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