"Angel Island" comprises six movements and is written for voices and strings. The piece is partially based on the Chinese poems carved on the wooden walls of the Angel Island detention center in San Francisco Bay from 1910 to 1940. It was also inspired by real stories from California and Hong Kong, after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882.
The Violin Channel had the opportunity to talk with composer Huang Ruo about the work's inspirations:
"Located in San Francisco Bay, the Angel Island Immigration Station served as the main immigration facility on the West Coast of the United States from 1910 to 1940. Many immigrants from China or other Asian countries were detained there for extended periods because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory immigration laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers.
"Building on the earlier Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first, and remains the only law to have been implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States.
My oratorio "Angel Island" deals with racism, sexism, systematic racial and gender discrimination, and anti-immigration, etc. What happened on the Angel Island and in the U.S. back then is still so timely and relevant compared to what we are facing today in the same country and beyond.
"I was contacted by Charlton Lee, violist from the Del Sol Quartet, back in 2017 about applying for the Hewlett Foundation Arts commission program together. In a few days, I received the book "ISLAND: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island (1910-1940)" from him. The poetry book deeply touched and inspired me. After further brainstorming discussion, we decided to create an oratorio that is written for voices and string quartet, combining singing and narration with strings.
"Movement II, IV, and VI are written for vocal ensemble and string quartet, and are based on the texts carved into the wooden walls of the detention center on the Angel Island by the Chinese detainees back in early 20th century. I was thinking that the poems were not created randomly. Instead, they were the results caused by years of racial discrimination towards Chinese immigrants. Therefore, Movement I, III, and V are written for narration and string quartet, and are based on true stories happening around the time when the racist Page Act (1871) and Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) passed.
"With the anti-Asian hate crimes rising around the country, I sincerely hope that the oratorio "Angel Island" can shed some lights on this dark period of American history. The goal is not to divide, but to unite and create understanding and respect. I hope it can let people understand that Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans are part of building America and American history for generations. The strength of America is equity, diversity, and inclusion. As the original national motto says: E Pluribus Unum, out of the many, ONE."
Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo has been lauded by the New Yorker as “one of the world’s leading young composers” and by the New York Times for having “a distinctive style.” His vibrant and inventive musical voice draws equal inspiration from Chinese ancient and folk music, Western avant-garde, experimental, noise, natural and processed sound, rock, and jazz.
As a member of the new generation of Chinese composers, his goal is not just to mix both Western and Eastern elements, but also to create a seamless, organic integration. He previously served as the first composer-in-residence of Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Currently, he is in residence at the National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan.
Click here to learn more about the new piece and the China Now Music Festival.