Contemporary Flute Music by Asian Women Composers

Happy AANHPI Heritage Month!

Flutes have a long history in Asian cultures, and many have their own traditions in their respective forms of classical music. That said, I intend this list as an introduction to music from the Asian diaspora for flutists trained in the Western classical tradition. Neither is any more or less valid than another – but since the flute has variations from all around the world, it makes our instrument particularly versatile for musical cultural exchange.

In a clear acrylic stand rests a crane bone flute with 6 finger holes.
One of the Jiahu gǔdí – six flutes carved from crane bones, found in Wuhan county in China and dating back to the Neolithic era. These are the world’s oldest playable musical instruments.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that much of the music that’s most accessible to Western performers comes from Asian composers who live in Western countries, or from composers of mixed heritage. As a Filipino-American flutist, I love seeing composers embrace mixed influences in their work, and I don’t think that this makes their work any less “authentic” – in either the Western classical tradition or as a representation of their cultural heritage – so I encourage you to keep an open mind as to the range of experiences that their music may reflect.

One final reminder before we jump into the music – conversations about representation in classical music aren’t only for awareness months. And I hope that programming music by Asian composers can help us not only show our support for these amazing artists, but continue those conversations year-round.

Chen Yi’s flute transcription of Fisherman’s Song, performed by Nadine Luke

Chen Yi is one of the more well-known composers in this list, and was the first woman to graduate with a Master of Arts in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She is known for writing music that blends a Western classical style with Chinese folk music – and her most recent flute solo is no exception!

Julee Kim Walker performing Yuko Uebayashi’s piece for unaccompanied flute, Le vent à travers les ruines

Yuko Uebayashi is another popular composer in the classical flute world. She was born in Japan, and has lived in France for the past few decades. In her compositions, Uebayashi combines French impressionism, Japanese film music, and inspirations from landscapes, paintings, and experiences with other musicians.

Timothy Hagen and Ben Corbin’s performance of Jhula Jhule starts at about 2:50 in the video above

Reena Esmail is an Indian-American composer who writes orchestral, chamber ensemble, and choral works, and was the Composer-in-Residence for the Seattle Symphony in 2020-2021. She has also studied Hindustani music, and wrote her doctoral thesis on collaborative methods and challenges between Hindustani and Western classical musicians.

Vivian Fung is a JUNO award-winning composer known for incorporating multicultural influences into her orchestral, chamber, and operatic works – not only from her family’s experiences in Cambodia and Vietnam, but also through research and travels in China, Spain, and Indonesia.

A suling (a bamboo ring flute) lays diagonally across a kacapi (a type of zither from Indonesia).
The suling, a bamboo ring flute used in Indonesian music.

Javanese Court Song is an intermediate-level piece for flute and piano that incorporates quotations from Javanese gamelan court music. The flute part is an adaptation of melodic lines that would be played by the suling, a bamboo ring flute from Indonesia, and the piano part imitates gongs and mellophones.

There are so many pieces that have been long since normalized as part of our classical canon based on gamelan music that the composer heard at the Paris Expositions between 1855 and 1937.

Jolin Jiang’s Weathered, performed by Chloe Chung and Pavle Cajic

Jolin Jiang is a Chinese composer based in Sydney, who is currently pursuing a Master of Music in Composition at the Sydney Conservatory of Music. She’s a composer, producer, singer-songwriter, and folk artist, and her music incorporates East and Southeast Asian aesthetics.

As someone who grew up on & around the ocean, absolutely I love the concept behind Weathered. Jiang was inspired by her understanding of water and the ocean, and reflects on the Taoist saying “The highest virtue resembles water. Water benefits all things and contends not with them.” Weathered is a meditative, contemplative work that invokes images of a starry night and sparkling sea, wind travelling across ocean waves, and laying on the beach, soaking in the scenery.

Jean Ahn’s Toys, performed by Mary Matthews and Paul Thurmond

I wrote my first draft of this post in the week leading up to Mother’s Day – so I wanted to include this piece because it explores themes about motherhood, and celebrates Jean Ahn’s connections with the mothers in Duo Cameraderie, who commissioned the work.

Toys might seem like an outlier on this list, since it incorporates nursery rhymes instead of Asian folk tunes – but Jean Ahn is a Korean-born composer and pianist who is currently based in California. Her compositions include orchestral, chamber, choral, and electroacoustic works. She also has several projects that introduce Korean songs and techniques to musicians trained in the Western classical tradition – including publishing a collection of Korean folk songs, composing a gayageum concerto for the Santa Cruz Symphony, and directing the Korean-American Ensemble ARI.

The flute and piano arrangement of Su Lian Tan’s Autumn Lute Song, performed by Carol Wincenc and John McDonald

Autumn Lute-Song is an advanced level solo, originally written for flute and string orchestra. However, there’s also an arrangement for flute and piano reduction by A. Douglas Biggs (both versions are available from Theodore Presser). This piece combines Malaysian folk influences with European and Asian modalities, including pentatonicism and elements in the string accompaniment reminiscent of the Pi-pa and Er-hu (Chinese stringed instruments).

Additional Resources

Daniela Volkovinsky created this thorough annotated guide as her doctoral dissertation, under the supervision of Nicole Esposito. She includes a section that organizes composers by nationality, and lists many women composers from Asian countries in addition to the ones I’ve mentioned here. This resource includes pieces for solo piccolo, c flute, alto, and bass, unaccompanied or accompanied by piano or electronics.

A metal transverse flute lays diagonally across a book, open to a page illustrating travellers journeying across the Silk Road.

Did you know that transverse flutes travelled across the Silk Road, to arrive in Europe sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries? Classical music is more multicultural than you might think – read this post to learn more about the relationship between the Western transverse flute and its Asian cousins!

To view the full playlist, click the three lines in the top right corner of the video or the link in the title above

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