6 essential Asian American and Pacific Islander composers you should know

Miya Masaoka composes experimental and contemporary music.Lori Eanes

May 10, 2021

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. While it is difficult to represent all the diverse cultures that make up Asia and the Pacific Islands, here are six composers who have pushed the limits of composition by blending traditional sounds from their native homeland with Western classical styles.

Tan Dun — Concerto for String Orchestra and Zheng

Tan Dun is a Chinese American composer world-renowned for his work on film scores and conducting. He is a UNESCO Global Goodwill Ambassador and the dean of Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York. He won a Grammy for his score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and has also conducted world-famous ensembles that include the Met, the London Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

Tan Dun (official site)

Nilo Alcala — ‘Alleluia’ 

As a recipient of the Aaron Copland House Residency, Nilo Alcala is a young Filipino American composer who writes primarily for vocal ensembles. He has had works commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the National Music Competitions for Young Artists and the a cappella group the Esoterics. 

Nilo Alcala (official site)

Zhou Long — ‘Words of the Sun’ 

Zhou Long does not consider himself solely a Chinese or an American composer because of the way he draws influences from both cultures. His ability to combine both musical realms to create unheard-of sounds won him the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his first opera, Madame White Snake.

Zhou Long (official site)

Siddhartha Khosla — ‘At the Met’

Siddhartha Khosla is a film and television composer. He has created scores for the shows This Is Us, Marvel’s Runaways and The Royals. He loves to stay connected with his Indian heritage. Michelle Obama had him as her musical guest for the Diwali, the Festival of Lights, celebration in 2013. 

Siddhartha Khosla (Nice management)

Miya Masaoka — ‘Intuit’

As a Japanese American composer, Miya Masaoka explores sound as an artist in experimental and contemporary music. She has had her work exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Center for Contemporary Art in New Jersey. Her work incorporates improvisation, electroacoustic music and sound installation with traditional Japanese instruments and performance art.

Miya Masaoka (official site)

Queen Lili’uokalani — ‘Aloha ‘Oe’

Queen Lili’uokalani of the Hawaiian Islands was the last monarch before American annexation of the islands in 1898. She fought bravely and honorable for the autonomy of her nation. She is a testament to the fighting spirit and legacy of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. She also was a gifted composer who held up Hawaiian traditions while blending them with Western harmonies. Her book The Queen’s Songbook was published in 1999 and is a compilation of compositions. 

The Lili’uokalani Trust