The 5 Most Famous Asian Classical Composers

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Modern classical music isn't relegated only to the Western world. In fact, composers from all over the world, despite their cultural background, have been inspired by famous Western composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Bartok, and more. As time progresses and music continues to evolve, we as listeners get to benefit greatly. After the dawn of the modern era, we see more and more that Asian composers are interpreting and reimagining their own folk and traditional music through the of Western classical music. What we get is an eclectic and extraordinary palate of new music. Though there are plenty more composers out there, here are a few of our favorite and most notable Asian classical music composers.

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Bright Sheng

Yo-Yo Ma holding cello and Bright Sheng looking at sheet music

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Chinese-born composer, pianist, and conductor Bright Sheng currently teaches at the University of Michigan. After moving to the USA in 1982, he studied music at City University of New York, Queens College, and later Columbia, where he earned his DMA in 1993. After graduating from Columbia University, Sheng studied with the renowned composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein whom he met while studying at Tanglewood Music Center. Since then, Sheng has been commissioned by the White House, has had his works performed by many of the world's leading orchestras and performers, and has become the New York Ballet's first resident composer. Sheng's music is a melodic and unclouded blend of Bartok and Shostakovitch.

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Chinary Ung

Chinary Ung in suit


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Chinary Ung was born in Cambodia in 1942 and moved to the United States in 1964, where he studied clarinet at the Manhattan School of Music, graduating with his bachelor and masters degrees. Later, he graduated from New York's Columbia University with a DMA in 1974. His compositional style is definitely unique with Cambodian melodies and instrumentation with a Western classical and contemporary approach. In 1989, Ung became the first American to win the coveted Grawemeyer Award for Inner Voices, an orchestral tone poem he composed in 1986. Currently, Chinary Ung teaches composition at University of California, San Diego.

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Isang Yun

Isaac Yun holding glasses looking at papers


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Korean-born composer, Isang Yun began studying music at 14 years old. At 16, when his desire to learn music became more than just a hobby, Yun moved to Tokyo to study music at Osaka Conservatory. However, his studies were put on hold when he moved back to Korea due to Japan's entrance into World War II. Yun joined the Korean independence movement and was later captured. Thankfully, after the war ended, Yun was released. He spent much of his time completing welfare work for orphans. It wasn't until 1956, that Yun decided to finish his musical studies. After traveling through Europe he ended up in Germany where he wrote the majority of his compositions, which included symphonies, concertos, operas, choral works, chamber music, and more. His music style is regarded as avant-garde with Korean influence.

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Tan Dun

Chinese composer Tan Dun conducts the Orchestra Della Toscana


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Born in China on August 15, 1957, Tan Dun moved to New York City in the 1980s to study music at Columbia. Dun's unique perspective has allowed him to fuse musical styles including experimental, classic Chinese, and classic Western. Unlike the other composers on this list, here in the USA, it is almost a guarantee you've heard music by Tan Dun thanks to his original film scores for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. What's more, for opera fans, Tan Dun's world premiere of his opera, , took place at the Metropolitan Opera on December 21, 2006. Because of that performance, he became the 5th person to have ever conducted their own work at the Metropolitan Opera.

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Toru Takemitsu

Toru Takemitsu


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Born in Japan on October 8, 1930, Toru Takemitsu was a prolific film score composer as well as an avant-garde artist who largely gained his impressive compositional skills and techniques by learning music on his own. This self-taught composer garnered many impressive and coveted awards in the industry. Early in his career, Takemitsu was famous only in his home country and surrounding areas. It wasn't until his ​Requiem in 1957 that he received the international spotlight. Takemitsu wasn't only influenced and inspired by traditional Japanese music, but also by Debussy, Cage, Schoenberg, and Messiaen. Since his passing on February 20, 1996, Takemitsu has become highly regarded and is considered one of the first prominent Japanese composers to be recognized in Western music.