Austin Huang: Mak­ing China’s mu­sic palat­able to US BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By DENG YU in Seat­tle lin­dadeng@chi­nadai­

Two things have made Austin Huang one of the most prom­i­nent Chi­nese artists in the Pa­cific North­west.

One, he lifted the veil on Chi­nese folk mu­sic, de­mys­ti­fy­ing it for Amer­i­can mu­sic lovers, with his pi­o­neer­ing com­po­si­tion of sym­phonic Chi­nese folk mu­sic.

Two, he is ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing cul­tural and mu­si­cal ex­changes be­tween the United States and China.

Huang, an im­mi­grant from China, is both a min­ing en­gi­neer and a com­poser, with 14 mu­si­cal pieces per­formed in Amer­ica and China. He’s also an hon­orary af­fil­i­ate pro­fes­sor at Western Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, an hour’s drive from Seat­tle.

He con­verted indige­nous Chi­nese mu­sic into a form playable by western in­stru­ments. Now Chi­nese mu­sic is no longer a sole spe­cialty for tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­stru­ments such as the erhu and guzheng.

“Most mu­sic lovers here only know the vi­o­lin con­certo But­terfl Lovers (“Liang Zhu”) and pi­ano con­certo Yel­low River when they think about Chi­nese mu­sic,” Huang said. “The enor­mous quan­tity of Chi­nese mu­sic is a buried trea­sure that’s yet to be fa­mil­iar­ized by the western world,” he said.

Born in 1957 in Jilin prov­ince, Huang’s early child­hood did not in­volve mu­sic at all due to limited teach­ing and learn­ing re­sources in his iso­lated vil­lage.

He did not have the op­por­tu­nity for for­mal ed­u­ca­tion in mu­sic un­til he was 15 years old. That’s when he had a chance to visit Shenyang, the big­gest city in North­east China, where his fa­ther was hos­pi­tal­ized. “My older brother was afraid to take the jour­ney, but my ad­ven­tur­ous spirit was re­warded by a small gift by my mother — an erhu — a tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­stru­ment,” Huang said with a smile.

More than 30 years later in 2012, the com­poser brought his fa­vorite Chi­nese folk mu­sic, er ren zhuan, a com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal danc­ing, singing and oral lit­er­a­ture from North­east China, onto the Amer­i­can sym­phonic stage at the Belling­ham Chi­nese Cul­ture Fes­ti­val. The sym­phonic North­east China opera is ti­tled Over­ture Joy and Pros­per.

When China restarted the na­tional col­lege en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion in 1977 he was ad­mit­ted into China Univer­sity of Min­ing Tech­nol­ogy. He ob­tained a Bach­e­lor of Science de­gree in min­ing en­gi­neer­ing in 1982. That same year, he passed a na­tional exam and was ad­mit­ted into a Chi­nese Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry-spon­sored grad­u­ate study pro­gram in the United States. In 1984, he be­gan grad­u­ate study at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, and ob­tained a PhD in rock me­chan­ics of ge­o­log­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing in 1990.

Par­al­lel­ing his suc­cess­ful ca­reer in en­gi­neer­ing was the growth of his un­der­stand­ing and en­joy­ment of western clas­si­cal mu­sic. He brushed up his vi­o­lin skills and un­der­took pi­ano stud­ies un­der the guid­ance of a pi­ano teacher as prepa­ra­tion for fu­ture com­pos­ing.

Since 2005, he has served on al­ter­nat­ing years as artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Belling­ham Chi­nese Cul­ture Fes­ti­val New Year Con­cert.

Through or­ga­niz­ing these events, Huang be­came in­ter­ested in the gaps cre­ated by the lack of writ­ten Chi­nese works avail­able for per­for­mance to Western or­ches­tras.

He be­gan his study of Western mu­sic the­ory and com­po­si­tion in 2006 through pri­vate lessons with Roger Briggs, a Western Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity mu­sic pro­fes­sor and com­poser who also con­ducted the What­com Sym­phony Orches­tra.

In 2007, Huang started his first ma­jor com­po­si­tion work, the cello con­certo. That same year he founded the Pa­cific North­west Cul­tural Ex­change Coun­cil to ed­u­cate peo­ple about the ben­e­fits of cul­tural di­ver­sity and pro­mote un­der­stand­ing about China, Chi­nese peo­ple and the cul­tures of Asia.

Last April, the Pa­cific North­west Cul­tural Ex­change Coun­cil or­ga­nized A Col­or­ful Mu­si­cal Jour­ney, a con­cert in which a sym­phony orches­tra per­formed Huang’s Re­bel­lion Against Haven com­po­si­tion that blends Amer­i­can mu­sic with his Chi­nese her­itage.

“My mu­si­cal in­spi­ra­tion was re­vi­tal­ized by western mu­sic af­ter I im­mi­grated to the US,” he said. “When I came in con­tact with western mu­sic, not only was my mu­si­cal dream re­vived, but my mem­o­ries of Chi­nese mu­sic also be­came vivid again. I felt sum­moned from an un­known source,” he said.

For the pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence he has made in the lo­cal Asian


•1957 Born in Hua­dian vil­lage, Jilin prov­ince •1978 En­tered China Univer­sity of Min­ing Tech­nol­ogy for bach­e­lor de­gree in sur­face min­ing •1984 En­tered Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son for grad­u­ate study in rock me­chan­ics •1990 Got PhD de­gree in rock me­chan­ics •1993 Founded Merit En­gi­neer­ing, a con­sult­ing firm in geotech­ni­cal en­gi­neer­ing •1995 Founded North­west Chi­nese Cul­tural As­so­ci­a­tion and opened a Chi­nese lan­guage school 2004 Re­ceived Gold Award — Tech­ni­cal Value to En­gi­neer­ing Pro­fes­sion from the Amer­i­can Coun­cil of Con­sult­ing En­gi­neer­ing of Wash­ing­ton. •2005 Be­came stu­dent of Roger Briggs at Western Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity •2007 Be­came fel­low of Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers •2011 Be­came Di­plo­mate of Geotech­ni­cal En­gi­neer­ing, Academy of Geo-Pro­fes­sion­als •2013 Named a Top Con­trib­u­tor by North­west Asian Weekly •2013 Awarded Seat­tle Art Sup­porter award by Mayor Michael McGinn Pa­cific Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, he was named a “Top Con­trib­u­tor to the Asian Com­mu­nity” by the North­west Asian Weekly Foun­da­tion last year. Seat­tle Mayor Michael McGinn awarded him the “Seat­tle Art Sup­porter Award”.

“My goal is to use Western mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion to per­form Chi­nese mu­sic and con­vey its spirit,” he said. In the fu­ture, he wants to com­plete “more con­cer­tos, and more work with the Sym­phony Orches­tra in Bellevue and Seat­tle,” he said.

To pro­mote US-China mu­si­cal and cul­tural ex­changes, he led the Mt. Baker Youth Sym­phony to Shang­hai, Jilin and Liaon­ing and per­formed with a lo­cal sym­phony orches­tra in 2007. Five years later, team­ing up with Shang­hai Songjiang Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, he or­ga­nized the “Shang­hai Mu­sic Tour” sum­mer camp. He also led a group of Wash­ing­ton state mu­sic teach­ers, stu­dents and par­ents to Shang­hai’s Songjiang Youth Cen­ter for mu­si­cal ex­changes.

In a What­com Sym­phony Fam­ily Con­cert staged at Mount Baker The­atre, the au­di­ence was en­thralled with Huang’s De­feat­ing the White­bone De­mon: Mon­key King’s Three Strikes — A Chi­nese Tale for nar­ra­tor and orches­tra. They told Huang they would have never known such beau­ti­ful mu­sic and this in­ter­est­ing Chi­nese story without his work.


Austin Huang and Zhou Xiaoyan at Zhou’s home in Shang­hai. Zhou is named “China’s First Lady of Opera” by New York Times.

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