Alex Ho: Spiralling Scrolls

Discover Alex Ho, one of the four composers on the LSO Soundhub Scheme 2019, as he gives us an insight into his composition Spiralling Scrolls ahead of its premiere on Saturday 20 July.

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It has been an incredible journey working with the LSO through their Soundhub scheme for composers. What makes LSO Soundhub different from the British Composer Schemes out there is the opportunity to design a project with complete freedom with financial, production and technical support – and to be performed by professional players! It’s also timely to allow classical music to be reimagined and reshaped at a point when broader issues of diversity are gradually being acknowledged and acted upon.

Over the last few years, I have been very lucky to have had the chance to write several pieces for Chinese traditional instruments – from a concerto for erhu to a chamber work for Chinese string quartet (erhu, pipa, guzheng and yangqin) to a solo work for 5-string pipa. However, I hadn’t then written anything for an ensemble of both Chinese and western instruments, and so I knew that this was the project I wanted to realise through LSO Soundhub.

My piece, Spiralling scrolls, is scored for amplified clarinet, viola and yangqin. The yangqin is a Chinese hammered dulcimer that developed out of the Persian santur. Essentially, it is a hollow wooden box with strings running across it that are played with mallets. The yangqin is one of the less common traditional instruments in China, let alone the UK, and so I’m delighted that I’ve been able to write for it and moreover, that the fantastic Reylon Yount will be performing. We first worked together in 2018 on a piece for solo yangqin and since then, have worked on several further projects, most recently launching a new artist collective, Tangram, whose mission is to create and curate new music of the Chinese diaspora.

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Spiralling scrolls explores British-Chinese identity through a theme of ‘distance’, represented not least by the spacing between the instruments and the spacing between the instruments and the speakers. My starting point was imagining if I had grown up 6,000 miles away in Hong Kong instead of London, which was a very real possibility. What would my musical tastes be? Would I be pursuing a different career path? Would my values be different? Who could I be? Who would I be? I find it can be quite a disorienting experience reflecting on this alternative reality, one that alludes to ideas of ‘distance’ that are geographical, temporal and cultural.

Complicating this further is the role of technology which has better connected this world – meaning Hong Kong is now only a Google search and a scroll away (pun with title intended!). Distances are arguably becoming increasingly obsolete and suddenly the cultures, traditions and music of Hong Kong are readily accessible and perhaps not so far after all. Yet these technological offerings shed no light on answers to my questions.

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My piece considers these ideas in different ways, perhaps most immediately in the relationship between the instruments. The challenge was how to write a piece that acknowledges the cultural contrasts in a way that sensitively engages with the non-linear nature of their similarities and differences – which for me reflects a key element of diasporic identity and what it means to be a British-Chinese individual. My hope is to reflect the complexity and fluidity of diasporic culture, for although there are questions that will never be answered, there are new possibilities and realities as a result.

Rehearsals are well underway and I couldn’t be happier to be working with such brilliant people and musicians in Scott Lygate, Paul Silverthorne and Reylon. Their good humour, openness and commitment have made the process hugely enjoyable and it is genuinely humbling to hear my music being brought to life by them. It seems crazy that the concert is so soon after months of writing and editing (and starting again from scratch!), and there will definitely be a little sadness when it is over.

There are many people who I owe a great deal of gratitude for making this project happen; Susie Thomson, my mentors Du Yun and Huang Ruo, the players Scott, Paul and Reylon, the amazing LSO team, including Natalia Franklin Pierce, who has been so supportive and couldn’t be more deserving of her recent appointment as Executive Director of nonclassical!

Huge, huge thanks to all of these lovely people and hope to see you at the concert!

Alex Ho is a British-Chinese composer based in London. He is one of the London Symphony Orchestra's Soundhub composers and has had pieces performed by the Shanghai Philharmonic, Psappha Ensemble, Juice Ensemble and Roderick Williams. His works have been heard in venues across the UK, Canada, Italy and China, featuring on platforms including SoundState Festival (Southbank Centre, London), Sound Unbound (Barbican Centre, London), and Hearing China (Shanghai Symphony Hall, Shanghai). Alex is the co-director of Tangram, an artist collective creating and curating new music of the Chinese diaspora.

https://www.alexhocomposer.com/

A playlist of contemporary classical music by composers of Chinese heritage, curated by Alex


Alex Ho's Rituals and Resonances will be performed in a Free Friday Lunchtime Concert on Friday 19 July, and his piece Spiralling Scrolls, devised through LSO Soundhub, will be premiered on Saturday 20 July at the Soundhub Showcase: Phase I 2019.