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7 AANHPI Composers to Know

May 29, 2024

7 AANHPI Composers to Know

From pioneering figures to contemporary luminaries, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) composers have left an indelible mark on classical music and beyond. Explore Colorado Symphony’s list of key AANHPI composers and their remarkable contributions to music.

Native Hawaiian monarch and composer Queen Lili'uokalani

Queen Lili’uokalani (1838–1917): Monarch and Musical Luminary

Queen Lili’uokalani, a Native Hawaiian monarch and composer, drew inspiration from the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii for her compositions. One of her most renowned pieces, “Aloha ʻOe,” is a beloved Hawaiian song composed during political upheaval. The song is often associated with love and longing, capturing the sentiment of bidding farewell to loved ones or the beautiful Hawaiian islands themselves. Queen Lili’uokalani continues to be celebrated as an iconic voice of Native Hawaiian expression.

Japanese American pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoski

Toshiko Akiyoshi (b. 1929): Jazz Pioneer and Composer Extraordinaire

Toshiko Akiyoshi, a renowned Japanese American pianist and composer, has revolutionized the world of music through her groundbreaking work in jazz and the dynamic leadership of her jazz orchestra. Famed for blending elements of Japanese music with big band, Akiyoshi’s compositions, such as “Kogun”, are celebrated for their intricate arrangements and arresting melodies. A trailblazer in the jazz scene, Akiyoshi was the first woman to win DownBeat magazine’s Best Arranger and Composer awards and was named an NEA Jazz Master. Akiyoshi’s enduring influence continues to shape the landscape of contemporary music, inspiring generations of musicians with her innovative approach.

Chinese American composer Zhou Long

Zhou Long (b. 1953): Bridging East and West Through Harmony

Zhou Long, a distinguished Chinese American composer, seamlessly bridges Eastern and Western traditions in his celebrated works, including the opera Madame White Snake, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. From choral compositions to orchestral masterpieces, Long’s music showcases his mastery of both classical and folk idioms, enthralling audiences with its rich tapestry of cultural influences. Long’s compositions resonate with universal themes, embodying the harmonious convergence of diverse musical legacies.

Chinese American composer Chen Yi

Chen Yi (b. 1953): A Symphony of Cultural Synthesis

Chen Yi’s musical oeuvre showcases the fusion of cultural heritage and contemporary expression. Drawing inspiration from her Chinese roots, she infuses traditional melodies with innovative harmonies and rhythms, captivating audiences with her eclectic influences. Yi’s music, from chamber music compositions like “Chinese Ancient Dances” to orchestral works such as Si Ji (Four Seasons), demonstrates the depth and diversity of her artistic vision.

Chinese-born Asian American composer Tan Dun

Tan Dun (b. 1957): Master of Cultural Fusion

Renowned for his groundbreaking compositions that merge Eastern and Western musical sensibilities, Chinese-born Asian American composer Tan Dun stands as a towering figure in contemporary classical music. Dun has dazzled global audiences with his evocative symphonies and mesmerizing film scores (he won an Academy Award and a Grammy Award for his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). His ability to combine traditional Chinese music with contemporary techniques has earned him international acclaim and solidified his status as a visionary composer.

Japanese American composer Miya Masaoka

Miya Masaoka (b. 1958): Experimental Soundscape Explorer

Miya Masaoka, a Japanese American composer, is celebrated for her original approach to music creation, as showcased in her imaginative work While I Was Walking, I Heard a Sound… in which singers make bird calls to evoke the natural world. Drawing inspiration from her heritage and diverse experiences, Masaoka’s compositions traverse the intersections of sound, technology, and culture, inviting listeners into immersive sonic experiences. From avant-garde performances to multimedia installations, Masaoka’s music defies categorization, offering audiences new and transformative ways to engage with sound.

Indian American composer Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail (b. 1983): Merging Classical and Hindustani Traditions with Grace

Indian American composer Reena Esmail is celebrated for her ability to blend Western classical music with Hindustani traditions seamlessly. Avartan, a composition for chamber orchestra, integrates intricate Hindustani rhythms and melodies with lush Western harmonies, creating a rich and dynamic musical tapestry. Esmail’s works, ranging from orchestral to chamber music, offer a nuanced portrayal of identity and belonging in an increasingly interconnected world.

The contributions of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Asian American composers to classical music are profound and as diverse as the cultures from which they originate. From Tan Dun’s cinematic orchestrations to Queen Lili’uokalani’s heartfelt melodies, each composer offers a unique perspective on the human experience.

Check out our other Composer Guides:

Interested in learning more about Asian American and Pacific Islander composers? Read Assistant Conductor Wilbur Lin’s article on his favorite AAPI classical composers. And if you’re eager to expand your general knowledge of composers, explore our guides on Russian composers, Black composers, and women composers.