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Musical Dim Sum: Five Chinese Composers In America

Celebrating Chinese New Year, last year, in New York's Chinatown. Matej Krajcovic/iStock hide caption

toggle caption Matej Krajcovic/iStock

Celebrating Chinese New Year, last year, in New York's Chinatown.

Matej Krajcovic/iStock

Happy New Year — Chinese New Year, that is. Today marks the first day in the Year of the Dragon and, according to the Chinese calendar, the end of the winter season. The Chinese think of it as their spring festival.

Today also marks a different kind of festival, a week-long celebration of Chinese music and its Western intersections. Our colleagues at WQXR have organized "China In New York," a series of events and broadcasts surrounding tonight's Greene Space concert with Chinese pianist Lang Lang, and his Tuesday night appearance at the New York Philharmonic (also webcast on this site) with conductor Long Yu.

In the mid-1970s, after the Cultural Revolution — which aimed to strip China of capitalist and Western elements — young Chinese composers streamed back into the reopened conservatories. Some even made their way to the West.

Below are five such musical adventurers, each of whom came to America to explore Western music styles, fusing them with their own ancient traditions to create vibrant new music that has had its own influence on classical composition.

Have a favorite Chinese composer or piece of music? Let us know in the comments section.

Musical Dim Sum: Five Chinese Composers In America

Composer Bright Sheng.
Courtesy of the artist

Never Far Away, for harp & orchestra [2. The Drunken Fisher]

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Bright Sheng

  • Song: Never Far Away, for harp & orchestra [2. The Drunken Fisher]
  • from Never Far Away: Music of Bright Sheng
  • by Yolanda Kondonassis

Originally from Shanghai, Bright Sheng was sent as a teenager to a province near Tibet, where he played piano and percussion for a local theater company and soaked up the region's folk music. As one of the first students to enroll at the Shanghai Conservatory when such schools reopened after the Cultural Revolution, he probably never dreamed he'd study with Leonard Bernstein in New York or win a MacArthur "genius" grant. Sheng's music is performed at the great symphony halls and opera houses of the world. His reputation extends beyond his compositions, as he's also a noted pianist, conductor and professor. He says, "If your native culture is still the inspiration for your work, you are never far away from home." He dedicated his Harp Concerto "Never Far Away" to harpist Yolanda Kondonassis in 2008.

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Song
Never Far Away: Music of Bright Sheng
Album
Never Far Away: Music of Bright Sheng
Artist
Yolanda Kondonassis
Label
Telarc Distribution
Released
2009

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Composer Tan Dun.
Courtesy of the artist.

Heaven Earth Mankind (Symphony 1997), symphony for cello, Bianzhong Bells, children's chorus, CD player & orchestra [Part 2. Fire]

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Tan Dun

  • Song: Heaven Earth Mankind (Symphony 1997), symphony for cello, Bianzhong Bells, children's chorus, CD player & orchestra [Part 2. Fire]
  • from Tan Dun: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)
  • by Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

From Hunan province, conductor and composer Tan Dun may be the most visible of contemporary Chinese composers, if only for his Oscar and Grammy-winning score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His music reaches far beyond a simple East-meets-West fusion. It's a nearly unclassifiable alchemy inspired by the avant-garde and minimalist music he heard in New York (when he moved there in the 1980s), his own fascination with nature, organic instruments (paper, water), the possibilities of multi-media, Chinese folk music and shamans. His music ranges from populist film scores to serious operas to something approaching a ritual. His extravagantly scored Symphony 1997 (including a meaty part for Yo-Yo Ma) was composed in response to the reunification of Hong Kong with China and inspired by the unearthing of 65 bronze bells dating from 433 B.C.

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Song
Tan Dun: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)
Album
Tan Dun: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)
Artist
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Label
Sony Music
Released
1997

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Composer Chen Yi.
Kuandi Photos

Shuo, for string quartet

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Chen Yi

  • Song: Shuo, for string quartet
  • from Dim Sum
  • by Ying Quartet

Chen Yi comes from a musical family in Guangzhou, in southern China. But once the Cultural Revolution hit, studying Western music was next to impossible, and even dangerous. For a while, she stuffed a blanket in her piano to muffle the sound. Her family was dispersed to the countryside, where she absorbed Chinese folk music and traditions. Chen Yi eventually returned to the city, joining a local orchestra as concertmaster, and later, in 1986, became the first woman to earn a master's in composition in China. She now teaches composition (with her husband Zhou Long) at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Yehudi Menuhin, Yo-Yo Ma and the Cleveland Orchestra have commissioned works from Chen Yi. Her string quartet Shuo was inspired by her travels in China. She uses the pentatonic scale, she says, to "paint a delicate oriental landscape."

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Dim Sum
Album
Dim Sum
Artist
Ying Quartet
Label
Telarc
Released
2008

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Composer Zhou Long.
Courtesy of the artist

Taigu Rhyme, for clarinet, violin, cello & percussion [I.-]

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Zhou Long

  • Song: Taigu Rhyme, for clarinet, violin, cello & percussion [I.-]
  • from Wild Grass
  • by Beijing New Music Ensemble

Last year, Zhou Long became the first Chinese-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. He's celebrated for transforming sounds and styles of ancient Chinese traditions into modern Western instruments. Taigu Rhyme is inspired by the ancient dagu drumming style of the Tang Dynasty. The clarinet, the composer says, evokes the sound of the guanzi, a Chinese double reed instrument. Like many of his contemporaries on this page, Zhou Long was sent to a rural state farm during the Cultural Revolution, where he says strong winds and wildfires made a lasting impression. When Beijing's Central Conservatory reopened in 1977, he was among the first to enroll, graduating in 1983. He eventually earned a doctorate from Columbia University in New York and became a U.S. citizen in 1999.

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Wild Grass
Album
Wild Grass
Artist
Beijing New Music Ensemble
Label
Naxos
Released
2009

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Composer Huang Ruo.
Courtesy of the artist

Leaving Sao, for violin & chamber orchestra

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Huang Ruo

  • Song: Leaving Sao, for violin & chamber orchestra
  • from The Voice of the Composer
  • by Emily Freeman Brown

Composer, pianist and folk singer Huang Ruo has been called "one of most intriguing of the new crop of Asian-American composers." He was born in 1976 on Hainan Island, off China's southern coast. He was only 12 when he enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory, where he studied both Chinese and Western music. In 1995, he came to the U.S. to study at Oberlin and later attended Juilliard. He calls his musical style "dimensionalism," and draws from Chinese folk music, Western avant-garde, rock and jazz. Leaving Sao (which features the composer as vocalist) was a commission from the Albany (N.Y.) Symphony, but turned into an elegy after his grandmother died. The title means "leaving sorrow."

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The Voice of the Composer
Album
The Voice of the Composer
Artist
Emily Freeman Brown
Label
Albany Music
Released
2008

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Purchase Featured Music

The Voice of the Composer

Purchase Music

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The Voice of the Composer
Artist
Emily Freeman Brown
Label
Albany Music
Released
2008

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Wild Grass

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Album
Wild Grass
Artist
Beijing New Music Ensemble
Label
Naxos
Released
2009

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Dim Sum

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Album
Dim Sum
Artist
Ying Quartet
Label
Telarc
Released
2008

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Tan Dun: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)

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Album
Tan Dun: Symphony 1997 (Heaven, Earth, Mankind)
Artist
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra
Label
Sony Music
Released
1997

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Never Far Away: Music of Bright Sheng

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Album
Never Far Away: Music of Bright Sheng
Artist
Yolanda Kondonassis
Label
Telarc Distribution
Released
2009

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