Composer Oswald Huỳnh Centers the Vietnamese Diaspora in his Music

For Oswald Huỳnh, composing for orchestra is like being “a kid in a big toybox.” He remembers watching Fantasia 2000 as a child and falling in love with Stravinsky’s Firebird. His hot take? Firebird is better than Rite of Spring. As a young musician, he also found inspiration in the unmistakable colors of Kaija Saariaho’s Orion, the orchestration of Unsuk Chin’s concertos, and the Romanticism of Debussy’s La Mer – “I love French music; maybe it’s the colonization,” he quips.

Oswald holds the position of artist support associate at American Composers Forum. In our recent video conversation, Oswald shared that he has always been drawn to music that is timbrally and texturally driven, which he attributes to the unique aural experience of being a woodwind player in an orchestra.

“In my past performance life [as a bassoonist], orchestra was my favorite ensemble to play in. Because of our placement in the orchestra, with the woodwinds being in the center of it all, I could hear just about everything. It was such a profound experience for me sonically, so when I first started writing music, I found it so much easier to write for large ensembles because the color palette comes more naturally to me.”

His orchestral work Gia Đình was recently selected for American Composers Orchestra’s June 2023 EarShot Reading in New York. Translating to “family” or “home,” Gia Đình examines intergenerational trauma through the lens of the Vietnamese boat people and the diaspora that they originated at the end of the Vietnam War. Tracing the experiences of these refugees who fled by sea, the three-movement piece considers heritage and tradition, colonization and war, and migration displacement and assimilation. The undulating and often sparse work features rushes of air effects, pitch-bent crotales dunked in water, and fluttering trills and languid glissandi. The final movement juxtaposes an imagined wide-vibrato folk tune with frenetic rhythmic passages, punctuated by earth-splitting trombone pedal tones.

After EarShot, Oswald participated in Copland House’s CULTIVATE emerging composers institute. Oswald notes that both programs provide essential workshopping opportunities where composers can be vulnerable, try new things, and fail in a safe space. “What I really appreciated about EarShot and CULTIVATE was how well integrated the composers were into programming,” Oswald said. “The focus is on the composers, and we were able to interface directly with the performers, mentors, and administration, and were treated as an equal within the whole process.”

Oswald admits that when he first started composing, he struggled with the historical weight of Western classical orchestras. He had grand ideas of what a composer was “supposed to be” – the Composer with a capital “C.” He wanted to break away from that tradition and find a unique compositional voice; Oswald saw music as a possible vehicle for exploring his Vietnamese identity, but he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into the assumption that, as an Asian composer, he was automatically going to incorporate his Asian heritage into his music.

“I wanted to push back against that and find my own sound, which I envisioned to be a more Western sound,” he says. “I was like, ‘I can’t be that Asian dude writing pentatonic melodies,’ but that was my voice. I had to accept that it was a part of me. I think when a lot of people first start incorporating aspects of their heritage into their music, it’s a very tough thing to find your own lane and not sound like you’re a 20th-century white composer learning about gamelan for the first time. But through the process of learning more about my heritage, I realized that the Vietnamese aspect of my music is something that just came naturally to me. And as I moved away from the idea of the ‘Composer Masters’ and went through my own decolonization process, that resistance went away.”

Oswald recognizes that “communicating something that’s Vietnamese to a Western audience – especially in a Western format – carries a lot of weight,” and he embraces his responsibility as an ambassador of Vietnamese culture. In Yellow Peril (2021), a commission from Fear No Music and the Oregon Bach Festival, he addresses the rise of anti-Asian hate by reframing traditionally-joyous Vietnamese funeral music as something mournful. The textural and percussive work thrums along with snapping pizzicato, wispy whistle tones, and screaming bass clarinet multiphonics before dropping into a slowed down setting of a folk song.

The concept of joy will also play a role in a new commission from the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra; as their 2023-24 composer-in-residence, Oswald will have a piece for full orchestra premiered on a concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Caroline Shaw’s Seven Joys. But the program has presented a bit of a creative conundrum. “I don’t write joyful music,” Oswald explained. “I’m kind of a downer in a lot of ways, so I was struggling with this idea of joy and why it’s so difficult to allow myself to find joy in music. I asked myself, ‘What brings me joy?’ And I’m not sure. I’m 25 – do I really know what joy or happiness are at this point in my life?

“But for me, it always comes back to community. Specifically, I was thinking about the Vietnamese diaspora and Vietnam being a relatively young country. Its history has mostly been about conflict, going straight from colonization into a civil war with Western interference, and then, finally, what I see as a somewhat peaceful time. It’s important for me to show that Vietnamese art can be joyful. We are a generation that came from war – of which we only feel the aftershocks – and I see that reflected in the diaspora.”

Gia Đình cover -- Art by 'Apikale Fouch

Gia Đình cover — Art by ‘Apikale Fouch

Community is an important aspect of Oswald’s role at ACF. As the artist support associate, he helps connect music creators to resources and opportunities. “To be able to interface directly with artists and support them directly is such an important and integral thing,” Oswald shared. “Going to a small liberal arts school with not many resources for music, I understood how hard it is to really break into the classical music community. I saw this position as a chance to be a conduit for that, to be able to really bring people into community.”

Working at ACF, Oswald is starting to see his administrative and creative worlds coalescing. The idea of engaging with the community is becoming increasingly important, and will start making its way into some of his works in progress.

In the fall of 2024, Oswald will relocate to Louisville to participate in the Louisville Orchestra’s Creator Corps program. In addition to composing a new work for the orchestra, the creators-in-residence are also tasked with completing a community project. Oswald hopes to work with Southeast Asian immigrant populations in the city and imagine ways to bring the orchestra to their neighborhoods, rather than asking people to come to the concert hall.

“I’m really excited to work with Louisville and to live in that community and really interact with them,” Oswald said. “It’s such a valuable thing because, especially with my work with ACF, I realize how important community and organizing is if you want to see change in any sort of way.”


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