Frank J. Oteri: Many of the people who have played in your ensembles over the years are extraordinary. I’m thinking of people like Jon Jang, Francis Wong, Wu Man, Hafez Modirzadeh, and Royal Hartigan. How did you find these people and how has creating material for and with them shaped your music?
Fred Ho: Particularly out of the war with cancer that I’ve been waging, I came to understand the tremendous toxicity of egotism. I’m on a journey to eliminate all ego from within me. I’m still struggling with it; I still have problems. But early on, even when I was an egomaniac, I said to myself that I was going to surround myself with musicians, all of whom are better musicians than I. And I still feel that today; that’s still what I have. I’m very frank about what I think are my musical weaknesses and limitations. I think what I bring to the table perhaps may not be commensurate musicianship as the musicians I work with, but I bring something extra. I bring, I guess, my compositional vision and my leadership spirit.
My first core band was the Afro Asian Music Ensemble, and the word ensemble I chose very deliberately. I believe that an ensemble, like a collective or a communal society, is where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I find these artists how I shop: that is, I rarely buy anything brand new or hyped or anything at full price. I mostly go to second hand stores, thrift shops, Salvation Armies, or I design my own stuff. If I could design my own car, I’d finally probably own a car. But I don’t. I designed this apartment. The clothes I wear I designed. Oftentimes the shoes I wear, you know, the moccasins, the boots, everything. I’ve learned to design. How I find quote-unquote talent is that I go to areas and I turn over stones. I don’t look at the obvious shiny or big stone. I look for the hidden ones.
My mission is to do the music and the politics that no one else can or will do. Part of that is to find the people that have not really been found. I worked with Wu Man before she became well-known and fairly established. I had a very fond friendship with her. I don’t see her or communicate with her that often now, but my fondness for her is still very deep. Interestingly enough, for the Monkey Orchestra, I wanted her teacher Tang Liangxing—who taught her in Shanghai—more than I wanted her. But I only had one pipa part, so I asked him if he could play the erhu, the two-string vertical violin. He’s not really an erhu player, but I wanted him so badly. And what I heard him do on the erhu was so soulful, even though he is not technically the best erhu player around. It stunned all the other musicians, both the Chinese and the Western musicians, particularly the quote-unquote jazz musicians. He really understood feeling, soul, the blues, though he didn’t grow up with those forms, per se. That’s what I look for, special artists who bring that sensibility, that feeling, who recognize that I will provide a setting that’ll make them sing and soar, albeit I won’t be able to pay them quite well.I’m happy to say that—with few exceptions who look more at the dollar amount than the artistic reward—I’ve been very satisfied with the artists I’ve found. A lot of them originally were unknowns. I remember casting Lauryn Hill of The Fugees when she was 19 years old in a hip hop production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that was called Club Twelve back in the late 1980s, back when Diane Paulus was just beginning. I was working with Diane’s then fiancé and now husband Randy Weiner and another Harvard graduate named Rob Hanning, and we were pioneering disco clubs as venues to put on music theater. We would go to these clubs and hand out flyers on Friday and Saturday nights calling for auditions. And we’d see a ton of people, but out of 100 people probably two were truly gems and well worth it. I don’t know if these names mean anything to the people who are going to see this, but we auditioned Leslie Segar and we casted her. She went on later to host her own TV show. I’m not looking for the people who come out with fancy Yale graduate degrees or Columbia or Juilliard, though I worked with some of these people. I’m really looking for those diamonds in the rough, those hidden gems under a pile of rocks.
FJO: But how much did those players shape the music that you created for them?
FH: The Monkey Orchestra is an orchestra that just doesn’t exist without those players. Those players are inextricable from the music. That’s why it’s such an expensive proposition, because those players are now scattered all over the world. But, you know, I want those players. It just comes down to that.
One of the things that I tell younger artists in terms of determining whether they want to sell or license a master tape is that if it’s that special a project, with special artists, never sell the master, just license it. If you think five years later, ten years later, whatever, that you can assemble another group of musicians to play the music, and it’s still going to be the music that you want, then you can sell your master. I wish the forces that be would recognize that specialness and allow a sufficient amount of funding so a group like that could play more regularly, but they don’t.
FJO: I’m really intrigued by the playing of Hafez Modirzadeh, who has developed his own special techniques that can create Persian microtonally tuned scales on the saxophone. How much of what he plays on your music is music that you wrote for him? How much is his own?
FH: Hafez Modirzadeh is to me, after George Russell and the Lydian chromatic concept, the most innovative music theorist of the 20th century, or now really the 21st century. His chromodal discourse is a way in which chromatic music and modal music, Persian traditional music, can really have a cross-cultural dialogue. He can play Persian temperament on his tenor saxophone with a completely unique system of fingerings that are completely different from regular saxophone fingerings. I have never met anyone who could do that with such cross-cultural fluency, with the possible exception of Royal Hartigan in the world of percussion. But in the world of melody, his ability to just fluently traverse different temperament systems is just astounding to me. I’m completely in awe, and I wrote a special part. In fact, in the score, it says special tenor saxophone. He’s called his instrument different names over the years. He called it chromodalphone, or mutant tenor saxophone, but I wrote that score specifically with him in mind. And more and more now, I’m writing for specific players. I’m not entering into the machinery of contemporary classical, conservatory-trained composers where you want to get published.
I still write all my scores by hand even though I’m told by this industry that they will only accept computer scores now. Perhaps I’m old school, but the individuality of hand-written parts and hand engravings is an art form that’s being lost. And consequently the individuality of the work is also being lost.
I don’t need to have my scores played by anybody else but myself and my own players. I don’t need to have it reproduced constantly by other ensembles. I don’t seek that. Someone asked me, what about playing your music 100 years from now. I said, “Well, I don’t want it played 100 years from now. If I could live that long and the players could live that long, great. But someone else 100 years from now should do their own music. When my thing is done, it’s done.” I am not trying to commodify it in any way, stacking up performances and collecting my ASCAP payments on it. No offense to Fran Richard or anyone else, but that is not what I see as my aesthetic. So everything is really specific to the players that I want to have.
FJO: But there have been a few times when you’ve written for groups other than your own bands. I know the piece you did for Relâche.
FH: And I wrote for Imani Winds before they became big. What I was attracted to was the fact that this was an ensemble of black and Latino musicians in the classical realm, highly gifted players who were looking for material beyond the classical wind ensemble material. So I was actually one of the first people they really commissioned. My piece for Imani Winds, Angels from the Rainbow, is dedicated to the late Josephine Baker. Later on they developed the idea I had into a much more multi-media piece, which I think they’ve been touring around. But there are not too many ensembles that have come forward to me. There has been another one, a really unique group called Three Z Plus. My piece for them is called Suite for Matriarchical Shaman Warriors. The three Zs stand for three zithers: one from Korea, the Korean kayagum; one from Japan, the Japanese koto; one from China, the Chinese guzheng. The plus is the percussionist, so it’s a quartet: three zithers plus percussion, and the percussionist for the most part plays traditional Korean percussion. It’s quite a challenge for composers because of the nature of the instruments. The Chinese guzheng is primarily modal; you have basically three keys to work with. Then on the Korean kayagum, you only have one key to work with. And the koto, though primarily modal, has chromatic possibilities. So to me, the challenge just on a technical level, was to figure out that puzzle. But I loved it because it reminded me of Mingus in a lot of ways. For example, if you take a pentatonic blues kind of melody, you can harmonize it with 12-tone serialism. It’s that juxtaposition that’s both an aesthetical as well as a technical puzzle. But it can be done. And when it is, the results are glorious.
But I am no longer in the composers’ marketplace, in the sense that I’m not competing with any other composer or trying to solicit scores to ensembles. It doesn’t work like that for me. Basically, if you know what I am, what I can do, and you come to me, I will always say yes. So if an ensemble says, “Fred, can you write for us?” I will always say yes. Because it’s already known that I’m not looking for that. So it’s a big enough step if they want to come and approach me. And I will welcome that. Whom I desire to write for are groups that don’t even fit in that realm, like I want to do a contemporary work for taiko ensemble. I feel that the community taiko groups that sprang out of the Asian-American cultural movement have been very important to the communities, but musically have been quite limited. They don’t have the compositional leadership to bring that genre to an exciting new level. That’s one example. And I would like to write music for prisoners, prison bands, people who are in maximum security prison. But I know I’m not going to find a sponsor. I’m going to have to do it myself. So I have to go out there and earn a little more money and then pull it out of my pocket and make it happen. I’m not drinking from the trough of the subsidized.
FJO: I’m curious to know how the piece you wrote for the American Composers Orchestra came about and how it fits in with your aesthetic. You couldn’t have been writing for specific individual musicians since you wouldn’t necessarily know who all of those players are going to be.
FH: I had serious reservations and hesitations about it. I did not want to work with them initially. This is my first orchestral piece. Years and years ago, I tried to knock on that door and didn’t get anywhere. I felt overlooked, back in the time when I had more ego and was dealing with my ego issues. I felt slighted and so forth. So I had given up on that world. It’s really Derek Bermel, whom I respect and love dearly, who came to me and said, “Fred, the ACO should do something with you.” And so I said, “Well Derek, because you say so, I’ll go with you on this one.” I knew that given their situation—you know, the amount of rehearsal time—this is not going to be my band, so I wrote with that in mind; I can work with those parameters. But they gave me quite a bit of freedom and I’m very excited about what we’re going to do.
One of the things that really attracted me to working with them was that I could play in it. So it’s a concerto for baritone saxophone and chamber orchestra—When the Real Dragons Fly. The baritone saxophone part is based on a traditional Chinese folk melody, but I use extended techniques for it. There were four anagrams that motivated me to write the piece. One was from Jimi Hendrix who said, “I was schooled on records and radio. My teachers were common sense and imagination.” The second anagram comes from Ho Chi Minh from which the title of the piece is drawn from, who said, “When the prison door opens, the real dragons will fly.” The third anagram comes from Sun Ra, who said “Everything possible has been tried, and nothing has changed. What we need is the impossible.” And the fourth is my own anagram. Kind of like where I’ve come to now in life, in terms of my position towards the industry, towards career, towards all this kind of stuff, and that is, “Using the rat race as a justification is no justification.”
FJO: If somebody only knew that title and didn’t know anything about those four anagrams, would they be able to hear it in the music and does that even matter to you?
FH: It does extremely matter to me in the sense that you should be able to hear all that in what I’ve written for both the orchestra and how I play my own part. Though I’ve done opera and I’ve done vocal pieces, I compose primarily instrumental works. But I believe the instrumental work is even more powerful precisely because it’s non-literal and that it can be an evocative, conjuring kind of force, like shaman music. You may not get it in the exact literal sense, but the spirit and the soul of it will be there. Otherwise, I feel like I haven’t done my work. However, the greatness about art is that it is transcendent and magical. And I hope people take a lot more than what I intend, that it takes them on cosmic journeys way beyond where I’ve already gone.