Composer and musician Fred Ho is comfortable in his own skin, and sometimes not much else. In photographs, the self-described nudist is often seen covered up only by his regular companion, a strategically placed baritone saxophone.
There is a sense of peaceful strength and comfort with life that surrounds Ho, the result, in part, of his recent battle with an often-lethal enemy.
In August 2006, Ho, who is also a political activist, author, and playwright, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and given almost impossible odds of survival. But after three years, seven surgeries, and chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Ho was declared free of the disease.
“I feel much better,” said the 1979 Harvard graduate in the lobby of Harvard’s New College Theatre on Holyoke Street, “considering I was supposed to be dead last year.”
On Nov. 13, the outspoken Ho will receive this year’s Harvard Arts Medal, an honor given to a Harvard or Radcliffe graduate or faculty member in recognition of contributing to the arts, and in particular contributing to education or the public good. Past winners include cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, film director Mira Nair ’79, author John Updike ’54, and actor Jack Lemmon ’47.
Ho has been on campus for several weeks, participating in a residency sponsored by the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program. He has worked closely with student performers on his new piece “Take the Zen Train.” The work, commissioned by the Harvard Jazz Bands and the Office for the Arts, will premiere at Lowell Lecture Hall on Nov. 14.
The 20-minute composition in six movements incorporates music for the Jazz Bands with choreography for three student dancers who have backgrounds in hip-hop, ballet, and the Chinese martial art of Wushu. Ho enlisted the help of New York stage director Daniel Jáquez, a product of the American Repertory Theater /Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, to stage the dance element of the piece, which chronicles Ho’s battle with cancer.
“It’s my philosophical journey,” Ho said, “a series of epiphanies, what the war against cancer taught me.”
Jáquez, who has made frequent visits to Harvard to work with students on the production, said he tried to find dancers during auditions who “had the passion and the understanding of what this struggle was for Fred.”
For Ho, battling the disease deepened his understanding of the importance of health, wisdom, and love, and gave him a profound understanding of “how creativity can really make us better.”
“We are not the sum of our blood vessels, our DNA, our tissue, and our bones,” said Ho. “What makes the human species and each of us individually unique is our consciousness, our ability to create.”
Conformity was never part of Ho’s larger picture. At Harvard in the 1970s, the sociology concentrator challenged what he deemed the “hard core [Max] Weberians” with his thoughts on communism and Karl Marx. He also delved into political and social activism, and founded the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association.
The trend extended to his socially charged music, which refused to fit a particular genre. Though often labeled jazz, Ho’s work frequently incorporates elements of traditional African and Asian music, resulting in a complex and multilayered product.
Ho’s pieces have been called “fiercely imaginative” and include interactive video opera, as well as musical theater. The composer said he was thrilled to create a work for Harvard using his “revolutionary earth music,” a style that “challenges conventional harmony.”
My chords “don’t follow any of the formulas or tropes [of jazz]. For a student group to take on that challenge is remarkable,” he said, adding that the Harvard students share his willingness to “try new things.”
Thomas G. Everett, director of the Harvard University Bands, was a bit concerned when he first saw the music created by Ho, who as an undergraduate was a member of the Harvard Jazz Band and wrote compositions for the ensemble. Everett wondered if “Take the Zen Train’s” rapid changes of style, key, tempo, and dynamics, which are “crucial to the success of the piece,” might overwhelm the group.
“The students on first playing were a little baffled,’’ Everett said. But at subsequent rehearsals — with Ho in attendance, playing along, and helping guide the students through the work — the players began to blend into the piece.
“That is when the magic happened,” said Everett.
In the end, Ho hopes he can inspire students and listeners alike with the music and the message in “Take the Zen Train.”
“I hope,” he said, “that people come away with a spirit of elation about the impossible.”
The world of Fred Ho
Fred Ho will receive the Harvard Arts Medal Nov. 13 at 5 p.m. in the New College Theatre, 12 Holyoke St. Free and open to the public but tickets required; available through the Harvard Box Office (617.496.2222) limit two per person.
“The World of Fred Ho” is a tribute concert with Ho and the Harvard Jazz Bands Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. in Lowell Lecture Hall, 17 Kirkland St. Tickets are $10 general admission; $8 students and senior citizens and are available through the Harvard Box Office.