KU Asian Classical Music Initiative Sets Ambitious Agenda

Participants in the 2022 KU Asian Classical Music Initiative international conference, with closing concert guest, the Interwoven ensemble. (KU Asian Classical Music Initiative)

A new organization out of the University of Kansas is supporting racial equity for Asians in classical music.

Founded by Zhengyingyue (Elaine) Huang, the KU Asian Classical Music Initiative (ACMI) began in the summer of 2021 and has already produced concerts and an international conference.

Huang is a doctoral candidate at KU studying voice. In 2021, she became involved with Asian Opera Alliance (AOA), a national organization that advocates for more Asian representation and diversity in opera. While people of Asian descent are sometimes labeled a “model minority,” they, too, face discrimination and prejudice. There has also been a dramatic rise in hate crimes toward Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAAPI) in the last few years.

In the opera world, depictions of Asian people are not always positive, and the art form has traditionally cast white performers in Asian roles while sidelining Asian performers for other roles. Through her involvement with AOA, Huang wanted to find a way to support that cause close to home.

“I think, ‘How can I be seen, and how can I help our colleagues be seen?’” said Huang.

She reached out to Professor Yi-Yang Chen, who joined the piano department at KU in September 2021. Together, they started working on creating the organization. “We were talking about anything we could do, here in Kansas, to create something to attract people and promote our music,” said Huang.

Their first event was a kind of “welcome everybody” concert in Lawrence, in October 2021. Huang reached out to many AAAPI musicians in the area, and the concert included Western classical music and traditional styles from other cultures.

“We are trying to celebrate diversity and racial equality,” she said. Instead of focusing on Asian music for Asian people, she wanted to create a more open-door concept. “We want everybody to…enjoy the music together, because it’s beautiful and very special.”

With the success of the first concert, they wanted to do more. That’s when they decided to create the first ACMI International Conference, gathering funding and interest. Amazingly, they were able to put the entire conference together in about three months, from a call for scores and papers in late December to the event in April. (Huang delayed her doctoral lecture and graduation to put all her energies into the conference planning.)

They had more than 100 applicants for the conference, an impressive response given the short timeline.

“A conference celebrating AAAPI musicians and music has never happened before in North America,” said Huang. “As a musician, I think people were desperate to see that. We were looking for this kind of thing for a long time.”

The conference included performances and lectures, as well as composition workshops and paper workshops. Participants came from all over, as far as South Korea. Submissions for scores included works from Australia, India, Korea and Japan.

This year, ACMI hosts a concert in Lawrence in October. It features a new piano piece by UMKC professor and composer Chen Yi, commissioned by ACMI. Yi-Yang Chen will premiere the work, which mixes elements from traditional Chinese music and Western styles.

This fall, they also perform during the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs.

In the spring, they are planning for the second annual Asian Classical Music Initiative International Conference, this time held at Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

“We don’t want to lock it in one place or close the door, just Asian people playing together,” said Huang. “We want everybody to join together, so wherever I go or wherever my colleagues go we will bring it outside of Kansas, to make it bigger, so everybody knows it, and everybody enjoys it and celebrates together.”

They are also working on a large commissioning project. They will interview 13 people of Asian descent living in the Midwest and turn those stories into musical works. The premiere is expected in 2023-24.

Though the organization is about supporting AAPI music and musicians, it’s also about bringing Eastern and Western together.

“I see music creations and performance as a tool for telling stories,” Huang said. “I am interested in not only using my own voice but giving voice to others. It is also my aim to increase the awareness and understanding of multicultural music, where the music reflects the values of today’s society.”

To learn more about KU Asian Classical Music Initiative, visit www.kuacmi.com.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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