When our faculty was discussing who we should bring for our annual Twenty-first Century Residency this year, we thought it was about time we invited a youngish composer who hailed from outside the USA. We weren’t able to find a suitable date for the first person we contacted, though, so we started looking elsewhere.
As it happened, Ransom Wilson decided to start a new contemporary ensemble here (see previous post) and had in mind programming a piece by Huang Ruo.That fit beautifully with our department interests, so Ruo was our guest last week for the ACME concert.Huang Ruo is what many composers strive to be: uncompromising artistically and tremendously successful professionally. He often walks the borders between music and not-music, managing to make the fine line come alive through the force of his artistic personality.

He will tell you he is a visually oriented person, and the piece performed here by ACME certainly fits that profile: Confluence for fifteen players and kinetic painter (2005) as the twisty title indicates, incorporates a live painter into the performance. The music, like many of his works, is powerfully visceral — think Varèse with a tender, enigmatic side. The piece falls into six continuous sections, and the artist has to create six improvisatory works in time with the angles and moods of the music as it is played. For this performance, the painter worked offstage with oils and six canvases. There were several cameras trained on him, and the resulting images were projected on a screen over the stage. In other words, we watched each canvas evolve as we listened to the music.

The painter was Joseph Tilford, who is also the dean of our School of Design and Production.

As with many of Ruo’s works, this dance along artistic borders can sound superficial when you read about it, but it is so bound up in his esthetic persona and so potently realized, it is always fully convincing. He is working with inner convictions, not surface gimmicks.

In his seminar, Ruo played other pieces that similarly pushed the audience into unfamiliar territory. He also showed a video of a performance of Confluences in which the artist used water colors on glass – the colors, of course, were in constant motion, which the artist guided and mixed in response to the music. The camera was beneath the glass, so none of his actions were visible, just the smears, drips and blurs. It was mesmerizing.

Oil on canvas was a lot less malleable than water colors on glass, but it did possess the advantage of permanency: the six paintings were auctioned off at the conclusion of the concert, with proceeds benefiting our scholarship funds.

l. to r.: conductor Ransom Wilson, painter Joseph Tilford, composer Huang Ruo
with ACME musicians

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