There is quite a selection of Daniel Asia’s music available
on CD, particularly from Summit Records. That said, he is one
of those contemporary composers who have not quite made such
an impact in printed review publications. Now Summit has issued
a CD of Asia’s choral music. This was recorded in association
with the BBC and features the BBC Singers performing seven of
Asia’s choral works. Unusually, for a composer who has worked
extensively with instruments, these choral pieces are by and
Asia is currently Professor of Composition at the University
of Arizona, Tucson. Previous appointments have included a professorship
at Oberlin Conservatory, Composer in Residence with the Phoenix
Symphony Orchestra and a residency in London courtesy of the
UK Fullbright Art Awards and Guggenheim Fellowship.
The music spans the 1970s to the present day. The collection
opens with Purer than the Purest Pure, seven settings
of e.e. cummings for 4-part choir. This dates from 1996 and
was written for Ithaca College Chorus. Asia’s style here is
immediately apparent and is remarkably consistent throughout
all the pieces here. His music is fundamentally tonal, though
his chromatic harmony and textures make the sound quite opaque.
The following work is one of the earliest presented. Why
(?) Jacob was written in 1979 for his old high school. Though
intended as a celebration, Asia chose to commemorate a high-school
friend Jacob Rayman who was one of the first Israeli soldiers
to die in the October 1973 war. It is written for 8-part choir
and piano. The piano plays a long introduction and thereafter
provides interludes to the vocal music. The choir sing apparently
wordlessly, but are in fact playing on the words Jacob, Yaacov
and Yaweh. In the central section the spoken passages overlie
babble from the choir, which is intended to ‘evoke imagery associated
with Seattle and Israel’, though I must admit that this eluded
Summer is Over from 1997 is something of a follow-up
to Purer than the Purest Pure, being settings of seven
more cummings poems. Out of More also from 1997 is a
further setting of cummings. In all three cummings sets Asia
tries to evoke cummings’ distinctive use of spacing, punctuation
and layout. Whether this is completely possible is a moot point,
and whether the pieces are completely successful I am not sure.
But the simple act of trying is fascinating: watching an artist
in one genre trying to evoke an artist in another very different
Asia set Paul Pines’ poem She for 4-part chorus in 1985
and it was recorded by the BBC Singers as part of a group devoted
to American composers. For the present disc, Asia decided to
expand the setting by adding other Pines poems. All the texts
deal with anxiety at possible separation.
The closing work on the disc, Sounds Shapes is the earliest
and latest, being originally written in 1973 and revised in
2008. Asia was 19 when he first wrote it and was interested
in incorporating the sound-world of Ligeti’s Requiem
and Lux Aeterna into a chorus. The chorus is split into
four groups with equal numbers of men and women. pitch-pipes,
finger snaps, foot stomps and hand claps are incorporated into
the textures. The results are a charmingly naïve exploration
of sound for its own sake.
The CD booklet includes an excellent note on all of the music.
But for some reason only the words for Purer then Purest
Pure and The She Set are given. This is a shame,
because the words and their layout (in the cummings) mean a
great deal. Whilst the BBC Singers are highly musical, their
diction is less than perfect and you do need to look at the
Under the confident direction of Odaline de la Martinez, the
BBC Singers give exemplary performances. Repeated listening
confirmed my initial thoughts, that Asia’s choral sound world,
with its opaque texture and not quite melodies, is quite distinctive.
His music may not have the transparently luminous quality which
makes that of Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre so popular,
but it has a particularness which makes it well worth investigating.
Choral music may not be central to Asia’s oeuvre, but this collection
shows him to have a nice ear and it is a CD worth investigating.