“No Differences, No Hierarchy:” Huang Ruo’s Eclecticism in Perspective

Huang RuoA couple of weeks ago, David Toub reviewed for Sequenza21 the new Naxos recording of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle, a set of pieces performed back in 2003 at the Miller Theatre here in New York. For Toub, while the pieces demonstrate Huang’s skills as a “synthesist” who “melds together many disparate styles and influences,” they do not give a sense of what Huang is trying to say as a composer.

Judging from his comments in The New York Times last Saturday, I think Huang would argue that the eclecticism in his music is not a means to an artistic end but is a central part of his music and his identity as a composer.

In the article by Allan Kozinn, who was previewing the composer’s Cello Concerto premiere last Saturday, Huang talks about how the influx of different music–from Bach to Michael Jackson–to China in the late 1980s shaped an aesthetic outlook in which “there are no differences, no hierarchy.” Kozinn also mentions that Huang’s father, who encouraged his son to follow a career in music, was himself a film composer, a genre that demands a keen understanding of how musical snippets can be juxtaposed or combined to connote different emotions and situations.

For those of you interested in hearing more from this Naxos CD, there are clips on The New York Times web site, on Naxos.com, and on Amazon.com. I’d be interested to get comments on the music but also on whether this type of eclecticism can stand on its own. I have own thoughts but I’m getting tired of typing. I’d rather hear from you.


  • tom izzo says:

    I feel that polystylism can be just as effective as any other compositional approach, but it should be a vital part of the musical discourse as opposed to simply another source of aural color.

    Much of the music I hear lately seems to muddy the waters aesthetically. In these pieces the composer will usually unveil some stock modernist gestures while also attempting to incorporate a tamer, perhaps more listener friendly musical language as well. The result
    sounds as though the composer couldn’t quite commit one way or the other and the music suffers for this.

    Incidentally, I’m not implying that this is the issue with Mr. Ruo’s music as I only had a chance to listen to the first movement of the Chamber Concerto no.1; I couldn’t comment on his music based on that short introduction.

  • tom izzo says:

    I think in some cases it’s a survival instinct; it can be tempting to rationalize a little bit of pandering in order to please the audience
    and by extension, perhaps further one’s career.

    The problem is that this is simply a reflection of what happens in the world of pop music, which I’m not certain is a good model for creating a “non pop” work. I would think the aims of both modes of expression should by their nature be different.

  • Mark Berry says:

    You raise a good point, Tom, about eclecticism sounding as if there’s no commitment to a style. When I hear some recent music, I sometimes feel like composers are adding new “flavours” in a–I don’t want to say cyncial, but let’s use that word for now–attempt to be “accessible.” The result is kind of lame.

  • tom izzo says:

    >The tone colors used from say Bartok juxtaposed with those of say Beethoven in a
    >string quartet are extremely difficult to integrate.

    This is where things get funky for me because I then think of Rochberg’s and Schnittke’s music as examples of a successful integration of divergent materials. Once again though what I personally hear in their music is a clear vision as opposed
    to an aesthetic appeasement.

    >How do you guys approach your music to avoid using eclecticism?

    I don’t necessarily avoid using pastiche; it just isn’t much a part of what I’m interested in exploring musically. I might see fit to use disparate sounds as source material for a more unified piece, as you did with your jazz waltz.

  • T.D. Lake says:

    As a composer who uses an eclectic bag of tricks to compose, I thought I’d put my two cents in.

    I think it’s obvious to want to use the full pallette of sounds available in a composition to create a composition. The task is to not make it sound like a pastiche; to integrate these disaparate parts into a whole. Unless one’s goal is pastiche, and I’m not fond of such music, the tone colors used from say Bartok juxtaposed with those of say Beethoven in a string quartet are extremely difficult to integrate.

    My more successful work has come when I create a work that has its own perspective in spite of its eclectic elements.

    For example, I’ve gotten back into doing jazz writing. I wrote a jazz waltz with an atonal passacaglia bass line, created a melody based on an old Sonny Rollins tune, and found myself with a set of implied functional jazz harmonies after a little reworking. It doesn’t sound atonal at all, but the inspiration for the bass line is atonal. There are some Ravel-like whole tone harmonies. But, it sounds like jazz. So while I used eclectic technique (in fact I borrowed the bass line from a tone row to an unsuccessful classical composition) it sounds like “whole” music.

    I think eclecticism can be successful emotionally, but the dangers are very great. How do you guys approach your music to avoid using eclecticism?

  • tom izzo says:

    Mark, your thought’s on Rochberg’s 3rd quartet as “…an underlying agenda of making people aware of the big wide world of music that surrounds them…” is quite beautiful. The sad thing is that I don’t think most composers would even think to use that idea as a justification; it’s too altruistic.

  • Mark Berry says:

    Tom’s the only other composer here, so he can speak to the use of eclecticism as a technique.

    For, Rochberg (in the 1960s and 1970s, anyway) and Schnittke, the juxtaposition of allusions and quotations is definitely at the core of their aesthetic. I think of R’s 3rd Quartet as point-making music that has an underlying agenda of making people aware of the big wide world of music that surrounds them.

  • David Toub says:

    I don’t think that just because there are a lot of possible sounds out there (“palettes”) implies that one must, or even should, use them. A lot of composition is about making choices. Indeed, there are great works in which composers have limited themselves, such as the works of Webern, Scelsi, Feldman and others. Just dumping in everything but the kitchen sink is not likely to be compelling, at least to me. Ives’ gift was in knowing when to include external elements, how to meld them in, and when not to.

  • Mark Berry says:

    Thanks for your comments, David. Can we agree that the decision to include as much as possible can itself be an aesthetic decision? I’m not saying that Huang Ruo is making this decision but I think that there have been times that (as with Rochberg’s 1960s and early 1970s work) composers have tried to create music with multiple allusions as a way of articulating an artistic viewpoint. Of course, we don’t necessarily have to like the end result!