In this second article following our armchair travels across the world, we find ourselves visiting the Far East. Historically this area was termed the Orient, which comes from the Latin word ‘oriens’ meaning ‘east’ or ‘rise’. Japan is referred to as ‘The Land of The Rising Sun’ as evidenced by their flag of a red circle (the sun) on a white background.
In British English, the word ‘Orient’ is used to describe the lustre of a pearl, and Hong Kong and Singapore have both been referred to as ‘The Pearl of the Orient’. Many ancient temples (including both Jewish and pagan temples), as well as Christian churches, located their entrances to the east, and this meant that the building was correctly ‘orientated’.
Unfortunately though in American English, the term ‘Oriental’ is now considered offensive and in 2016 Barak Obama signed legislation that the word should be removed from Federal Law.
And so, as we shine the spotlight on the music of the Far East, examine both the music of the past and present, we will focus in particular on 4 pianists who were born in this area of the world.
Music of The Far East Past
The Far East spans a vast geographical area and it is divided into several sections: East Asia, South-East Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. In this article we will examine the music of East and South East Asia in more detail and in a subsequent article, we will move to Central and South Asia.
East Asia is considered to be the countries of Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, North and South Korea, Mongolia and Tibet.
South-East Asia encompasses Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
There is archaeological evidence of a well developed musical culture in China as far back as 1122 BCE as seen by their clay flutes, stone chimes, bronze bells and ‘gu’ (drums) that have been found on digs.
The founder of Chinese music though is considered to be Ling Lun, when he was asked by the Yellow Emperor to create music for court. He used bamboo pipes to mimic the sounds of birds. These flutes were used at court and during important ceremonies to show the harmony between the emperor’s rule and nature.
The philosopher Kǒng Fūzǐ (Confucius) himself was a competent musician and he laid out the purpose and role of music for Chinese society. Confucius stated that “To educate somebody, you should start with poems, emphasize ceremonies, and finish with music.”
Chinese instruments included:
- guzheng (a Chinese zither – a type of stringed instrument)
- dizi (a flute widely used in folk music and Chinese opera)
- erhu (a 2-stringed fiddle introduced from Central Asia)
- pipa (a 4-stringed lute, also introduced from Central Asia)
In 1601 a Jesuit priest called Matteo Ricci presented a harpsichord to the Ming Emperor and trained 4 eunuchs how to play it. This was the beginning of the introduction of Western instruments into Chinese music.
Japanese traditional music-dance-drama was given the name Noh (meaning ‘skill’ or 'talent') and was considered to be very theatrical, especially as the cast wore masks. Various sized stick drums called taiko were beaten and bamboo flutes were played. When playing taiko drums, the drummers’ movements were strictly choreographed and were considered to be a part of the musical performance.
Gogaku or court music was played at the Imperial court, at shrines and in temples and this type of music was considered ‘elegant’. All male cast theatres put on theatrical performances called Kabuki for ordinary citizens and Buddhist chanting also made its way into general life.
South East Asia
Thailand is geographically situated between China and India and benefited from the movement of trade between them. This is reflected in both the music and the instruments that were used.
- Klong thap (a goblet-shaped drum) and Khim (a stringed instrument) both came from Persia.
- Jakhe (a type of zither-lute) was imported from India.
- Klong jin came from China.
- Klong kaek (a type of barrel drum) was imported from Indonesia.
Thai music developed into two genres: traditional court music which consisted of very stylised court repertoires, generally played by a large ensemble or orchestra, and folk music which was more relaxed, played with fewer instruments and reflected the daily lives of the Thai people.
The Vietnamese people created melodies and songs to reflect their daily lives. As Vietnam consisted of 54 ethnic groups, traditional music was diverse in many ways. The Don Ca Tai Tu – the traditional music of the Southern people differed from the Kinh lullabies, and the Thai, Muong and Dao tribes all played a variety of musical instruments. Ca Trù, a type of chamber music was popular at court as it was said to reflect the perfect combination of poetry and music, whereas Hát Văn or Chầu Văn was associated with Mother Goddess worship. Quan Ho folk songs were always performed in groups of about 5-6 members and the Tuồng borrowed many elements of music and makeup from Chinese opera.
Music of The Far East Present
The music of the Far East has evolved to become a fusion of influences from both east and west. In Tibet, music has always been an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism and chanting of sacred texts is well known. Before his exile, The Dalai Lama founded the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and in 1972, Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings made the first-ever album of Tibetan bells and singing bowls. This helped to usher ‘new age’ music into the west.
In China, revolutionary songs were promoted by the Maoists, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Between 1949-1990s the Communist Party denounced popular music as ‘yellow music’ or pornography. Nowadays restrictions have eased somewhat and Cantopop (C-Pop) is very popular, along with Hip Hop and Rap, which is often performed in Mandarin.
During World War II, jazz music in Japan was denounced as ‘enemy music’ and banned. This caused jazz to retreat underground and was renamed ‘light music’. Today Japan boasts the highest proportion of jazz fans in the world and Japanese musicians have created a fusion of Asian-American jazz call JapJazz. The Tokyo Jazz festival, held every year in September is a celebration of this east-west fusion.
Indonesian jazz developed organically, blending traditional instruments with Big Band sounds. JavaJazz is considered to be one of the largest jazz festivals in the world. Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and Joss Stone have all performed at the festival over the years.
Pianists from South and South East Asia
Picking musicians from the plethora of talent in this part of the world is difficult as there are so many outstanding pianists from which to choose. Here is a brief look at a few...
- Mitsko Uchida is considered to be the greatest female classical pianist of the twentieth century. She studied in Vienna and gave her first recital at the age of 4. She was recently made a dame.
- In 2000, Chinese classical pianist Yundi Li was the youngest pianist at the age of 18 to win the International Chopin Competition.
- Jon Jang always tries to stay true to her Chinese traditions and her album ‘Paper Son, Paper Songs’ is about the influence of American culture on the Chinese people.
- In June 2019 Thai pianist Nat Yontararak created ‘The Light of My Homeland’ and dedicated his debut recital exclusively to contemporary Thai music for piano.
... and now we will now shine our spotlight on 4 pianists of particular note: Lang Lang, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Raul Sunico and Joey Alexander.
Lang Lang, one of the most famous modern concert pianists was the first pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras.
John von Rhein a music critic for the Chicago Tribune labelled him as "the biggest, most exciting young keyboard talent I have encountered in many a year of attending piano recitals" and Jahja Ling (the first and only conductor of Chinese descent to serve as music director of a major U.S. orchestra) remarked, "Lang Lang is special because of his total mastery of the piano... He has the flair and great communicative power” [sic.].
At the age of 2, Lang Lang had watched an episode of Tom and Jerry, which featured Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rapsody No. 2 and this first contact with Western music was to be the inspiration for him wanting to learn the piano.
When he was 9, he was expelled from his piano tutor’s studio for lack of talent but another music teacher took pity on him and he was encouraged to continue playing.
He was first recognised as an extraordinary talent by winning international piano competitions at the age of 11 or 12, however, his immaturity and ‘pop star’ mentality during his teenage years was often commented on. Over time, he has matured and in 2009 Lang Lang was included in Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People. It is thought that thousands of Chinese children have taken up the piano after watching Lang Lang perform, wanting to imitate his style.
His list of appearances includes a vast array of concerts, performances to royalty and presidents, a Nobel Prize ceremony, Olympic ceremonies, TV appearances and Golden Globe scores.
Herbie Hancock has described his playing as "so sensitive and so deeply human…you hear him play, and he never ceases to touch your heart."
Toshiko Akiyoshi was born in Manchuria but grew up in Japan. As a girl, she discovered jazz by listening to a record of Teddy Wilson playing ‘Sweet Lorraine’ and in 1952 she was discovered by Oscar Peterson while playing in a club.
She moved to the USA to continue her music studies in Boston. She has received 14 Grammy nominations and was the first woman to win 1st place in ‘Best Arranger and Composer’ in a ‘Down Beat’ annual Readers Poll. In 1984 she was the subject of a documentary called 'Jazz is My Native Language'.
In 1999 a Buddhist priest approached her to write a piece about his hometown of Hiroshima. She struggled to create anything until she found a picture of a woman exiting a nuclear underground shelter, with a smile on her face. Akiyoshi then realised that her message was one of hope and she composed a 3-part piece called Hiroshima – Rising from the Abyss, which premiered in Hiroshima in 2001.
Akiyoshi’s most recent album was released in 2017 and is called ‘My Long Yellow Road’. This is a reflection of her drive to investigate and incorporate her Japanese musical heritage into her musical compositions and arrangements.
In the Philippines, Raul Sunico is an internationally acclaimed classical pianist who combines Filipino folk music with Chopin and even Gershwin.
In the 1970s, Sunico worked in a bank. He had graduated cum laude with degrees in Mathematics and Music and a Masters in Statistics from the University of the Philippines and he only performed music as a hobby. He was easy to watch and easy to listen to. At the age of 25, just before he was about to move to Brown University in the USA to further his mathematics studies, he caught the attention of First Lady Imelda Marcos. Sunico had been asked to ‘dep’ for a sick pianist during an important reception and he impressed Marcos by playing all the music from memory. Marcos arranged for Sunico to have an interview at the famous Julliard School in New York and as they say ‘the rest is history’.
Between 2010 – 2017 he was president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where he still teaches today. He is the author of many music books, he has created more than 50 CDs and performed all 4 Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos from memory – in one evening – an astounding feat!
His improvisations celebrate both his Filipino roots and his Western classical music education and when he records his music, he states that, “I play what’s in my fingers.”
Joey Alexander is a teenage child prodigy from Indonesia. He taught himself to play jazz by listening to his father’s jazz albums and by the age of 6 he had taught himself to play the piano using a miniature electric keyboard.
When he was 8 years old, he played for Herbie Hancock when Hancock was visiting Jakarta as a touring UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and it was after that day that Alexander decided to “dedicate my childhood to jazz". Alexander won his first Grand Prix all-ages jazz competition at the age of 9 and in 2014 he and his parents moved to New York so that he could further his career in music.
Around this time, a friend suggested to Wynton Marsalis (the great jazz trumpeter and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center) that he watch a YouTube clip of Alexander performing. Marsalis was so ‘blown away’ by Alexander’s performance that he invited Alexander to perform at the Lincoln Center's fundraising gala dinner. This marked Alexander’s American debut at the age of 10.
Allen Morrison of 'Down Beat' magazine stated that, "If the word 'genius' still means anything, it applies to this prodigy. He played original solo variations on 'Round Midnight' with a breathtaking precocity and mastery of several decades of piano style.” Marsalis commented that, “There has never been anyone that you can think of who could play like that at his age. I loved everything about his playing – his rhythm, his confidence, his understanding of the music."
Alexander released his debut album ‘My Favorite Things’ at the age of 11 after arranging all the songs on the album.
He has 3 Grammy nominations and is the youngest musician ever nominated for these awards. In 2018 he performed at the Opening Ceremony of the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. In 2018 he also won Best Instrumental Jazz Artist at the Anugerah Music Awards in Indonesia.
Joey Alexander has played for American presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and he has sold out Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation. Now at the age of 16 his latest Album called ‘Warna’, which means ‘Colour’ in his native language Bahasa, is a beautiful, thoughtful album of sliding melodies and it is said that he considers his musical ability to be a gift from God.
And so in our armchair travels across the Far East we have focused in particular on the music of East and South East Asia. We have examined the traditional music of the Far East past and how present-day music is a fusion of traditional Eastern and Western ideas. Finally, we have celebrated the talents of both classical and jazz pianists who are all making their mark on the musical world while still staying true to their Asian roots and heritage.