Arts Blog

Six AANHPI Composers We’re Celebrating On Air

In honor of Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and all year round, All Classical Radio is programming music by AANHPI composers and musicians on our playlist. We love sharing music richly and meaningfully woven with a diverse array of influences, as well as insight into the lives of artists you may not yet know about.

Keep reading to learn about six groundbreaking artists we’re featuring on air, and be sure to tune in to All Classical Radio on Saturday, May 18, 2024, at 7:00 PM PT for a special edition of The Concert Hall with John Pitman in celebration of AANHPI Heritage Month.

Kosaku Yamada

Kōsaku Yamada (1886-1965)

Japanese composer and conductor Kōsaku Yamada pioneered modern Japanese music influenced by European tradition. After attending the Tokyo Music School, Yamada studied composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Following his education in Germany, Yamada sometimes used the name “Kósçak,” as a variation of his Japanese name, Kōsaku.

As a composer, Yamada was exceptionally prolific and wrote more than 1600 works, including opera, orchestral works, chamber music, and songs. Unfortunately, many of Yamada’s manuscripts were destroyed as a result of an air raid targeting Tokyo in May 1945. Listeners will hear the clear influence of German Romanticism in Yamada’s music; yet, he never lost touch with his Japanese identity. 

Li Huanzhi
Image courtesy of Li Dakang via China Plus

Li Huanzhi (1919-2000)

Li Huanzhi has remained a significant figure among Chinese classical composers. Having grown up exposed to a wide variety of music, Li eagerly pursued a career in the art form from his teens. Despite interruptions to his studies due to war and family obligations, Li never strayed far from his desired path. Much of Li’s music was inspired by regional folk songs and nationalist sentiment. Perhaps most notably, following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Li’s “The March of the Volunteers” was chosen as the new National Anthem.

Li wrote hundreds of compositions, from symphonic works and opera to songs and choral pieces. His Spring Festival Overture remains one of the most frequently performed Chinese works for orchestra.

Toru Takemitsu

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996)

Tōru Takemitsu was a largely self-taught Japanese composer whose music blends modernist Western styles with Japanese traditions and instruments. Takemitsu’s first encounter with Western music came about while serving in the Japanese military during WWII (Western music had been banned in Japan during the war). An officer played the French chanson “Parlez-moi d’amour,” which made a deep impression on Takemitsu and kicked off a lifelong love of music by French composers such as Debussy and Messiaen.

By the late 1950s, Takemitsu’s music began gaining international attention, including one famous incident where Stravinsky heard his Requiem for Strings and subsequently declared it a masterpiece. Also in the 1950s, Takemitsu co-founded the “Experimental Workshop” whose mission was to explore avant-garde multimedia projects.

He Zhanhao; Image courtesy of South China Morning Post

Chen Gang (b. 1935) & He Zhanhao (b. 1933)

Chen Gang and He Zhanhao are both musicians from China best known for co-composing the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. Born in Shanghai, Chen was the son of songwriter Chen Gexin and grew up learning piano and composition from his father. In 1955, Chen began studying composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he would eventually meet fellow student He Zhanhao.

He was born in Zhuji and began learning violin at 17 years old. His studies at the Shanghai Conservatory fortuitously overlapped with that of Chen, and the two would soon embark on a life-changing collaboration. In an experiment to adapt Chinese tunes for violin, Chen and He created the Butterfly Lovers’s Concerto, based on a centuries-old Chinese folk tale.

Qigang Chen
Photo by Hui Liu & Steve Zhao; Image courtesy of Warner Classics

Chen Qigang (b. 1951)

Born in Shanghai, Chen Qigang was introduced to music at an early age. Despite being imprisoned as a young teen amid the Cultural Revolution and undergoing “ideological reeducation,” Chen never lost his passion for creating music. The composer moved to Paris for graduate studies and shortly thereafter began working with Olivier Messiaen. Chen was Messiaen’s last student and studied with the French composer from 1984-88. Messiaen became a committed supporter of Chen’s music and praised Chen’s harmonious union of Asian and Western musical ideas. After receiving a doctorate in musicology from the Sorbonne in 1989, Chen remained in Paris and became a French citizen in 1992.

Chen’s music is performed all over the world, earning the composer countless honors and awards. Fun fact: Chen composed the official theme song of the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing called “You and Me.”

Karen Tanaka
Image courtesy of ASCAP

Karen Tanaka (b. 1961)

Japanese composer and pianist Karen Tanaka began formal compositional studies at 10 years old. After receiving her undergraduate degree from the Tōhō Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo, Tanaka moved to Paris with the help of a scholarship from the French government to study with Tristan Murail and work at IRCAM. The recipient of several prestigious awards, Tanaka’s beautifully crafted works have been performed by distinguished orchestras all over the world, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Outside the concert hall, Tanaka has also written scores for films and documentaries–her score for Sister was nominated for the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film.

In addition to being a freelance composer, Tanaka currently teaches composition and experimental sound practices at the California Institute of the Arts.

Learn More

To keep learning about AANHPI musical artists we love to play on air, check out these posts from the Arts Blog:

Lastly, you can now listen to All Classical’s recent album release as part of our Recording Inclusivity Project (RII), ELEVATE. This brand-new album featured works by pioneering Japanese composers Nobu Kōda and Yuko Uébayashi.

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