Championing Culture Through Musical Composition
Doctoral student is paying homage to an endangered language through her dissertation
By Chrissy Park, UCI
Chieh Huang is suspending the sounds of a dying language in amber.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, she grew up in the Atayal family, Taiwan’s third-largest indigenous group. Huang moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 as an exchange student and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, then a master’s in marimba and percussion performance at the Boston Conservatory. She got married in Taipei and moved back to the U.S. with her husband in 2015.
The Irvine resident had taught herself English but worried about the impending extinction of the Atayal language – there are an estimated 90,000 speakers, and the younger generations lack proficiency in it. Now Huang, pursuing a Ph.D. in integrated composition, improvisation and technology in UCI’s Department of Music, has found a way to unite her twin passions of language and music.
“I thought it would be meaningful for me to connect my roots and where I’m from to music composition,” she says. “Finding my roots and my heritage is important. I want to use that part of me [for] my dissertation.”
Her dissertation seeks to elevate the Atayal language by transferring its unique aspects into music. To do so, Huang uses technology such as Max/MSP, MalletKAT and MUGIC to capture features of the Atayal language – for example, its rhythmic constructs, pitch tendencies and phonemic components – and then incorporates them into music she composes. Her hope is that her music will embody Atayal culture and reach those who can’t speak the language.
In December 2022, Huang won the 2022-23 Elizabeth and Thomas Tierney Scholarship from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. She used the $1,500 to purchase musical scores and books for her dissertation research. The award, she says, will aid her endeavor to breathe life into Atayal culture through modern technology.
Chieh Huang performing “Origin of Life.”
In addition to being a doctoral student, Huang gained a new title six years ago: mom. She balances her involvement in the integrated composition, improvisation and technology program with raising her two boys, ages 3 and 6. Though taking care of her children during the day means that Huang must work more efficiently during the night, it has increased her determination. Moreover, her advisor and professor of music, Michael Dessen, and the rest of the ICIT faculty have been supportive of Huang as she juggles family and school.
Her younger son doesn’t yet understand much about music theory, but the elder one goes to her concerts and practices. Huang has taught him how to play the drums – and, she adds, “I think he likes my music.”
After earning a Ph.D., Huang hopes to go on raising awareness about Atayal and other indigenous cultures. She believes that conveying the Atayal principles of coexistence and harmony through music can help foster a more sustainable world, and although it will be a long journey, Huang wants to work with composers and other people in the music industry to preserve Atayal values.
“My commitment doesn’t conclude with individual projects or studies,” she says. “A long-term vision I ardently hold is the continual expansion of my efforts to bolster indigenous communities.”
Huang and her husband will also focus on raising their sons. They do not speak Atayal, but she hopes her music will bridge the divide between cultures.
“We cannot speak the language,” Huang says, “but we [have] it as a new art form in music.”
If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. The Claire Trevor School of the Arts plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/claire-trevor-school-of-the-arts.