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Diversifying Concert Programming: Introducing Works for Solo Piano by Asian Female Composers

As a performing musician, I am always looking for ways to expand my concert repertoire, not only to promote diversity in music programming but also to spark interest in both students and audiences by introducing fresh voices into traditional classical repertoire. In my search for solo piano works, I came across three Asian female composers who have been successful on the international concert stage. My initial interest was primarily in their distinctive individual styles, but later I was drawn to them because of their upbringing in the East and further training and career in the West, an experience that I share. With the purpose of introducing their piano works, this article focuses on the composers' musical influences and styles and their various approaches towards balancing their native cultures with Western techniques through close discussion of selected solo pieces.

Unsuk Chin (b. 1961, South Korea)

At two years old, Chin became fascinated by the upright piano her father purchased for his church. Even though her family could not afford individual music instruction, she persevered, studying on her own by hand copying works of famous western composers. After two failed attempts, she was finally admitted to Seoul National University to study composition with Sukhi Kang, who introduced her to the avant-garde composers, including Stockhausen, Boulez and Ligeti. She further studied in Germany with György Ligeti, who urged Chin to find her original style. It was while working at the electronic music studio in Berlin that Chin found inspiration in composing electroacoustic music. She described the experience as liberating, being able to compose in an abstract way and not to be limited by the tone colors of acoustic instruments and their associated musical styles. Finally discovering her own style, she was able to adopt this new perspective in writing for acoustic instruments. 

One result of this new orientation is the six Piano Etudes, Chin's only output for piano. Inspired by those of Chopin, Debussy and Ligeti, they are, in her words, "meant to be music, and my purpose was not the purpose of a pedagogue."1 The first etude, "In C," explores the overtone series of the note C. Other titles refer to either musical styles, such as "Toccata" or "Scherzo," or compositional techniques in the cases of "Sequenzen" (sequences) and "Grains" (a compositional technique of electronic music). The movements are each less than five minutes long. In spite of their brevity, the etudes provide a lens into Chin's musical style: frequent use of the whole tone scale, the tritone, harmonics, and mathematical arrangements of rhythmic patterns to increase or decrease the texture and intensity of the music. Ligeti's influences are evident—the rhythmic complexity, the use of ostinato, as well as the virtuosic demands. As shown in "Sequenzen," her piano writing is often polyphonic and multi-layered, which seems more suitable for organ than piano. However, her exploration of timbre and extreme registers make her music just as effective on the piano. Starting from the rumbling low register, the movement gradually unfolds by increasing the pace of the rhythm and, with a long crescendo, arrives at a wild and exciting passage during which the legato lines are replaced by non-legato and staccato notes. This section is technically the most challenging for the pianist, who has to be in command of leaps in octaves in the left hand and fast, wide-ranging arpeggiated chords in the right hand simultaneously (see Example 1). The following middle section provides a relief from the intensity, serving as a pivotal point after which the previous sections return in reverse order. This etude challenges the pianist to play with almost computer-like precision in rhythm, while manifesting the growing excitement of the music. In an interview, Chin emphasizes making an emotional connection with the audience, which is contrary to the more abstract and intellectual approach held by some other modern and contemporary composers. Referring to the use of Eastern aesthetics, Chin states, "There is no border between all kinds of instruments or all kinds of form of music. For me, music is just music, and instruments are instruments."2 Her global view of esthetics is a sharp contrast to that of Chen Yi, who shows a strong affinity for her cultural heritage in most of her compositions.

Chen Yi (b. 1953, China) 

Chinese composer Chen Yi's musical journey was an unusual one. Born to parents who were doctors and music lovers, she started playing both the piano and the violin at a young age, and grew up listening to Western classical music as well as Beijing operas. Her life changed dramatically during the Cultural Revolution in 1966. As someone who studied classical music which was associated with Western imperialism and banned by the Chinese Communist Party, Chen was sent to the countryside for "re-education," laboring twelve hours a day. The only solace was her violin, which she smuggled around and used to play revolutionary songs for the farmers. The performances often ended with improvised virtuosic variations, Paganini-style. She later recalled that through interacting with people in the countryside, she gained exposure to Chinese culture and traditional music in depth, which helped shape her style as a composer. After the revolution, Chen went through a fierce audition process to enter the Beijing Central Conservatory as a composition student, and was the first woman awarded a Master's degree in composition in China. In 1986, she moved to the United States to study with Chou Wen Chung and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University and to further explore the compositional techniques of modern Western music.

Throughout her career, Chen has composed piano solo pieces in various styles. Elements of Chinese music are always present in the works, whether it is Beijing opera, folk tunes from different regions of China, or rhythmic principles used in Chinese traditional percussion music. Her music showcases the exceptional ability to combine her Chinese roots with Western techniques and styles. In Variations on "Awariguli," a piece written while at the Beijing Central Conservatory, she takes a Dorian-mode melody "Awariguli" (see Example 2) from the Uygur ethnic group in the Xinjiang province and transforms it into a series of variations. The harmonies in this piece are predominantly in the nineteenth-century Romantic style, while the theme is sometimes arranged in polyphonic texture, a common feature of Baroque music. The result is a series of charming arrangements interwoven by a beautiful, haunting folk melody. Chen's piano writing is comfortable for the performer, but not without demands of advanced technique. In order to convincingly interpret her music, it is necessary for performers to familiarize themselves with Chinese traditional music, and understand her mission as a composer. She remarks, "I think the music could become a bridge between peoples from different cultural traditions. I hope that it can be inspiring and helpful to improve the level of understanding between peoples from different parts of the world." 3

Karen Tanaka (b. 1961, Japan) 

As the lead orchestrator for the BBC's TV series "Planet Earth II," Karen Tanaka is active both in the film industry and on the concert stage. Born in Tokyo in the same year as Unsuk Chin, Tanaka started piano and composition lessons at a young age. Her musical training while growing up was mostly focused on Western music, particularly French composers such as Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. In 1986, she was offered a scholarship to study with Tristan Murail and worked as an intern at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), where she researched spectral analysis and psychoacoustics, a type of psychology that studies the perception of sound and its physiological effects. She additionally studied with Luciano Berio, whose insight played an important role in her development as a composer.4 She is not only active in the classical music scene, but also collaborates frequently with dancers and film makers.

Tanaka composed numerous works for piano solo, ranging from Lavender Field, an intermediate piece for young students to Techno Etude, a nine-minute virtuosic movement for advanced pianists. Her love for nature is evident in her piano works— many bear titles associated with nature or animals, such as the Crystalline series, Northern Lights, Water Dance, and Children of Light, a collection of short pieces named after endangered species. As shown in her Crystalline series, Tanaka's musical style evolved over the years, particularly in its harmonic language. The dissonances in Crystalline remind listeners of Messiaen's glistering, dissonant chords, while Crystalline III is more consonant, permeating with open fourths and fifths. Her interest in the "transformation of timbre in space, analogous to a gradual change of light refraction in crystals and prisms" 5 can be heard in her music since the late 1990s, often consisting of repetitions of short patterns, similar to the style of minimalism.

Crystalline III opens with an intricate rhythmic pattern in 3/4 (see Example 3), and gradually eases into a repeating 3+2 pattern in 5/8 that the composer seems to favor. The rhythmic intricacy and the fast tempo require dexterity of the fingers, but also demand the utmost delicacy and contemplative quality. In her interview with Yoshioka, Tanaka admits that she never consciously incorporates Japanese musical concepts into her compositions. However, she agrees that her music has a Japanese sensibility, including such qualities as simplicity, sensuousness, detailed craftsmanship, and sense of silence.6 Indeed, listening to Crystalline III is a sensuous aural experience. The music is imbued with a delicately crafted motive, and exploration of the sonority of various registers of the piano. In spite of the absence of actual silence, the lean texture and the prevalent soft dynamics evoke a sense of peacefulness. 

Example 3. Karen Tanaka, Crystalline III: m. 1-2


The etudes by Unsuk Chin are published by Boosey & Hawkes and distributed by Hal Leonard Corporation. Chen Yi's piano works can be obtained through her publisher, Theodore Presser Company. Most of Karen Tanaka's works are published by Chester Music Ltd.; however, not all of them are readily available. According to my experience in acquiring the scores, some are printed only after the orders are made, which could take up to several weeks or longer.


1. Soo Kyung Kim, "A Study of Unsuk Chin's Piano Etudes" (DMA diss., University of Georgia, 2012), 1. 

2. Tommy Pearson, "Unsuk Chin on Unsuk Chin," web documentary on Boosey & Hawkes website, 

3. John de Clef Piñeiro, "An Interview with Chen Yi" (2001), 

4. Mayu Nomura, "An Examination of Karen Tanaka's Approach to Minimalism: Water Dance and Techno Etudes" (DMA diss., University of Arizona, 2017),13. 

5. Stephen Montague, "Tanaka, Karen," Grove Music Online (2001), 

6. Airi Yoshioka, "Resonating Culture: Sounds of Japan in the Music of Maki Ishii, Karen Tanaka and Toshio Hosokawa" (DMA diss., The Juilliard School, 2002), 124.

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