonic music work and writing an engineering research paper. To a certain extent, the style and format are much similar.
Engineering and mathematical training in logical thinking and problem-solving skills help me tremendously in learning composition, especially contemporary music composition. In order to advance in a field, one has to really understand the inside core mechanism, or principle, of the field beyond the outside observable phenomena. This kind of ability, to understand the inner core principle, I believe, is somehow integrated in one’s mind. Once you gain this ability, it stays with you
NWAW: How did you begin composing? Do you use Chinese instruments, Western instruments, or a mixture? Which pieces were the most challenging to complete and why? Which are you most proud of and why?
Huang: I loved music ever since my first contact with it. Although I studied engineering in college and graduate school, music has always stayed in my heart. As I started to organize Chinese culture festival events and led local students from Chinese families, I learned how challenging it is to find available symphonic works of Chinese music for Western orchestra or instruments.
The children study musical instruments, but they don’t know any Chinese songs or works. This motivated me to seriously consider studying music theory and learning composition.
I began to study Western music theory and composition with internationally known contemporary composer and educator Dr. Roger Briggs, professor of music at Western Washington University and former conductor of Whatcom Symphony Orchestra. In summer 2007, I started my first major composition work, the cello concerto.
My goal is to use Western music theory to convey Chinese quality, i.e., my music will be Western orchestra with or without Chinese instruments, but for sure including Chinese qualities — or fusion — of Chinese and Western music and culture. So, my music may have Chinese instruments mixed with Western orchestra, or just Western instruments without Chinese culture elements.
The most recent work is the most challenging, a violin concerto, “1984 – Pursuit of Dreams,” which I am still working on and have almost completed. Before I started writing this piece, I spent about half a year seriously thinking. This piece is challenging for its new idea in the way of composition. It is based on basically two materials, violin’s four open string tones, G, D, A, and E as the foundation, and an original Chinese melody I wrote just for this piece.
In the first theme, I combined polychordal ideas with an American Jazz impression to create a picture of a modern, advanced, American, urban, metropolitan life. The piece also has an original Chinese-quality melody theme, which depicts the sweet memory of old, hometown life. These two themes develop into an exciting passage of a little-bit-gypsy-like violin solo with a trace of American jazz-style brass brightening the picture.
Dr. Huang’s future plans include the completion of his violin concerto, and more work with the Bellevue Youth Symphony Orchestra.
“My work is basically American music, but with Asian qualities,” he said. “After 21 years of living in America, I started studying Western music theory and composition from an American composer and educator, so my work is undoubtedly American immigrant works reflecting American immigrants’ life and culture.” (end)
Dr. Austin Huang will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 6 at the House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.