The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie: How Immigration and Emigration have Shaped American Music

When discussing musicians and composers of Chinese descent in America, there are really four heritage streams to consider: Chinese-Americans, mainland Chinese, Taiwan Chinese, and Hong Kong Chinese. These four lineages inform the topics and sounds which the following musicians grapple with. The educational credits, academic teaching positions, awards and accolades, and public performances listed in the biographies of these musicians also attests to the ways in which the new music world is in some ways devoid of national borders. It may make the answer as to who is an American composer all the more difficult to answer, but no one can dispute the fact that composers of Chinese heritage are honing the cutting edge of America’s new music scene with some exceptionally vibrant, emotive, exciting and heady music.

Make no doubt about it, Byron Au Yong, Fred Ho, Jason Kao Hwang and Jon Jang are all Americans. Yong is a second generation American whose parents lived in the Phillippines before coming to the U.S. He has studied with European, American and Asian teachers and embraces a pan-Asian approach to making music combined with Western concepts. His pieces have been performed in the U.S. and Germany. Ho is a saxophonist, bandleader, composer and leftist activist who seems to have embraced the exuberance of African-American musical expression in addition to exploring Chinese-American and Chinese culture and history. Violinist and composer Jason Hwang seems to know no musical limits, having his feet in film soundtracks (Kundun), jazz jams (Reggie Workman and Anthony Braxton), dance scores (Nai-ni Chen), Broadway (M Butterfly), composer-performer ensembles (The Far East Side Band) and the uncategorizable (Music for Homemade Instruments). Californian Jon Jang is a pianist and composer who, like Ho, identifies strongly with African-American music and liberation causes while also exploring Chinese musical concepts. His ensemble comprises players of Asian, European, African and Native American descent and like Ho, one can say he belongs to the jazz world, but the word is too limiting to really connote what he does.

It seems the majority of expatriate Chinese composers reside in the USA, though there certainly are some in Europe and Canada. Perhaps this is because the size and strength of America’s existing Chinese population creates a pull on the old folks at home just as the size of our Jewish, Irish and Spanish-speaking populations do. There isn’t space here to ask all of the following composers why they live and work in the USA (particularly since most of them seem to have as many performances in Europe and Asia as they do here), but it is an interesting question for further exploration.

Chou Wen-Chung, who studied with Edgard Varèse and ran the Columbia University graduate music program, is generally given credit for first combining European modernism with Chinese traditions as well as for creating a fertile climate for the training and career development of the Chinese immigrant composers who arrived in the ’80’s and early ’90’s. Composer/conductor Tan Dun is the best known of this crew, having a fertile and prolific recording career, numerous performances, a long list of commissions, and a Marsalis-like ability to tackle the viscidities of the American music business and come out on top. He’s a New York resident, but his career is completely international. His work tends to combine the theatricality of Chinese opera with Chinese peasant folklore and Western avant-garde musical concepts.

Pianist and composer Bright Sheng‘s emergence on the New York concert scene predated that of Tan. His teachers here make an impressive list, including George Perle, Leonard Bernstein, Mario Davidovsky, and Chou Wen-Chung. During the Communist Cultural Revolution, Sheng’s childhood studies of piano and Western music were interrupted (but not forgotten) with a forced sojourn in the countryside learning and performing state-approved music and peasant folklore. After the Revolution faded, he studied composition at the Shanghai Conservatory before coming to the U.S. where he was granted American citizenship in 1987.

In the liner notes to her CD Sparkle, Chen Yi says “. . .my music… combines Chinese and Western musical materials and medium. The inspirations and ideas behind the pieces are mostly Chinese, but the instrumentations of the pieces usually came from the musicians in America who suggested or commissioned them.” This speaks volumes about the relationship between performer and composer, for whether or not Chen Yi is an American composer, working with her has forever augmented the ways in which the American performers conceive of music, particularly because in Chinese music concepts of time, intervals, and timbre are so different from what Western instrumentalists are accustomed to playing. Like her compatriots, Yi experienced the cultural revolution and later crossed paths with Chou Wen-Chung and Mario Davidovsky in New York.

Her husband, Zhou Long was raised in a Westernized artistic/intellectual family in Beijing which fell victim to the Cultural Revolution. Like Sheng, Zhou didn’t lose his knowledge of Western music under the repression of the Cultural Revolution, but merely augmented it with direct folk music contact and the officially-sanctioned penchant for ensembles which mixed Chinese and Western instruments. After the Revolution he intensified his studies of Chinese folk and traditional music, as well as his exposure to Western music and music from other Asian countries. Interestingly, his move to America resulted in his first exposure to the Second Viennese School, which profoundly influenced his writing.

Ge Gan-ru received degrees in violin and composition from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and a DMA at Columbia University. Like Charles Ives, he is a serious business man and a serious composer. His works, which deliberately combine Western and Chinese elements, are performed all over the globe. Qu Xiao-song, who spent four years as a farmer during the Cultural Revolution and is now based in New York City, has composed operas based on the Oedipus myth combining Western and Chinese musical resources. Lou Jing Jing was also born and raised in Shanghai, studied at the conservatory there and then moved on to Columbia University. She has also studied at the New England Conservatory, SUNY Stonybrook and the Aspen Festival and her works have been performed in China, the USA, and Germany. Chen Yuanlin is of the same generation as these previous six composers and has worked in China, Australia and Japan. He is a relatively recent arrival in the U.S. and has not yet put down the kind of roots that Tan, Chen, Zhou, Sheng and Ge have. Ying Zhang and Jin Xiang were both born in the 1930’s, the former having a stronger leaning towards traditional music and Chinese instruments, the latter towards Western composition. Zhang arrived in ’93, Xiang in ’88.

A relative youngster in this list, James Fei was born in Taiwan and carries with him a strong sense of reacting to the state-sponsored musical legacy there. He has also been in the United States for a formative and significant period of his life. He entered Wesleyan University’s graduate program in composition and has studied with Braxton, Alvin Lucier, Steve Mackey and Louis Andriessen. He is a multi-instrumentalist who is active in the performance of his own works as well the works of others. Kawai Shu is also young. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he was well prepared for the eclectic cultural mosaic to be found in America where studies with Charles Wuorinen and John Harbison should even further cement his eclecticism.

The number and variety of composers with roots in Chinese heritage working in the United States right now is staggering. Add to that, events like the “world premiere” performance of the full 18-hour Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival and it might make you feel that Chinese musical culture might emerge as dominant a force in America as German musical culture once was. But then again, Lou Harrison grew up listening to Chinese opera in San Francisco in the 1920s before he ever heard Verdi or Wagner!

From The Unlimited Flavors of American Pie
by Sid Whelan
© 1999 NewMusicBox



He was born in America, but Chinese music is still Fred Ho’s point of musical departure.
Sound sample – FRED HO: from Overture to Monkey Part Two
(Koch Jazz 7840)

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The inspirations and ideas behind these pieces are mostly Chinese.
CHEN YI: from Song in Winter (1993)
Performed by Wei Lai-gen – dizi, Yang Yi – zheng, and Joyce Lindorff – harpsichord

(from the CD Chen Yi: Sparkle, CRI 804)

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