AAPI Listening Guide: Part One

May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month. To celebrate, Social Media Team members Shirley Xiong and Abigail AuYeung compiled this two-part Listening Guide of composers and pieces for you to enjoy.


Though underrated, you will find that the AAPI composers included in this listening guide have just as much versatility as their famous contemporaries. Although Asian music may seem daunting at first with so many diverse musical styles, many of the compositions included here blend the classical music that you know and love along with their own twist.

The following list is by no means a full representation of Asian composers nor the best pieces from each of these musicians. Naturally we cannot cover every corner of the continent in one, or even two, blog post. This compilation is simply an introduction to the vast variety of Asian compositions, featuring some of the works that we find delightful. We hope that you will enjoy these as much as we do!

Top Row: Bright Sheng, Nicanor Abelardo, and Kinan Abou-afach; Bottom Row: Toru Takemitsu, Viet Cuong, and Joshua Kyan Aalampour.

Nicanor Abelardo, Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor (1923)

Nicanor Abelardo was a composer characterized by his kundiman works — traditional Filipino love songs. He was known for incorporating this historic form into classical music. Although hailing from Manila, Abelardo actually studied at the Chicago Musical College, now known as Roosevelt University’s Chicago College for the Performing Arts, located right next to the same Fine Arts Building we all know and love. A decade earlier, Albelardo wrote one of his most famous compositions: his Nocturne, a beautiful piece that fans of Chopin, Bortkiewicz, and the likes would certainly enjoy. One of his more obscure works, but perhaps even more sublime than the Nocturne, is his Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor. Each movement has its own personality, yet the piece is splendidly cohesive. With wonderfully expressive melodies, the concerto balances the Western romantic style with traditional flair in a uniquely elegant manner. Unfortunately, there are not many recordings of the piece; nevertheless this version deserves a listen.


Bright Sheng, Seven Tunes Heard in China, Mov. I-IV

Bright Sheng is considered one of the most acclaimed composers of our time. A prolific writer, pianist, and conductor, he studied both conducting and composing from Leonard Bernstein (see our jazz article!) and has worked with distinguished artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Gil Shaham, and Marin Alsop. He is widely sought after by world-class ensembles, the likes of which include our own Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Seven Tunes Heard in China is inspired by cities and ideas integral to Chinese culture. Sheng, like Bartok who the composer greatly admires, intricately combines Chinese folk tunes and modes with classical styles. Additionally, he explores the cello’s ranges and abilities by imitating classic Chinese instruments like the erhu.


Joshua Kyan Aalampour, Piano Sonata No. 1 in G Minor “Chaotique”

Although he’s may not be what comes to mind when thinking of classical music, Chinese-Azerbaijani American composer Joshua Aalampour does not disappoint with his compositions. He gained notoriety through his use of TikTok and subsequent involvement in the soundtrack of the wildly popular TV series The Queen’s Gambit with the piece “Winning Move.” Alaampour describes his Piano Sonata No. 1, “Chaotique” as “the sound of sanity’s demise— a musical representation of the battle against one’s own psyche.” His work follows the classic sonata-allegro form (a three-part structure that involves exposition, development, and recapitulation, which is essentially where the main idea will be repeated and explored in different ways); the musical style is somewhat reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata, with its intensely dark undertones. The first movement builds agitation as the second movement gives brief respite, before falling further into the anxiety-riddled melodies and variations of the third movement. As a younger self-taught composer, Aalampour mainly writes for the piano and has fewer published works. However, he is currently in the process of drafting his first symphony. In the meanwhile, one can enjoy the combination of the eerie calm and the powerful outbursts of frenzy that makes up his sonata.


Toru Takemitsu, Time Within Memory (1973)

Takemitsu was a Japanese composer known for countless film scores as well as his avant garde compositional style. He was easily one of the more influential composers of the 20th century and part of a group known as Jikken Kobo, or Experimental Workshop, that as the name implies, were exploratory in their compositions. While self taught, he was a master of music theory and melded together tradition with innovation to create some of the most beautiful music one will have the pleasure of listening to. “Time Within Memory” is about a boy reflecting on moments spent with his beloved mother after returning to his home on Okinoerabujima Island for the first time in decades. It’s wistfully tender; effectively using the moments of silence and evoking feelings of heartache and reflection. Pulling you up in yearning and dropping you right back down into your sorrows, it’s a wonderful piece of music that is unique from the other compositions that Takemitsu wrote; experimentation at its finest.


Viet Cuong, Sound and Smoke

Vietnamese-American Viet Cuong is a wildly talented composer with numerous accolades to his name including serving as a featured composer at Carnegie Hall and being mentored by Jennifer Higdon. Cuong has said that he enjoys making “peculiar combinations and sounds [that] feel enchanting or oddly satisfying.” Oftentimes, this results in unique and absolutely stunning creations. His piece, “Sound and Smoke,” starts off with a shimmering first movement, the latter much more wild, both evoking thoughts of medieval music. Many other pieces sound equally fantastic, all in his distinctive compositional style.


Kinan Abou-afach, Of Roads and Homes

Syrian cellist and composer, Kinan Abou-afach integrates classical themes with maqam, characteristic Arabic modes or scales. As a cellist, he has played under the baton of iconic conductors including Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman, in addition to performing with Chicago’s own Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Chicago Children’s Choir. His “Scene 1” is mysterious and inviting. “Dust, in Black and White” has the singing lines commonly attributed to Arabic music, whereas “Hurub” is playful and upbeat. He has also created several other small ensemble pieces, a couple of which, like this one, feature Abou-afach himself on the cello.

These six compositions provide distinctive sounds hailing from the various corners of Asia: a wondrous blend of Western and traditional music. We’ve reached the end of this blog-post, but we’re not quite done yet. To continue your explorations into Asian classical music composers, check out Part 2 of our Listening Guide coming up later this week!

ABOUT ABIGAIL AUYEUNG & SHIRLEY XIONG

Abigail AuYeung is a cellist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra. This is her second season with CYSO. She’s currently a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School. In her free time, Abigail enjoys reading, baking, and playing the cello, of course!

Shirley Xiong is a cellist in Philharmonic Orchestra. Although loving cello, she is (a bit) more of a piano enthusiast. She is currently a junior at New Trier High School. Some of her hobbies include collecting stuffed toys, using Photoshop, and baking.

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