For Vincent Ho, a musical trip to the Far East turned out to be a journey from the head to the heart.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's composer in residence recently traveled to Taiwan, accompanied by renowned percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, to debut a new arrangement of his percussion concerto The Shaman. And seeing his work re-imagined for the traditional instruments of the Taipei Chinese Orchestra had a profound effect on Ho's creative process.
"It's hard to put it down in words, but it definitely shaped my perspective on how to approach music," says Ho, an Ottawa-born, internationally trained musician who has been the WSO's composer in residence since 2007. "One of the things I had the opportunity to do while I was there was work with the orchestral percussionists, and I learned a lot about their tradition of improvisation and the nature of how they interpret music.
"In a nutshell, their sensibility is about becoming the music and finding your internal rhythm, your internal melody, your internal self, and letting that channel through the notes that you play. It's different from how music was defined for me during my training here, and it was quite interesting to be exposed to that sensibility. And when I came back, I definitely looked at things a bit differently and have tried to approach my composing process more intuitively, trying to tap in to my inner energy by letting the intuitions flow rather than letting the analytical mind take over."
As an artist who has long been fascinated by the importance of ritual in music, Ho says his trip to Taiwan served to reinforce his view that there are strong cultural connections between indigenous North American music and the traditional music of China.
"One of the things I discovered while researching the indigenous cultures in North American is that Asian culture and indigenous culture of North America are distant cousins," he explains. "Native Indians and Latin Americans all descended from the Chinese, millions of years ago, when the continents were still connected via Alaska -- there was a huge migration from the Asian continent... so there is that shared lineage; knowing that, I began to see a lot of parallels in how they approach art and musical expression.
"Ritualism is a huge part of both cultures, and music is a form of healing and virtual nourishment. There's a strong parallel between the two cultures."
For the Taipei performances, a new version of The Shaman was arranged by acclaimed Chinese composer Simon Su Leong Kong, with Glennie -- who has a long-standing relationship with the Taipei orchestra -- acting as intermediary.
"I didn't know the first thing about traditional Chinese instruments," explained Ho, "So for me to transcribe it would have been a disaster. And (Kong) did an amazing job... It really captured the exoticism of the piece on so many levels."
Which is not to say, however, that Ho is now prepared to turn his back on his original arrangement of The Shaman. In fact, that version will be front and centre when the WSO travels to New York in 2014 to take part in the prestigious Spring for Music (S4M) festival at Carnegie Hall.
"For any composer, to have a work performed at Carnegie Hall is a dream come true," says Ho, who is currently at work on a new concerto for Glennie, titled Symphonic Ritual. It will premiere next spring during the WSO's New Music Festival. "To have an orchestral work there is even better; to have a concerto performed by one of the world's greatest musicians (Glennie) with an orchestra is something that's virtually unheard of for someone of my young age. I never thought I'd get to this point at 36; I didn't think I would get there until I was in my 50s. So this is all very surreal for me. I'm extremely thrilled."