Exotica for Sale or the New American Music?
How Should We Listen to Music by Asian-American Composers?
by Joseph Lam
Asian-American composers are asserting a presence in the American world of new music. Last year, Hsueh-Yung Shen, an American composer of Chinese ancestry and an associate professor at Southwestern University, Texas, won the top prize in the American Composers Orchestra's 1999 Whitaker New Music Reading Sessions. Shen competed against six other finalists, one of whom was Ken Ueno (whose family name indicates Japanese ancestry). Two of the finalists' teachers were Bun-Ching Lam of Yale University and Bright Sheng of the University of Michigan, who immigrated, respectively, to the United States from Hong Kong/Macau and Shanghai, China.
Shen's winning is not an isolated incident; in fact, in the last 10 or so years, Asian-American composers have won many coveted prizes and fellowships, including the Lili Boulanger Award (Chen Yi), the Grawemeyer Award (Chinary Ung), Guggenheim Fellowships (Zhou Long, Bright Sheng) and the Rome Prize (Bun-Ching Lam and P.Q. Phan).
As a complex series of biographical, musical and historical developments, this success story poses many issues: Who are these composers? How Asian or American are they? Do their musical references to Asia give them an advantage in their creativity and careers? How should we listen to their music?
To probe the complexities of these issues, let us approach this story as an Asian-American phenomenon. After all, the composers, regardless of whether they are native-born or foreign-born, do trace ancestry to Asia; their musical styles and works often involve a mix of Asian and American elements; and critical interpretations of their musical works cannot be separated from broad discourses about the meeting of Asian and American cultures and ethnicities.
Demographically, Asian-Americans constitute a distinctive pan-ethnic and minority group in America, but that does not mean that they are musically and culturally homogeneous. In fact, as attested to by the variety of Asian elements the composers use or evoke in their works, each composer's musical "Asia" is individualistic and selective. If Chou Wen-chung's Pien conjures an elitist and intellectual China, Tan Dun's Ghost Opera evokes one of ritualistic and animalistic impulses; and Chinary Ung's Spiral flashes images of Cambodian court dances.
Asia is a vast land of many distinctive countries, cultures, and traditions: China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Confucianism, Buddhism. The "Asia" of indistinguishable cultures and peoples is more a construct of orientalism than reality.
As Asian-American composers project their individualized conceptions of Asia, they reveal personal ties to diverse regions and contrasting social-economic communities in Asia. Needless to say, an Asian-American composer with ancestral roots in rural Vietnam would not remember Asia the way his/her colleague from urban Japan would. Similarly, the Asia of a foreign-born Asian-American composer who comes to America as a graduate student of composition would be different from that of his/her native-born colleague who grew up in Flushing and has never visited Asia.
A composer's conception of Asia provides an anchor in critical understanding of his/her music. Chen Yi's Points for the Chinese pipa is, for example, rooted in her experiences as a conductor for an instrumental ensemble in a Chinese opera troupe; P.Q. Phan's Banana Trumpet Games is a musical representation of games he played as a child in Vietnam. In contrast, Hsueh-Yung Shen's Under Heaven and Earth contains no explicit reference to Chinese sounds, but it is related to the composer's emotional tie to a land and culture that he has psychologically inherited from his parents.
Asian-American composers' referencing of Asia is, however, much more than biographical flashbacks. The composers may intentionally and creatively evoke or suppress Asia for compositional, aesthetic, political or commercial purposes. If some Asian-American composers find it impossible to separate their Asia from their America in their creative works, others may simply manipulate Asian sounds and images to formulate compositional voices that advance their career. Given America's vested interest in Asia, there is indeed a market for things oriental.
This is not cynicism but a realization that musical references to Asia are neither biological nor ethnic givens. In fact, one cannot even presume that Asian-American composers know Asian musics or aesthetics: since the early decades of the 20th century, music schools in China, Japan, and Korea have essentially taught only 18th and 19th century Western art music. As a result, many aspiring composers who emigrate to the U.S. from Asia hardly know traditional Asian musics; many who grow up in America have little exposure to Asian cultures and musics.
This is why an Asian-American composer's mixing of Asian and American elements is intellectually and culturally different from the Asian/American mixing of Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, John Cage, George Crumb, and other European American composers who do not approach Asian cultures and musics as ancestral heritage-something that they should know and preserve as "theirs." When they feature an Asian musical element or technique, such as the percussive sound of the Chinese wood block, they use its distinctive sound to express musical ideas. It does not concern their cultural and ethnic identity, and issues of authenticity and representation hardly emerge.
In contrast, when Asian-American composers use an Asian sound or concept, it is often heard as an "authentic" cultural and ethnic sign, which may or may not be factually accurate and aesthetically significant. Ambiguities and misinterpretations are inevitable because music involves creative imagination, and because America is a multiethnic society of immigrants who listen to music with cultural and ethnic ears. Thus, when Asian-American composers present their critics and audiences with new music that explicitly or implicitly mixes Asian and American elements, they not only offer America creative and fascinating sounds but also challenge American ears and minds with what the music signifies. Is it an echo from the past, a personal utterance from the heart, exotica for sale, or a herald of the American new music that will arise? Only time and critical listening will tell.
-Joseph Lam is currently chair of the Department of Musicology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is also President of the Association for Chinese Music Research and editor of the ACMR Reports: Journal of the Association for Chinese Music Research.