Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

“If there was an ensemble playing the music I heard, I would never have created my own,” says composer/saxophonist Fred Ho. But there wasn’t, and he has. Twice, first with the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble he formed in 1982, then the Monkey Orchestra in the early ’90s.

“These ensembles are synonymous with why I became a composer,” he says. “I write my own music, for my own ensemble, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the composer’s sound is unmistakably associated with certain players.”

As a performer, Ho’s own jazz roots come out of the late-1960s revolutionary avant-garde, notably Archie Shepp and John Coltrane. As a composer, his work is an extension of a tradition that runs from Duke Ellington’s band right up through Charles Mingus’s — groups where a consistent personnel translates into an ongoing musical laboratory for the composer. “There was also the influence of Sun Ra,” he admits, “who was doing in the 1950s what the downtown performing arts scene claimed to be inventing in the 1980s — collaborating with dance and video and film.”

Ho’s range of influences was not always an easy mix. As a baritone saxophonist, his sense of ensemble came mostly from a big band tradition he found staid and formulaic. His sensibility soon took that tradition in a more international direction, but the statement was just as much political as musical. Ho has insisted that his music address social ills while remaining uplifting, and the work is fueled with a sense of activism.

The Afro-Asian Music Ensemble mixes Asian folk music elements within the African American jazz tradition; the Monkey Orchestra mixes Western and traditional Chinese instruments. By creating a new stylistic syntax, Ho has become reliant on the core musicians who first brought that sound to life.

“I’ve always been unsatisfied with any other baritone saxophonist who plays my parts,” he says. “And when I have subs I miss my regular players. The technique is so esoteric that I pretty much have my own chair for life, and this year I told my players they have a permanent place in my music for the rest of their lives, unless they choose otherwise. If I had the money to hire the Marsalis brothers I wouldn’t even consider it. I’d just pay my own people better.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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