Happy Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month! To celebrate, Social Media Team members Shirley Xiong and Abigail AuYeung compiled an brand new listening guide featuring Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Asian composers for your listening enjoyment. We guarantee you’ll want to add some of these composers to your next playlist!
This post is the follow-up to our AAPI Listening Guide: Part 1 and Part 2, so be sure to look through that one first if you haven’t already. Once again we want to clarify that the following list is by no means a full representation of Asian composers nor a collection of their best pieces—it is meant as an introduction to the vast variety of Asian compositions, featuring some of the works that we find terrific. We hope that you will enjoy these as much as we do!
Michiru Ōshima – Japan
Michiru Ōshima is one of the most talented living Japanese film score composers, among the likes of Joe Hishiashi. She composes for a variety of media, winning awards for her scores for Godzilla, Fullmetal Alchemist, and arrangements in The Legend of Zelda. Occasionally, Ōshima writes compositions for classical musicians as well. Her compositional style is incredibly lyrical and evocative, complementing measured, lilting melodies with those that are more vivacious. All are enough to make one forget everything around them and simply soak in the music, feeling sensations buried deep inside.
Ōshima’s symphonic poem Snow White with Red Hair is an orchestral masterpiece: both electrifying and enchanting, with beautiful string and ethereal woodwind melodies. She is able to evoke both anguish and ecstasy by expanding the range and darkness of the cello to its fullest degree, later passing the focus up the strings with the warm tones of the viola and the piercing sounds of the violin. It’s a stellar piece, well worth the hour of listening time. Also check out her symphonic poem Planet of Life.
Earl Kim – Korea/US
A highly talented individual, Earl Kim was born to Korean immigrant parents in California, later attending UCLA and UC Berkeley, studying composition under Arnold Schoenberg and Ernest Bloch and earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degree. Kim would later receive a second masters from Harvard. During this time, he took a break to serve as an intelligence captain in the US Air Force during World War II. This would later go on to affect his compositions, as seen in his work Dialogues. Kim spent the rest of his career as a pedagogue, teaching at Princeton and then Harvard University. He enjoyed incorporating text into his music, many of which were by Samuel Beckett, playwright of Waiting for Godot. He predominantly wrote vocal works, but the work we’d like to highlight would be his Violin Concerto. The piece begins with an almost atmospheric orchestral exposition before the violin joins in with this playful banter. It later develops into a much more serious, somber melody. The finale is electrifying, with every note precise, before it comes to a crashing halt with one final chord.
Antonio Molina – Philippines
With over five hundred compositions to his name, it’s safe to say that composer Antonio Molina was a prolific composer. Molina spent much of his career at the University of the Philippines Conservatory of Music where he taught composition, music history, and cello, in addition to deanship at the Centro Escolar Conservatory of Music. He was hailed as the “Debussy of the Philippines” for incorporating Impressionist themes in his music. Molina also founded the CEU string quartet. Some of his notable compositions include Misa Antoniana Festival Mass and Ang Batingaw, but our favorite of his works is Malikmata. It’s one of those pieces that you listen to when you’re contemplating life, subversive and bizarre when it opens, then leading into twinkling, flowing melodies that paint pictures of the mountainside in spring. The piece is capable of bringing about feelings of otherworldliness and transcendence in just three minutes.
Suleiman Yudakov – Uzbekistan
Born in 1916 to a shoe cleaner and a vagrant, Bukharian Jewish composer Suleiman Yudakov’s devotion to music began at a young age as he listened to the Russian accordion played at his neighborhood club. Yudakov soon learned how to play mandolin, balalaika, guitar, bass dombra, flute, and percussion. Despite the challenges of living in an orphanage as a child and having to relocate amidst a war in his early twenties, Yudakov studied flute performance and later composition under the infamous Reinhold Glière at the Moscow Conservatory. Some of his most prominent accolades include composing the Tajik national anthem and writing the first Uzbek comical opera: the incorporation of Western and Russian genres into traditional Uzbek national art. Although most of Yudakov’s works have been lost to time, his work Eastern Poem (Восточная поэма) continues to be performed. Originally written for violin and piano, there is also a version that is transcribed for cello. The piece’s beautiful and meandering melody reflects Yudakov’s unique style of blending elements of Eastern culture with his Russian education.
Nguyễn Văn Quỳ – Vietnam
Nicknamed “Quỳ Sonate”, Nguyễn Văn Quỳ idolized and took inspiration from Beethoven in his compositions. Although Văn Quỳ lived in Hanoi, he was able to attend and complete a music course from Ecole Universelle remotely through mail. Despite his unconventional education, he wrote nine violin sonatas, two of which won awards, and many more songs. Throughout his life, Văn Quỳ also taught composition and pioneered the growth of musical education in Hanoi. Passing away in 2022 at the age of 97, Văn Quỳ left behind a legacy filled with a passion for music. His compositions reflected his love for French Romanticism, as well as the traditional Vietnamese style. Văn Quỳ’s first sonata was directly influenced by the music of the H’Mong people, an indigenous group that resides mainly in Southeastern Asia. The video below also provides much more insight and detail about Văn Quỳ’s life, so it’s worth a watch.
Abdallah El-Masri – Lebanon/Russia
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, not much is known about Abdallah El-Masri’s early life. Studying guitar and music theory in his teenage years, El-Masri then began his composition education at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. El-Masri has written multiple large orchestral and chamber works; additionally, he has composed stage music. He can currently be found teaching composition at the Kuwait Higher Institute of Music. In his Suite for Flute and Piano, El-Masri does a lovely job balancing melodies across the two instruments—there is push and pull between the unique timbres, dissonance and harmony, forte and piano. You can also check out his other works on his YouTube channel, many of which are conducted by El-Masri himself.
Tanya Ekanayaka – Sri Lanka
Since her first album, Reinventions: Rhapsodies for Piano, was released in 2015—which was entirely composed, performed and produced by herself—Tanya Ekanayaka has emerged as one of the most prolific living female composer-pianists. After beginning piano at age five, Ekanayaka became the youngest competitor and winner of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka biennial concerto competition at 16 years old. Ekanayaka’s interests were not restricted to music, however, as she received a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Linguistics from the University of Peradeniya, and later, master’s and doctorate degrees in the same field from the University of Edinburgh. Describing her compositions as “autobiographical” moments, Ekanayaka draws inspiration from her multicultural background, ambidexterity, and experience with synesthesia. Her second album, 12 Piano Prisms, adapts traditional Sri Lankan tunes and rhythms. One of these pieces is titled Of Vannam & Zhuang Tai Qiu, which references the Chinese folk song, “Zhuang Tai Qui Si” (妆台秋思). Its mellow and graceful melody is tinged with melancholy. The story of “Zhuang Tai Qui Si” tells of a woman who reminisces of her hometown, as she had to move far away due to her husband. Ekanayaka’s version skillfully blends the elements of Sri Lankan and Chinese music, while retaining the gentle yearning and nostalgia of the original melody.
ABOUT ABIGAIL AUYEUNG & SHIRLEY XIONG
Abigail AuYeung is currently a cellist in CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra and a sophomore at Hinsdale Central. In her free time, she enjoys falling down classical music rabbit holes, reading, obsessing over her friend’s cats, and baking.
Shirley Xiong is a cellist in Symphony Orchestra. Although loving cello, she is (a bit) more of a piano enthusiast. She is currently a senior at New Trier High School. Some of her hobbies include collecting stuffed toys, using Photoshop, and baking.