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7 Questions with Oswald Huỳnh

By Caitlin Custer

What’s your day-to-day like as a composer?

I usually spend my mornings taking care of administrative things since I have a lot of freelance projects. I try to compose at least an hour or two each day. I do a lot with handwritten sketches—I use words, pictures, diagrams, and charts to map out a piece. Some days are more productive than others, though, since I’m helping my family at home, running errands, and picking up my sister from school every day.

What’s important to you about creating music?

I think a lot about how music can be anything. Sound is such a direct sensation, and we feel it in so many capacities, both with our ears and with vibrations in our bodies. For me, it’s the ability to express myself in sound.

Tell me a bit about the Mizzou composers project and creating a piece for the SLSO to workshop.

It’s a rare experience for student composers to workshop a piece with an orchestra, especially a professional orchestra. I found out that I was selected for the project, then had three or four months to write the piece. Gia Đình was kind of like a fresh start with new influences and styles, and the project really allowed me to conceptualize it and create a structure and form.

During the workshop, it was so helpful to be able to hear all the sounds live that had been in your head. Plus, insights from Stephanie Childress were wonderful. It was a great opportunity to practice and make adjustments to the piece. Several musicians also came up to me afterwards to give me some really useful feedback.

Did you have something in mind for the piece ahead of time?

I knew exactly what I wanted, which doesn’t always happen for me. There are ideas in the piece that had been floating in my head for a long time, such as exploring ideas of intergenerational trauma, my relationship with my heritage, and folk songs and music of Vietnam. I was able to take a lot of these seeds and put them together in one place.

It’s important to say that I’m not trying to speak for anyone who has had these traumatic experiences. Rather, I’m exploring an idea, trying to encapsulate a lot of emotion into a seven-minute piece. I often pause and reflect on that.

How did music from your childhood influence this piece?

Musically, I’m emulating a lot of traditional Vietnamese folk techniques. I reference two Vietnamese folk songs in the first movement: a fisherman's work song and a southern Vietnamese folk song I heard growing up.

The second movement uses a chant from Catholic tradition. It’s based on this penitential act when you pat your chest and repent your sins. I'm not religious anymore, but growing up in that environment always stood out to me as very profound and symbolic.

The third movement is based on the idea of assimilation, so I don’t reference anything. I’m taking the idea of culture being lost and looking at what is left over.

What sort of sounds would someone notice when listening to the piece?

There’s a lot of ornamentation, glissando, and bending sounds. I was really intentional with how the winds are using air, whether with blowing through their instruments or using mutes. There’s a moment where the flute and clarinet players are actually speaking Vietnamese. The musicians were a bit uncomfortable and really wanted to get it right. But for me that was the point: I didn’t want it to be perfect, I wanted it to sound broken.

What do you hope people experience when they hear or play Gia Đình?

For musicians, there are sections where I give basic directions and invite them to become the composer. I hope they take this freedom to heart and really connect with it.

More broadly, I hope the piece translates to other people’s experience and that they find it healing. The idea of intergenerational trauma is so important to me and my family because of having been through the war. These experiences—war, political upheaval, immigration—affect so many people, and the trauma is being passed down. We have to acknowledge it to start to break the cycle. I hope it resonates for people.


Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.


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