Asian composers reflect on careers in Western classical music
Asian composers who write in classical Western musical forms, such as symphonies and operas, tend to have a few things in common. Many learned European styles from a young age and completed their studies at conservatories there or in the United States. And much later found themselves relegated to ghetto programming like the Lunar New Year concerts. (A recent study found that works by Asian composers only make up about 2% of US orchestral performances planned for the coming season.)
Sometimes the music of Asian composers has been misunderstood or exotic; they were subjected to simple mistakes such as, in the case of Huang Ruo, who was born in China, repeated misspellings of his name.
For all of their shared experiences, each of these artists has a unique story. Here, five of them provide a small sampling of the lessons, struggles, and triumphs of composers born in Asia who made careers in Western classical music. These are edited excerpts from interviews with them.
Music is my language. To me, “West” and “East” are just ways of speaking – or like ways of cooking. I am a chef, and sometimes I find that my recipe resembles my orchestrations. It would be so boring if you asked me to cook in a style. East and West have therefore become for me a unique recipe in which one plus one equals one.
I am in a very special area historically. I am 63 years old and I am part of the first generation of Eastern composers after the Cultural Revolution to deal with Western forms. But it’s like rosemary, butter, and vegetables. You can cook like that, like that – and that’s why the same orchestras sound so different, from Debussy to Stravinsky to myself.
I’m lucky. When I came to the United States as a student, my teachers and classmates greatly encouraged me to discover myself. And I learned so much from John Cage. After that it was so easy to compose. And when people contact me for orders, I get back to them on what I’m thinking. I remember when Kurt Masur asked me to write something for the New York Philharmonic – the Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra – I said: “Can I write something for the water?” He said, “As long as you don’t flood our orchestra.
Yes, we are often misunderstood. It’s like when you cook beautiful black beans with chili sauce and chocolate. They can say, “Hey, this is a little strange”. But you explain why, and it can be very interesting. Thank goodness I love to talk. And there has been progress for us. I am the first oriental composer to be dean of a western conservatory in Bard. It’s like a Chinese chef becoming the chef of an Italian restaurant. This is the future: a different way of approaching color, without borders, a unity of the soul.
One thing about composers like Tan Dun: they came out of the Cultural Revolution, after a door had been closed for so many years. So there was so much attention to what China was doing, a lot of curiosity – curiosity rather than active racism. Our generation – I’m 44 – is so different.
We learn western music with such rigorous systems. And we don’t close our ears to different traditions or styles; this attitude determines early on that you don’t have that kind of boundary or ownership. But you still hear those “East Meets West” conversation topics. It is so tiring. East has met West for thousands of years; if we are still just meeting each other, that’s a problem.
The programming of Chinese composers around the Lunar New Year is generally very problematic. Do we need to celebrate culture? Yes. Do we need to celebrate tradition? Absoutely. But it can be part of the main subscription series or a one-year series. Then you can really telling stories, not just grouping people by country.
My name does not give me ownership of Chinese culture. There are so many things I don’t know. There are so many burdens and fights – like the woman, the colored woman, the Chinese woman – that I decided not to fight anything and create my own stuff. I thought if I had a great job it would talk about what a Chinese woman can do.
I never wanted to be cataloged, to be a reduced representation. I always wanted to open that box of Pandora’s mess – and I encourage others to celebrate the mess, the unclean tale of your life. Each immigrant has their own path; your work must absolutely reflect that. So if I am a spokesperson, it is for my own voice. And through this particular voice, I hope there is something resonating.
When I left China, it was a time of economic and, in a different way, cultural reform. I’m glad I came to the United States, but I have a little guilt. I probably could have done more there. But my goal was to try and learn Western music and become the best pianist, conductor, and composer I can be. I was fortunate enough to meet Leonard Bernstein, and I was under his wing for five years. Now, at 65, when someone asks me if I consider myself a Chinese or American composer, I respond, in the most humble way, “100 percent both”. I know both cultures well.
There has been racism and misunderstanding, but it is inevitable. Would it be different if there were Asians conducting orchestras? Yes of course. My response was just to try to write the best music possible. I wrote an opera for the San Francisco Opera – “Dream of the Red Chamber”, which they revive. It’s a very popular Chinese story, and when I worked on it with David Henry Hwang, we asked ourselves, “Is this for a Western audience or an Eastern audience?” We decided first and foremost that it had to be good and that it had to be touching. Good music transcends.
For example, a piece of mine, “H’un (lacerations)”, premiered at 92nd Street Y in New York. It’s subtitled “In Memoriam 1966-1976” – about the Cultural Revolution – and it’s very harsh and dramatic, with no melody. My mom was there and she said it brought back a lot of painful memories. I was also sitting next to this very old Jewish woman, and after I bowed on stage, she leaned over and said, “If you change the title to ‘Auschwitz’, that would be just as appropriate. It was the biggest compliment.
The Korea of my childhood and adolescence was a very different place than it is today. In the 1960s it was an impoverished developing country devastated by colonialism and the Korean War, and until the late 1980s there was a military dictatorship in place. To develop as a composer, you had to go abroad, because there was no infrastructure for new music. Now 60 years old and having lived 35 years in Europe, it remains important for me to contribute to the contemporary music scene in Asia.
When I moved to Germany, there was a tendency to put composers in certain boxes, with all the aesthetic wars of the time. Since I wasn’t interested in joining a camp or avant-garde in fashion or other trends, fulfilling exotic expectations or assumptions about how a woman should or shouldn’t compose, I had to start a career in other countries while living in Germany. Prejudices such as viewing an Asian composer or musician only through “sociological” lenses are still relatively common in various countries, but times are changing. Of course, there are prejudices and complacency all over the world, including in Asia. Perhaps the only remedy for this seemingly too human impulse is to try and maintain a sense of wonder and try to distance yourself from yourself.
I have worked in different countries for decades and felt the need to stay curious about different cultures, traditions and musical genres. I believe in multiple identities and think that without curiosity, any style or musical culture atrophies and risks becoming a museum: art has always prospered when there has been crossbreeding.
At the same time, we must be wary of the danger of exoticism and superficial cultural appropriation. I think a contemporary composer should study different cultures, traditions and genres, but use these influences in a selective, historically conscious and self-critical way.
When people heard that I was from China, they would often say, “Does your music sound like Tan Dun? I don’t think they meant anything bad, but it shows some ignorance. I tried to explain that China is a big country and we all speak with our own voices.
I started out as an instrumental composer, and a lot of these works have been programmed at concerts on the theme of Asia or the Lunar New Year. I didn’t notice at first, but you are starting to see patterns. I don’t feel that my work is less quality than my other colleagues who are not minority composers, but for conductors, programmers and artistic directors it doesn’t seem to come to them. spirit that we can program the work of an Asian composer alongside Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.
This is one of the reasons I turned to opera. I thought there shouldn’t be an opera company dedicated to Asian composers. So finally, I had to be programmed alongside “Fidelio” and “Madama Butterfly”. It was my revenge. Also, I wanted to write on topics that reflect Asian or Asian American subjects, to really share those stories. In this case, it is in fact me to make a choice.
Someone once told me that I spoke English with an accent. I said, “How else would you know I’m talking?” I feel the same as a composer. I want to have my own originality, to speak with my own accent – with my love of Western musical styles, but also this heritage that I carry from Chinese culture.
Without coming to the United States, I would be a different composer. If I went to Europe instead, I would also be very different. But I feel like I made the right decision, and at 44, I fully assume who I am today, and where I am too.