Music with a Message
Frank J. Oteri: How does the creative process begin for you?
Fred Ho: This may seem heretical to my composer friends and colleagues out there, but my approach to writing any piece of music has never been purely musical. I always proceed from either something narrative or something philosophical. It has to start there for me before I can get my juices going.
FJO: So, regarding the compositional process, do you compose on the bari sax?
FH: I compose by three methods. I can compose right from the horn, from the baritone saxophone. I can also compose right from my head. And I can compose off the keyboard, though I don’t have keyboard proficiency. I would not call myself a pianist. The keyboard is mainly for me to hear harmonies. But in terms of composing from the horn, and composing from my own head or from my own spirit, most of the melodic and most of the rhythmic material comes from those two methods. Then the harmonic material is primarily developed working at the keyboard.
FJO: That’s interesting, because in listening through all your music in preparation for this talk I was struck by the bottom-up aspect of it, the riff-driven quality of it. It kept reminding me of another totally unique activist composer and bandleader who created music that way—Charles Mingus, whose primary instrument was the double bass.
FH: Mingus was a tremendous hero to me. And I’m always constantly discovering new things about Mingus—his depth and breadth musically, sociologically, philosophically. And again, Mingus was a self-producer. He ran his own record label. He started his own band and named it the Jazz Workshop, because jazz is a serious music but unlike in the classical world, where people can get paid for rehearsals, get subsidies and support to try extended and complex works, [in jazz] you barely can get the musicians together to rehearse. And so it’s often times poorly executed on the bandstand. So Mingus decided, let’s just clear the air. When you come to a club, and you pay your entrance fee to come here, you’re coming to hear a workshop. You’re not coming to hear a finished, polished work because of the economics of the situation. So come every night and you will hear it develop and can probably hear what the finished work should really sound like. (Back then, you could have a week, two-week, even a month run at a venue. Nowadays, that’s not possible.) Because of economic pressures, a lot of bandleaders unlike Mingus were forced to simply regurgitate standards. It’s not that hard to learn a 12-bar, or 16- or 32-bar tune, and then you just solo chorus after chorus. But to play complex, extended compositions requires rehearsal time. So I credit Mingus for his boldness and for trying to figure out how to navigate and persevere in the economic framework that he was confined to.
But there’s something else I was going to say from what you were telling me about the bottom up. You’re brilliant in your analysis because the bottom is a tremendously multi-layered metaphor. The bottom, of course, is in pitch. Mingus played the bass and I play the baritone saxophone, the low end of the saxophone family. But the bottom is also in the sense of our class consciousness. Our political identification is with the bottom, with the people on the bottom. In that sense, even though I’m not a Christian, I’m guided by the ethos that the last shall be first, the first last. So I identify with the bottom, both sonically and politically.
FJO: And of course, you also identify with Peking Opera and other Chinese classical music genres.
FH: I’d say my music is not that informed by classical Chinese music, the music of the court, but more by Chinese folk music. Chinese opera really was the music of the people of the villages. Later it became court music. I’m not about more refined, more courtly, more elegant expressions. I like the greasy stuff.
FJO: The whole question of pedigree can get pretty complex for some Chinese traditions, like the so-called classical novels which are hundreds of years old but are still not revered the same way as, say, Tang dynasty poetry is or that the Confucian classics are. Since these novels were written as popular entertainment they’re somehow perceived as inferior. One of those classic novels, The Journey to the West, inspired your opera, Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey.
FH: What I philosophically and aesthetically have been about for about the last two decades is trying to create—what I called earlier—popular avant-garde works that will reach a mass audience and contend with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Xena, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and the Ninja Turtles, works that will win the hearts and minds of young people who mostly play video games, watch TV and Hollywood blockbuster movies, or read comic books. I want to create a body of work that I call living comic books. Some call it manga music theater—manga being the Japanese adult comic genre.
A handful of people have gotten it and been helpful and supportive, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Mary Sharp Cronson, but I’ve never got any support from the mainstream foundations, the whole institutional art world. If I could have a modicum of the budgets that commercial projects have, or even the big spectacles that get done at Spoleto or the Lincoln Center Festival, I believe I could create those pieces.
I want to make something that’s fantastical with a lot of action and adventure, and with fascinating troubled characters—supernatural beings, tricksters and woman warriors—who get into all these mishaps and deal with all these dangers: cliff hangers, serial adventures, where you want to tune into the next one; not as in serial music, but as in “come see the sequel,” episodes where you build up things. And the music is equally dynamic and propulsive. But it would be foolish for me to even pretend or assume that I could do hip hop or pop genres. That’s not really who I am. I want to be true to myself, so it doesn’t have to be in your predicable four-four meter, but it has to have soulful melodies, a harmonic palette, rhythms that groove, and wild combinations of instruments that enable you to have this kind of much broader fantastical sonic palette.
FJO: Your music occasionally references popular music genres, though. I’m thinking of “The Earth is Rockin’ in Revolution/Drowning in the Yellow River” and how it uses ’50s rock and roll to tell the story of an Asian teenager in suburbia not fitting in. I thought it would be interesting to talk about your motives here, especially given what you were saying earlier about how nonprofit culture operates in a marketplace culture.
FH: It’s tongue in cheek. It’s satire. It’s parody. It’s about the coming of age of a young Japanese-American woman growing up in the late ’50s. It’s about her shame and self-abasement participating in a white American popular culture that is exoticizing her and the tension of her coming to an awareness about that, as well as the conflict that she has about her own participation in her own self-debasement, while at the same time resisting it. So it’s really a coming of age story, or a coming to consciousness and awareness and trying to figure out how to resist, how to assert your own identity and self-worth.
FJO: This piece, like several of your works, has a very powerful feminist message, which is unusual for a male composer.
FH: My interest in dealing with women’s oppression and women’s liberation in my work comes from my other experience growing up: domestic violence and patriarchy in my household. I didn’t really come to deal with it squarely until I was much older in life, probably in my early 30s, when I realized that patriarchal oppression pretty much is part and parcel of—or synonymous with—overall class oppression. Engels—in Origins of Family Private Property and the State, his classic work from the late 19th century—basically said the first class struggle was the overthrow of mother right, or women, or matriarchy. I had to do a lot of serious study on that in terms of the role of women being both leaders and central to production in early human societies. I’ve come to realize that women were made into the weaker sex—inferioritized. As long as men monopolized both power in the institutions and the means of violence, women would remain subjugated. So I saw all these parallels, the interconnection of oppression and exploitation over several millennia with the rise of quote-unquote civilization of class society, with the rise of the state, of social institutions, of hierarchy, and the maintenance power and inequality.
I saw this all through the lens or the filter of my eyes and experiences growing up, dealing with the authoritarianism and violence of my father. The violence came from the fact that he was oppressed as a Chinese-American man. Though he was highly educated, he was the least paid in his job for years. His own students would ridicule him—call him racist names and make fun of the way he spoke. Rather than fight that, he internalized it. Then he would bring it home and persecute us, those who were weaker than him because he did not want to stand up to those who were doing the taunting and who were not paying him fairly and so forth. So I learned a key lesson, and that is we cannot allow the toxicity of oppression-exploitation to grow inside of us. We need to draw the line and fight it. We need to keep it external, though we oftentimes will internalize it. Coming to that consciousness and not wanting to internalize it, not wanting to be the son that imitates his father, was a critical thing for me.
FJO: Perhaps your largest artistic statement to date that addresses feminist issues is Warrior Sisters, a work which creates a new mythology by taking historical people from different times and places and connecting their lives together.
FH: Warrior Sisters was branded a terrorist opera because one of the four central characters is the Black Liberation Army leader Assata Shakur who has a $10 million bounty on her head by the FBI. She’s living in exile in Cuba for this shootout that happened on the New Jersey Turnpike in the early 1970s in which two police officers were killed. The opera is about the jail breaking of Assata Shakur through this fantasy, matriarchal, guerilla army led by these three other women warriors from different places and different continents. It’s a fantasy-action-adventure opera that for me was my vision of how the world is going to change. You know, that the last shall be first, the first last. Well, the last are third world women. When they can unite and form themselves into a potent organizational force, that’s when the world will change. It’s my declaration of matriarchal revolutionary socialism.
FJO: I’m curious about your use of martial artists in your work.
FH: My interest in the martial arts comes from several places. [Recently] the martial arts have informed me deeply in my personal war against cancer in terms of really understanding that when one goes to war, it’s not about subjugation. It’s really about transcendence. It’s really learning what Bruce Lee once said is the art of fighting without fighting.
But at first I didn’t want to have anything to do with martial arts because it was associated with great big movies and stereotypes of Asian-American males as freaks and automatons. So for a long, long time I resisted doing anything in the creative realm with the martial arts. But then a friend of mine said, “This is part of your heritage being Chinese. You know, it’s a great heritage. You should not let stereotypes stultify those traditions. What you need to do is take hold of them and make them into something liberating and fresh.” She struggled real hard with me and convinced me. And I decided, rather than work with dancers anymore, that martial arts would be the movement choreography aspects of my productions. I did not want to work with dancers or actors, choreographed to staged combat. I wanted to find real martial artists, but who had the openness to want to rehearse for long hours, learn blocking, learn about theater, and take musical cues. So that took out a lot of people who were just hardcore martial arts people. I had to find, you know, the avant-garde of the martial arts world who still were elite champion martial artists.
I also want to really reach young people, particularly black and Latino youth—people you don’t typically see in new music concerts or at the big experimental festivals. My Voice of the Dragon toured to 33 U.S. cities and droves of young people came out. And families came out, people wanting to buy posters and our T-shirts, and soundtracks, all that kind of stuff. I do believe that we can make something that really could contend with pop youth culture that would still be transgressive, avant-garde, experimental, all of that, and not pander, not talk down to, not condescend, not pretend to be quote-unquote pop. And it’s not really about throwing in the kitchen sink of special effects and theatrical tricks. It’s about finding great stories with colorful, fantastical characters and performers that capture that energy. It has to be an organic thing. Everyone who’s a part of it has to have grown up with this material, and has to love it and feel impassioned by it.
I’ve been blessed because I’ve been quote-unquote ghettoized. I never really had much of a budget. I raised the money from my own pockets. And I’ve been blessed with a team that is really committed. They love this work; they want to do it. I’m grateful that they’re in my life and they’re my collaborators, because I could never compensate them the way they should justly be compensated. But it’s because we love it. It’s just like the fans who support the comic book conventions, or the fans who support the Firefly series. When the network wants to take it away, they come in and storm. They raise their own money so that the movie could be made. That’s the kind of grass roots fire that needs to be lit.
I also want to do things with professional wrestlers and synchronized swimmers. I want to do an underwater ballet called Divas of the Deep. I want to work with a vast group of people who aren’t even considered within the realm of the performing arts, but who are great performers. Again, it’s a struggle because I have to pretty much pay for it out of my own pocket, and I don’t have deep pockets.