Early life – The Beatles and Bach

Huang Ruo was born on Hainan Island, China in 1976 – the year the Chinese Cultural Revolution ended. Ruo’s early life was steeped in this newfound musical freedom. He began learning piano and composition at the age of six – taught by his father, a Chinese composer. In an interview with the New York Times, he describes the Hainanese opera troupes that came to his village to perform: ‘the open square became an improvised theater. Every family would bring their own food and chairs. And my grandmother would take me to sit there, to see opera’ [1].

Soon he left home for the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he studied The Beatles and jazz alongside Mozart, Bach and Stravinsky – an unthinkable idea only ten years prior.

Studying with the greats

Aged 18, Huang Ruo took a leap and moved to the US, landing first in Ohio at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music then New York City, where he still lives today. He earned a master’s and doctorate in composition from The Juilliard School, where he was taught by the prolific American composer Samuel Adler. He joins musical greats like John Williams and Miles Davis in Juilliard’s glittering hall of famous alumni.

Once in the US, Huang quickly made a name for himself as one of the world’s leading composers. In 2015, he became the first Composer-In-Residence of Het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – one of the world’s best concert halls.

Huang Ruo stood on a bridge above a motorway, with the bright lights of a city behind him

Huang Ruo at The Juilliard School, New York.

Bitten by the opera bug

Today, Huang Ruo is one of the most exciting figures in contemporary opera, but he wasn’t always a fan of the divisive artform. In an interview with The Juilliard Journal, he says, ‘I always felt opera was so difficult, so unapproachable, but suddenly, I got bitten by the bug, and now I just keep writing operas’ [2]. By integrating different styles and cultures into his work, Ruo hopes to expand and break down barriers to the traditional artform.

His works tell a history of Asian America, providing searing commentaries on historical and contemporary injustices. In 2014, Huang Ruo teamed up with the Tony Award-winning American playwright David Henry Hwang for An American Soldier – an opera based on the racist hazing of Chinese American soldier Pvt. Danny Chen and his subsequent death. In 2022, they joined forces again for M. Butterfly – a reworking of Madama Butterfly (1904), which upends the racist and sexist tropes at the heart of Puccini’s classic opera.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruo wrote Angel Island (2024) after witnessing increased discrimination against Asians and Asian-Americans. He created the opera from poetry carved on to the walls of the San Francisco immigration centre, giving voice to thousands of detained Chinese immigrants.

Music for a Busy City, MIF17.

Distinctive musical style

Huang Ruo’s style brings together multi-culturalism in music to create a distinctive, experimental sound. He describes his signature technique as ‘dimensionalism’ – a compositional concept that considers how a listener is immersed in a work. Music, he argues, has multiple dimensions – we should take into account how it is experienced by the composer, performer and listener as well as how it sounds [3].

This explains Ruo’s wonderfully diverse output. He has written orchestral works and operas as well as music for theatre, sound installations, multi-media and film. He is Artistic Director/Conductor of Ensemble FIRE – an experimental music group specialising in multi-media and cross-genre projects.

City of Floating Sounds

Huang Ruo is no stranger to Factory International or the city of Manchester. For MIF17, he created a site-specific audio work in Manchester Town Hall as part of Music for a Busy City, using strings to mimic worker bees – the symbol of the city and its industrial past.

Now he returns with City of Floating Sounds – a new symphonic experience made in collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic. Guided by a bespoke mobile app, listeners will travel through the streets of Manchester listening to and interacting with fragments of the symphony before a world premiere of the full score.

Immersive and technology-driven, City of Floating Sounds marks another experimental adventure for Huang Ruo.

A futuristic cityscape with cherry blossom trees and people walking in the backgroud

City of Floating Sounds, May 2024.

[1] Hernández, J. C. (2022). ‘The Composer Huang Ruo on Illusion and Betrayal in ‘M. Butterfly’’, New York Times, 5 August. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/05/arts/music/huang-ruo-m-butterfly.html

[2] Green, Z. (2016). ‘Spotlight on Huang Ruo’, The Juilliard Journal. Available at: http://journal.juilliard.edu/journal/1609/spotlight-huang-ruo

[3] Vandevert, J. (2022). ‘Two Lands & an Unquenchable Curiosity – Composer Huang Ruo and his Music’, OperaWire, 21 April. Available at: https://operawire.com/two-lands-an-unquenchable-curiosity-composer-huang-ruo-and-his-music/

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