A few weeks ago I posted a memorial in the Broad Street Review upon the death of Robert Ashley. Bob’s death caught me by surprise, although it shouldn’t have since I had been informed a few months prior to his passing that his lifelong penchant for alcohol had found its mark. And now, almost one month to the day, I am saddened to once again offer a memorial to a friend and collaborator: Fred Ho, who passed on April 12th.
Fred’s passing did not surprise me. He had been ill for some time, a victim of colorectal cancer, a disease that he ferociously fought for six years. Along with many of his other friends around the world, I was kept up to date on his condition via a list serve titled “Warriors for Fred,” maintained by a loving companion named Ann T. Greene. During the first couple of years of his illness he wrote a journal documenting his equally ferocious battle with America’s health care system. That journal became a book, Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level. There is not enough space in this publication to do justice to Fred’s life and work, so I’ll leave it up to the reader to learn more about him and his epic cancer battle. And I’ll leave it up to you to wrap your ears around his music. If you are not familiar with his prodigious musical-theatrical output, here it is, the work of one of America’s unique artistic voices.
I first met Fred Ho in 1986 as I was preparing to produce the “New Music America 1987 Festival” in Philadelphia for Relâche. A mutual friend intrigued by his music urged me to include it in the festival. Upon hearing it, I too was intrigued but felt it just didn’t fit with the overall programming content that was taking shape. I opted not to include it. I regretted that decision. Fortunately, though, Fred and I hit it off, and we became not only good friends but collaborators as well. After two failed attempts to raise funds for a commission, I finally succeeded. The result was a new work for the Relâche Ensemble with a most Fred-like title: ”Contradiction Please! The Revenge of Charlie Chan.” Relâche performed it extensively; from Philadelphia to Tokyo, throughout Europe and the United States. Often Fred accompanied the ensemble on tours, adding his rugged baritone saxophone sound to the group. At other times Relâche performed a specially arranged version without him. Even though the piece was a bit outside of the unique ensemble sound that Relâche had created, it worked and became something of a hit for the group. Among the many performances with Fred, one stands apart for me.
Fred did not play other composers’ music, but one night in Phoenix as part of a residency at Arizona State University West, he played in a piece by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen titled “Worker’s Union.” It is a thumping piece that celebrates the trials of the world’s workers. My mother lived in Arizona, so I brought her to the concert. Afterward I introduced her to Fred. Now it’s important to know that my mother, a Philly girl through and through, did not remotely “get” the music that defined my life and the lives of my friends. She loved to sing and had a terrific ear for melody, but the entire “new” music repertoire that invaded her space during my visits was far removed from her Kensington background. After shaking Fred’s hand she said to both of us, “I really liked that last one you played.” She was referring to “Worker’s Union.” Surprised, I looked at her, then at Fred, who was graciously smiling. “It reminds me of the factories I used to work at in Philadelphia.” She got it! The pounding tinny noise of the Crown Cork and Seal Company factory on Hunting Park Avenue came alive in her memory.
Fred made many visits to Philadelphia to work not only with Relâche but with several other organizations as well, like Peregrine Arts. He liked Philly, especially Chinatown. He resolutely ranked it the third best in the country. Often he stayed with me and my wife, Laurel. On those occasions I took him to the old YMCA at 15th and Arch Streets for a workout. He loved to swim, as I did, but he was more intrigued with my workouts on the heavy bag, so I gave him some instruction. He never quite learned to work with the bag, so his punches usually slid off the side. Frustrated, Fred was not good at not being good at something.
After leaving Philadelphia, I moved to Montana to direct a performing arts and film center. Through some careful manipulation of funds, I was able to allocate $25,000 to Fred so he could do a two-year residency in Montana while he completed a work titled “Once Upon a Time in Chinese America.” During his first visit to the state, Laurel took him to Butte, a city as tough as any within the mythos of 19th-century American history. Together they explored what remained of Butte’s Chinatown, a section of the city that bore the brunt of Butte’s ferocious meanness. Fred was amazed. He found an authentic piece of Chinese American history, replete with Keno games invented by the Chinese workers who were brought there to support the flourishing mining industry. Here amidst the decaying noodle shops (and decaying streets), they learned that the early residents of Butte’s Chinatown dug tunnels beneath their homes and shops in order to mine the ore that gave sustenance to its residents. The Chinese folks were not allowed to be miners, just coolies. But they surreptitiously won their battle.
Fred Ho did not win his. His huge legacy, however, endures.
(Photo above right: © Robert Adam Myer)