Composer Ching-chu Hu on Water, Red and the Creative Power of Napping

Jun 10, 2015

Water tripping in endless currents. Passion, love and anguish glowing red. East joining West in an exotic fusion of motion and color.  

These are the ingredients of central Ohio composer Ching-chu Hu's string quartet The Swash of Water and Red, selections from which will air on the Columbus Arts Festival edition of The American Sound Saturday, June 13 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, June 16 at 7 p.m. on Classical 101.

I spoke recently with Hu, Denison University's Richard Lucier Endowed Professor of Composition and Theory, about The Swash of Water and Red, about what Hu does when the creative process throws him a curve ball and about the art of music in the twenty-first century. And we chatted a bit about Hu's current project for the silver screen. Listen to the interview above, and read more below.

The Moods of Water and Red

The raw materials for The Swash of Water and Red were, for Hu, full of expressive possibilities.

"I think water has always been such a powerful image for me, whether it's sort of the gentle mist of rain or sort of the sound of an ocean or how still and how cold ice is," Hu said. "And the image of red I thought was very nice because it can mean passion, it can mean love, but it could also be anguish, it could also be anger. So it has lots of other meanings, so I can pair the two up in ... a compilation of sounds and images."

Hu's work conveys the protean nature of water and the emotional connotations of the color red in a musical language heavily informed by Hu's Chinese-American cultural background and by his upbringing up in a home where all types of music filled the air.

"My father, every weekend morning, would be blasting the music for us to wake up," Hu said, "so our house would be constantly filled with classical music as well as Chinese Peking opera or folk music or Peter, Paul and Mary or whatever – it's like a big mixture of sound. So I think with this quartet it was sort of the idea of, Okay, with my identity, how do I bring this Asian-Americanness perspective into what I want to write?"

In the quartet's first movement, "Icy, Silent Morn," the instruments of the Western string quartet convey a sense of the immutability and trapped desolation of water in its frozen form - ice - by way of extended techniques that mimic the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments. 

"It's sort of creating this landscape, this almost frozen tundra, if you will, and sort of a lone character out there and wailing," Hu said.

If the first movement is an icy howl into a frozen void, the second movement, "Riverflight," is a flood of melodic beauty.

"The melody sort of just rushes by, and all four instruments work together to create this sort of riverbed of sound melodies," Hu said.

Power Napping

As naturally as Hu may have come upon the concept for and musical language of The Swash of Water and Red, composing the quartet wasn't entirely smooth sailing. But an easy enough solution eventually helped Hu out of a tight spot. Not satisfied with his first attempt at a fourth movement, and with his deadline looming a mere 10 days away, Hu went back to the drawing board and came up with the work's current fourth movement, "The Orchid of Contemplation." 

Hu was able to solve this creative problem - and most others, as well - with the mysterious power of down time.

"Sometimes to compose, I almost have to almost take a nap, but I’m not actually taking a nap," Hu said. "I'll lie down at a point of, let's say frustration – not frustration, but like, Okay, I have this knot, I don't know how to untie it. So I'm going to just close my eyes and almost drift off to sleep, but during that time a solution sort of happens. And then I can go to the piano and – Ah, now I know what to do."

The Silver Screen: A Look Ahead

Knowing what to do is more than half the battle for any composer at any time, but certainly for composers working today. The great diversity of musical styles of the twentieth century is, in the twenty-first century, augmented with even more creative possibilities by way of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. Collaborations among composers and artists in the worlds of visual art, dance, theater and film are a hallmark of this century's artistic practices.

Hu's current project unites music with film in an original score for the 1925 Charlie Chaplin silent film The Gold Rush. The score's premiere is scheduled to take place this fall at West Texas A & M University and, although you won't hear any of the actors, Hu says the composer's voice will ring through loud and clear. 

"It's something where you have to be so careful with scoring for the orchestra because they will be playing the whole time, so you’ve got to make sure that people aren’t going to go crazy playing solidly for almost 90 minutes," Hu said. "But it's also fun to match it up with visuals, and it will be nice to have the laughter as feedback and try to come up with music that will fit the images but then still have my voice in it."

Listen to selections from Ching-chu Hu's The Swash of Water and Red Saturday, June 13 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, June 16 at 7 p.m. on The American Sound on Classical 101.