"Over the years, I have clearly become more interested in connecting to a larger musical tradition, one that extends backwards much further than I ever conceived of 25 years ago," he says. "I'm also trying to project into the future, looking at the music I hope will last and survive, and being part of that larger tradition myself."
In celebration of hitting the half-century mark, Asia is offering a retrospective of his work in two different concerts this weekend. The programs will be in Crowder Hall at the University of Arizona, where Asia has headed the composition program for 15 years.
"I guess I'm looking for music that will have a broader appeal than I was looking for 25 years ago," he says. "And in so doing, I suppose I have ended up broadening my musical palette and my musical language to be inclusive of everything I was doing in my early 20s, but deepening it, broadening it, enriching it and expanding its boundaries drastically, but without losing that core of whatever makes a composer an individual composer."
To quote my own liner notes for Asia's new Summit CD of chamber music, Trilogy, as a young man, Asia was living and working in a heady new-music environment, and felt free to try out whatever techniques, sonorities, structural schemes and instrumental combinations he wished. All this was directed toward a rather small potential audience of enthusiasts accustomed to wrapping their ears around challenging recent work.
By the 1990s, Asia had securely established his own identity as a composer, and his growing success brought him into the more mainstream environment of traditional symphony orchestras and standing chamber ensembles that incorporated new music into programs heavily reliant on the previous two centuries of repertory. He found that the inhabitants of this environment were receptive to new music, but performers were forced to lavish less rehearsal time on it, and audiences had to make sense of it in the context of familiar scores by the likes of Beethoven and Brahms.
His evolution wasn't a matter of trying to please people who hated modern music. "The composers of my generation viewed the music of the '50s and '60s, and I particularly mean that of the academy, which was primarily serial in its language, as a cul-de-sac, of which there was not much of interest and which musically did not present something that one could build upon or something that in its guts somehow represented the American experience," he says.
So Asia, like several of his other American contemporaries, started seeking inspiration and materials from American pop and jazz, as well as such mid-century American traditionalists as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein and Vincent Persichetti.
"We wanted to absorb and re-think this music," he says, "but the danger in that seems to me that much of the music that has tried to absorb American pop has proved to be trivial or completely superficial, or simply cloying and pandering. I think what I've been trying to do is create music that absorbs that tradition, includes it as part and parcel of the entire musical tradition we take in as Americans, and write a music that is exciting, rich and musically deep, music that rewards repeated listening.
"And music that meets the audience on a level playing field without trying to sweeten the experience or make it somehow palatable to the lowest common denominator, but says: Here--we recognize that you are living, breathing beings with interests, tastes and ideas, and for those of you interested in music not just as a form of titillation, but as a deep intellectual enterprise, here, this is something you'll enjoy the first time around and, God willing, on the fifth time around, you'll find something more to enjoy in it."
Asia can still write "difficult" music, as you'll hear if you attend the 7:30 concert Feb. 15 at Crowder Hall. That program will be devoted entirely to the 45-minute electro-acoustic music cycle Sacred and Profane, which Asia wrote in collaboration with Kip Haaheim (see "Sound and Flurry," Feb. 3, 2000, and "Fresh Breath," Dec. 12, 2002). The music is recorded--indeed, it's available on a CD that will be included in the concert's ticket price. What's new this weekend is a video accompaniment by Janet Davidson-Hues.
"It's stunning," Asia says. "Sounds in our music morph from one thing to another, and the video images do precisely the same sort of work. They have almost a corporeality about them; you can almost touch and feel the images, and the colors are so intense and bright and sensuous."
Sacred and Profane absolutely demands deep listening, but people wary of such aural exercise may prefer to investigate the 7:30 p.m. concert Feb. 16 at the same location. It ranges from Alex Set, a saxophone solo Asia wrote during his first year of college (played here by Michael Hester) to a 2-year-old flute piece called Unicorns Are Fireproof (performed by Nancy Andrew). The program will also include such things as a highly accessible woodwind quintet from 1998, the orchestral piece At the Far Edge, and Gateways for wind ensemble. Don't be surprised if the concert ends with Asia's arrangement of Bear Down, Arizona.
Asia will introduce all the music from the stage.
Proceeds from the second concert will be earmarked for the UA composition area and the Mary Goodman Endowment Fund for composition. "So this concert is not just about me," Asia says. "It's about supporting the students who are going to be the next generation of superb composers and teachers of composition."