May is Asian/Pacific Heritage Month, so before we run out of month, it is worth noting that one area of American musical culture in which Asian/Pacific Americans have made a huge contribution in recent decades is in the field of classical music. Interpreters of Asian/Pacific heritage, such as violist Liuh-Wen Ting (pictured) have become so numerous in American music that to develop a fitting tribute to their contribution in the space of an AMG Blog would be a futile undertaking. A tribute to Asian/Pacific American composers would scarcely be less foolhardy, but its limits are at least a little easier to circumscribe, so what follows is a series of thumbnail sketches of eight living American composers of Asian/Pacific descent -- not necessarily even the most famous ones -- plus two more that are no longer living, but who have special importance. Some might argue that a tribute like this is overdue, but the cultures within Asia and the Pacific differ vastly, and Asian/Pacific American citizens are not necessarily always eager to be lumped together under such a rubric.
A Little Background Doesn't Hurt
Although there are Asian/Pacific compositions â€“- instrumental pieces, songs and even operas â€“- and named composers in traditional music that go back centuries, the introduction of Western instruments, musical training and the cultivation of symphony orchestras only really got going in the 1930s. A major figure in "Asian fusion" was American composer Henry Cowell, who first toured Japan in the 1920s and returned in the 1950s to compose a number of works for Asian orchestras and two concertos for the koto, a Japanese court instrument. These are still regarded as standard works for the koto in Japan. Cowell taught the first "world music" course in the United States, beginning in 1928; among his students were Lou Harrison and John Cage, both Americans that strengthened the connection between Asian/Pacific cultures and America. In between Cowell's Asian journeys, German composer Klaus Pringsheim settled in Tokyo in the 1930s to teach the first generation of Japanese symphonic composers such as Akira Ifukube, Toshiro Mayuzumi, Isotaro Sugata and others. At the same time, Russian composer Alexandre Tcherepnin arrived in Shanghai and served much the same function in China in the years before the Revolution; he also taught in Japan as well.
Since then, Western-styled concert music in Asia has blossomed and to varying degrees the classical traditional music has melded with the Western model, particularly in China and Japan. While conservatories and orchestras alike in Asia are of excellent quality, many students of composition are sent to the United States or Europe to further their educations, and owing to political or other considerations, some decide to stay. Among the many valuable things that America has gained from its contact with the Asian Diaspora is the strong interest in classical music, which has helped to revitalize the entire classical music scene.
Octogenarian composer Chou Wen-Chung finds himself, in 2008, as the "grand old man" of East-West confluence in music, having first stepped into the international arena in 1948 when conductor Leopold Stokowski noticed the special qualities of his Landscapes for harp, strings and percussion. Chou studied with pioneer modernist Edgard VarÃ¨se and became the elder composer's amanuensis and the executor of VarÃ¨se's estate; he has completed several works that VarÃ¨se either abandoned or tried to destroy.
Chou Wen-Chung: Suite for Harp and Wind Quintet
Cambodian composer Chinary Ung has retained his Cambodian citizenship, although he has lived in the United States since 1964. And for good reason â€“- Cambodia needs him. The horrendous genocide under Pol Pot in the 1970s robbed the nation of Cambodia of its elders and, concurrently, much of its culture. After events cooled in the 1980s, Chinary Ung began to return to Cambodia to rescue her traditional culture and to cultivate interest in music among the younger generations. His compositions have been widely praised in the West, incorporating as they do elements of Cambodian ritual theater, an art form whose roots can be traced back 3000 years. Ung has also taken American ensembles, such as Southwest Chamber Music, back to Cambodia to give concert tours of his music.
Southwest Chamber Music - Chinary Ung: Aura
Chinese-born composer Chen Yi is one of the most highly regarded and frequently honored composers on the American scene at present, having earned election to the Academy of American Arts and Sciences and awarded the Charles Ives Living Award, the most lucrative prize a composer can be endowed with in the United States. The list of commissions Dr. Chen has received from orchestras and performance bodies is positively blinding to read. However, such plums and accreditations were not always Chen's lot. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, she was forced to practice the violin in secret with the mutes always on, and to hide her talents entirely when she served two years in a forced labor camp. But at age 17 she was named concertmaster of the Beijing Opera Troupe, and she was the first Chinese woman to earn a masters degree in music composition. Although Chen Yi has lived and worked in the United States since 1986, she has been periodically invited back to China to participate in concerts of her works there -- the next one with the China National Symphony Orchestra is slated for May 29, 2008.
JoAnn Falletta, Women's Philharmonic - Che Yi: Ge Xu, Antiphony
Arguably, no Asian nation has had a more difficult modern relationship with the United States than Vietnam. Currently, P.Q. Phan is that country's compositional voice in American music. Trained as an architect, Phan had attempted, along with his family, to boatlift himself out of Vietnam, only to be brought back under arrest. By the time he immigrated legally to the United States in 1982, Phan felt ruined as an architect owing to the unswervingly utilitarian style observed in his home country, and went into music instead. Phan is now a professor of composition at Indiana University in Bloomington, and has had his works performed by the likes of the American Composers Orchestra and the Kronos Quartet.
P. Q. Phan: Rock Blood, for percussion ensemble
Ge Gan-Ru composed, in 1983, Lost Style, the first avant-garde composition created in China. Like Chen Yi, Ge Gan-Ru was an aspiring violin student who found himself in a work camp at the age of 17, though luckily a violin master was also serving there, and Ge was able to study in secret. After his release, Ge entered the Shanghai Conservatory, but soon found himself on the outs with the communist authorities owing to pieces like Lost Style and his acceptance of contemporary techniques, viewed as a form of Western decadence. Through the help of Chou Wen-Chung, Ge was able to get out of China, and now lives in New York. Although his approach has softened somewhat since Lost Style, he remains one of the most interesting and stylistically diverse figures among Chinese-American composers.
Margaret Leng Tan - Ge Gan Ru: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! for toy instruments
Jin Hi Kim
Korean born virtuoso and composer Jin Hi Kim is an expert player on the komungo, a traditional Korean instrument dating from the 4th century. Kim initially made her mark in the New York "Downtown" scene of the mid-1990s, however, her work has since been heard in Carnegie Hall, on the BBC, and on the festival circuit. She has helped to build both standard electric and MIDI-compatible versions of her ancient instrument. Jin Hi Kim also sits in with avant-garde jazz groups and has worked with composers such as Elliot Sharp.
Jin Hi Kim, komungo - Kim: Self-Portrait
Henry Cowell was the maverick who, in the early 20th century, developed then-outrageous piano playing techniques such as "tone clusters" and playing inside the instrument. Critic Kyle Gann has compared Japanese native Mari Kimura to Cowell in developing similarly radical approaches to the violin. Kimura plays "subharmonics," impossibly low tones on the violin produced through special techniques of bowing and has performed in concert with "GuitarBot," a robot that serves as guitarist and accompanist. A teacher at Juilliard, Kimura is frequently sought out by instrument makers to serve as guinea pig for experimental violins in progress. As she is a dynamic and exciting virtuoso, other composers have written a number of pieces for her, though Kimura's own compositions are just as exciting, if not more so, as anything submitted from outside. Kimura also feels just as comfortable playing improvised jazz as she does playing Brahms and her own work.
Mari Kimura: GuitarBotana
Korean-born American composer Beata Moon, whose family moved to Indiana when she was little, started out as a pianist whose improvisations were of such quality that she was encouraged by others to compose. Moon's music is marked by its ease of expression and accessibility, although it cannot be described as sentimental or backward-looking. It is witty, urbane, and sophisticated, and Moon's sense of roots and tradition is more likely to take her back to the rolling farmlands of Indiana rather than anything associated with her native Korea.
Beata Moon: In Transit - Hubbub
This short sampling far from exhausts the list in terms of Asian/Pacific composers; although Tan Dun -- who is based out of the US, but remains a Chinese citizen -- is perhaps the best known name overall, even a cursory inquiry will yield such names as Bun-Ching Lam, Bright Sheng, Kui Dong, Ikue Mori, Zhou Long, Ha-Yang Kim, Du Yun, Min Xiao-Fen, Che Chen, Heo Yoon Jeong, and Shih-Hui Chen. All of them have something to unique offer and have earned acclaim in America's vast concert landscape. By way of a postscript, what follows are a couple of entries on Asian/Pacific American composers who have already "gone to sleep with their fathers," yet still made a significant difference.
Teiji Ito (1935-1982)
If you happened to catch an off-off Broadway play in New York in the 1960s, chances are good that you heard music of Japanese born composer Teiji Ito. He came to New York at the age of 17 and at 22 was asked to create an original score for filmmaker Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, previously only shown silent. Recorded directly onto tape, Ito used bamboo flutes, small drums, and kitchen utensils to score Deren's film, and this proved his basic modus operandi going forward. Utilizing both instruments and non-instruments, Ito made dozens of scores for small theater productions and avant-garde films in the 1960s and '70s, but only one album of his music -â€“ to Jean Erdman's play The Coach with Six Insides â€“- was released during his lifetime. After his early death, Ito's lifework was donated to the New York Public Library, and John Zorn has been releasing select pieces on his Tzadik label. In some quarters, Teiji Ito is regarded as the father of "Downtown" New York post-modernism.
Teiji Ito: Tenno (1964)
Ivan Tcherepnin (1943-1998)
Ivan Tcherepnin was the son of composer Alexandre Tcherepnin and Chinese pianist Lee Hsien Ming, and as such was a third-generation composer; he was born in France. His father's music was eclectic in style, yet based in early modernism and often sunny and easy for audiences for grasp; by comparison, Ivan plunged into electronic music with a vengeance and became a pioneer of the form, so expert by the early 1960s that he advised older composers, such as Leon Kirchner, on how to use it effectively. His cosmopolitan, ingratiating, and endlessly patient father praised everything he did, a situation that became a sore spot with Ivan Tcherepnin, who actively sought to create a composition that his father would dislike; succeeding finally with Set, Hold, Clear and Squelch for oboe and synthesizer (1976). Afterward, Ivan Tcherepnin found his personal voice, but only enjoyed it two decades before passing away from cancer in 1998.
Ivan Tcherepnin: Santur Live!, opera - An Attempt to Set Things Right
For more information about Asian/Pacific Heritage Month, visit the Library of Congress' website devoted to the topic at:
Asian/Pacific Heritage Month https://www.loc.gov/topics/asianpacific/