the ‘dimensionalist’ who wrote a symphony for 1,000 telephones

Symphony concerts aren’t supposed to be like this. This week for the world premiere of Huang Ruo’s City of Floating Sounds, audiences will download an app and line up at one of four designated starting points on the streets of Manchester. They then select and play one of the symphony’s eleven synchronized, pre-recorded songs on their phone as they walk to the Factory International Warehouse, following the routes suggested by the app. There are limitations: if you’re sipping a cappuccino on Canal Street and are five minutes late playing, what you hear will be synced with other parts already playing on other phones. Hopefully the audience will all arrive at the concert at the same time for part two of the experience, a live performance of the entire symphony.

“Even in a Mahler symphony, the largest number of performers you can have is 120,” the Chinese-American composer says from his New York apartment. “In this case there will be more than a thousand – they will all create the symphony together.”

But wait, I say to Huang, aren’t cell phones the evil in classical music concerts? Certainly, the recent controversy caused by audiences recording clips of classical performances at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall suggests that not everyone welcomes their intrusive presence during the live experience.

“Yes, phones can be distracting,” he says. “When my operas are performed, I don’t want people filming. I want them to listen to the voices and read the surtitles. But this piece is designed to use mobile phones to bring people together.”

Huang explains that the City of Floating Sounds app detects other users: “It’s like a traffic map. You see where people are and you can decide whether to join them or not. What you’re playing on your phone – the horn section, for example – can transition in unexpected ways into another part played by someone else. There are so many ways in which people’s participation drastically affects the outcome. No two performances can be the same.

“It is planned as an outdoor piece. And if there is noise, or rain, or traffic – it’s all part of the symphony.”

He hopes passersby will be intrigued enough to join the procession. The whole thing has a Pied Piper vibe, with the twist that no one really has control over what happens. “Even the people walking around, who don’t know there’s a symphony going on, but hear something flying around with the sounds, they’re already part of it. They will unconsciously add something to it through their movements.”

City of Floating Sounds shares the boundary-blurring approach to music making that guides Huang’s work. His operas, oratorios and symphonies draw, both politically and harmonically, on his Chinese heritage. He calls this approach Dimensionalism. “Music is not something from left to right, from front to back.” He wants to get rid of the idea that concert music is something that takes place before an audience, whose role is to consume the composer’s genius, as mediated by musicians. Instead, he encourages the audience to get creative with the performance.

Huang was born on China’s southernmost point, Hainan Island, in 1976, the year the Cultural Revolution ended. He has fond memories of attending open-air opera performances with his composer father and grandmother. People ate picnics in an informal way that is excitingly foreign to the Western way of experiencing opera. He believes that this democratizing impulse is worth breathing new life into the streets of Manchester.

Much of Huang’s music is overtly political. His staged oratorio Angel Island dramatized the suffering of Chinese prisoners at the California immigration station in the early 20th century. “Like a stray dog ​​forcibly confined, like a pig trapped in a bamboo cage, our spirits get lost in this winter prison,” his choir sang in Chinese.

Huang’s own transfer to America was easier: he studied at the Oberlin and Juilliard conservatories and now lives in New York. He made his name with operas like M Butterfly, which flipped the script on Puccini’s opera to give an unjust Asian heroine agency. His operatic version of The Monkey King will premiere in San Francisco in the fall of 2025, and he is currently working on an opera based on Ang Lee’s 1993 film The Wedding Banquet for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

He claims that City of Floating Sounds is also political, just in a different way. “It is a piece written for the people of the city. Anyone who has a phone can join in, and anyone who doesn’t can still join in by simply experiencing it. To me, that is a utopian vision of what our world should be.”

Once the audience has completed their walk through Manchester, they enter the concert hall and see the BBC Philharmonic surrounding an area where they can sit, lounge or stand. The orchestra will then perform the 43-minute symphony. Huang hopes that the lighting engineers will make his vision a reality. “I gave them the idea of ​​those big caves in Vietnam where light comes in through sinkholes. You are walking in the dark and suddenly you see a beam of bright light.

During the performance, Huang hopes, telephones will still be used. “I’ll have to check with the BBC, but I don’t mind people recording a little bit as long as it’s not the whole thing. I would like them to share it on social media – to reach as wide an audience as possible.” He also encourages the audience to move around during the performance – “this will contribute to the antiphonal, call-and-response effects that travel through the venue”.

But won’t it be a challenge for the musicians if the audience walks around and films? “We are all very curious to see what it will be like,” says conductor Gemma New. “It is our first experience with this kind of concert format.”

Huang remembers the open-air opera performances of his youth in a public square on Hainan Island. “The stars were huge. Each family brought some food and their own chairs. You ate while you watched. But the most important thing was that it was free.” That makes it sound very different from opera and classical music that are so common in the West – as expensive cultural products for conspicuous consumption. “It was something very oriental. The music was just part of normal life.” How wonderful when that eastern thing becomes part of Manchester, even if only for a few nights.

• City of Floating Sounds can be seen in Manchester from 6 to 8 June and in New York on 23 and 24 July. M Butterfly is at the Barbican, London on October 25

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