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Immigration and the American Compositional Dream

The Land of Dreams?

Profile: Fellowship Composer Jin Hi Kim


Coming to American—As a Composer

Four American composers, four different countries of origin, and four distinct points of view: Lukas Foss, Jin Hi Kim, Tania León, and P.Q. Phan are all participating in Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant Voices. They talked with Theodore Wiprud about their life and work in the United States.

What brought you to America?
Lukas Foss I was born in Berlin in 1922. In 1933 my family, being Jewish, moved to Paris. In 1937 they had the foresight to move on to America. I was 15 years old and full of excitement about America and the music that Aaron Copland and others were writing. I loved that open-air quality of the music and from the very start I wanted to write that way too.

Tania León I came to the United States in my early 20s. I had graduated at 17 from conservatory in Cuba. I didn't know much about Cuban music then. I was a nerd studying classical piano. Composing came later: that was the effect of America on me. After I arrived in 1967, Ursula Mamlock heard me and sent me to play on WNYC, all standard repertory. Then Arthur Mitchell asked me to play for his dance project, which later grew into the Dance Theater of Harlem. Then I began to compose.

Jin Hi Kim I studied traditional court music in Korea with National Living Treasures from the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts. At that time Korea was becoming more interested in Western music than in its own traditions. It was my dream to balance out this attitude and combine Korean and Western instruments in a new kind of music. I needed to learn Western music, so I came to the US in 1980. I stayed because of opportunities here to compose and perform.

PQ Phan I came to America in 1980 also, under a legal refugee program, after several attempts to escape Vietnam by boat. My family had done some business supplying goods to the American Army during the war, and we had a very hard time afterward. Coming to America was an obvious choice, since it is known to Vietnamese as a land of freedom and opportunity, which are things that typical citizens in a Communist country wish to find.

So how do you think of yourselves--as Americans, as immigrants, or just as musicians?

TL Sometimes I upset people when I say this, but all this "where you come from" hoopla is nonsense. I could have been born in Japan--I would look just the same. It is the culture, not the place that makes a difference. We are the sum of our experiences. I come from Cuba, yes, but my teachers there were Hungarian and French. I studied solfège and Chopin. I played some Latin jazz too; in fact, I went to school with Paquito D'Rivera, and we played a recital together in 1964. But then the two of us went very different ways, although we are both from the same place.

LF Although my roots are in Germany, my whole career has been in America. I returned to Berlin for the first time right after World War II to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. A reporter asked me how it felt to be home. I told him I would be home when I get back to New York!

JHK I think of myself as a self. I travel a lot and I do my work wherever I am. I like living in America, but I wouldn't want to stay here all the time. I want to experience new things continuously.

PQP When people ask where I am from, I always have a very difficult time replying. I normally say that I am from the Midwest since I have lived in this region for the longest time during my residence in the United States, and I teach at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. But I don't think most people want to hear that, since they seem to expect to hear that I am from Vietnam. It sounds like they expect me to pack and go back after finishing whatever I need to do in this country.

TL Mankind has been moving around the globe for centuries. In fact, the founding fathers of this nation were part of the legacy of human migration. Maybe by the time our new century ends, our humanity may have become more at peace with the notion that man is going to move to different shores no matter what the outcome of that move may be.

PQP It is not a homogeneous country, and that can make some people feel uneasy, but instead of criticizing some negative effects from immigration, we should welcome these new waves of hard-working people. Some people think their piece of the pie is getting smaller, but why don't they think that perhaps more pies are in the making? As long as people accept and understand each other, immigration is a great thing.

JHK In general life, America has begun to accept the diversity of world culture. But I am afraid that there is a danger that the whole world will begin to think one way-globalization, as they say.

How has being a newcomer in America affected your career?

LF I became an American so fast, I wasn't aware of immigration problems. I had immigrated to Paris earlier, so I got used to coming to a new country and learning a new language. It seemed normal.

TL Of course, when you arrive at a place lacking the language, not knowing that country's cultural traditions and not having a friendly hand to guide you, the challenge is immense! But for me also, immigration was a natural process. I'd always wanted to go someplace. In fact, I thought I would end up in Paris and here I am in New York.

PQP I find that language has greatly impacted on my daily living. For example, it was difficult to achieve any teaching assistantship during my school years because my language was not up to the task. Sometime I felt not intelligent enough because of my broken and heavy accented English. I wished I had come to this country at earlier age-then things could be easier, perhaps.

JHK There will always be difficulties for a musician everywhere so I don't talk about difficulty too much! For me, I have to be where I can be supported in my music. Compared to Korea, the United States has a much more supportive system for creative music. It is only in America that it is possible to bring together artists with different voices and create a new aesthetic. There are many non-Western musicians spread throughout the country who perform their traditional music as well as create new pieces with others. It is an invaluable experience for a composer to meet so many different musicians in a single city like New York and to collaborate with them.

Now the big question: what about your music? What can we hear in your music that speaks of your home culture, or of your moving to America?

PQP American music has helped me. Jazz has similar rhythms to Vietnamese music. I feel close to Ives. I often write in different layers, which are like different experiences or feelings that can never really come together. Sometimes there are snatches of traditional Vietnamese music, but I am not trying to create a fusion. All of my pieces are on social issues in some way. I try to express something about the feeling of trying to fit in, or about feeling I can never fit in, or about the joy of finding how much I like America.

JHK I learned from and am influenced by many wonderful musicians and artists in America, even though their music is completely different from mine. In the US, we have freedom to do and say whatever we want, but in music, especially in the orchestra, we put the conductor in control. In Korea, traditional music is where we find our individuality: improvisation is essential. In my music I work with what I call Living Tones, using the technique of Korean vocal music. We use few notes, but each has its own life, gesture, color, vibrato, dynamic, unrelated to the other notes. This is based on Buddhism. I apply this concept to instruments, and play with ideas of freedom and individuality and group expression.

LF Since I wrote a very "American" type of music, I was always considered an American composer. Maybe it would have been different if I wrote twelve-tone music at that time. It's not that I tried to be American, but that I fell in love with the music of Copland, and with the country. The other important influence was Carl Sandburg, whose poetry I set in The Prairie, a big cantata premiered by Robert Shaw and then the New York Philharmonic. That really established me as an American composer.

Do people's expectations ever get in the way of their hearing your music?

PQP Typically, audiences tend to expect Asiatic sounds in my music. I don't blame them. However, the tricky part is how Asian my music should be. The academic audience perceives Asiatic aspects as old and not innovative (which is very strange because most of the academic audience know nothing about Vietnamese traditional music). I once had a professor tell me that since Asian music uses fewer pitches, it is primitive! But then other times my immigrant status works for me, since it triggers people's curiosity. I have finally learned to maneuver myself in positive ways, to present myself in the way that's best for each situation.

JHK If people notice I'm Korean; it doesn't bother me at all. Many Asians come here trained in Western music, but I come trained in traditional music. It's very different.

TL The term "immigrant" is just another way of labeling people, and though I am proud of my roots and my adopted homeland, I have been placed in so many categories in my life, that I am looking forward to the day I am introduced only as "Tania León".

PQP Down deep, I must be true to myself. Who am I, a Vietnamese or an American? Perhaps I am both! If I were Caucasian, that question would not be not needed. However, my hair is black, my skin is dark, and my nose is flat, so my music should be somewhat similar. Frankly speaking, if I didn't think or care so much about my immigration status, then none of this mess would happen! But I have a hard time separating music from social issues. After all, that is what my music is all about.

-Theodore Wiprud is a composer, educator, and arts consultant working in New York. He is working with ACO on several projects, including Music Factory: Composers in the Schools, and Coming to America: Immigrant Sounds/Immigrant voices.

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