Music as a Unifying Power

Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.

Donna Weng Friedman believes music is a unifying power.

As a Chinese-American pianist, she wants to use her platform to promote compassion and tolerance for people of all backgrounds, especially for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community during COVID-19.

“I believe if I share stories and music of leading Asian-American musicians, people can feel more connected to (our community),” Friedman says. “I hope there can be more understanding and empathy and less blame.”

In honor of AAPI heritage month, Friedman released her EP (extended play recording) Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings May 1. For the EP, she collaborated with Indian American soprano Indira Mahajan to perform four works by AAPI and BIPOC composers Beata Moon, Florence Price, Chinary Ung and Margaret Bonds. All proceeds will be donated to the Korean American Community Foundation. 

For Friedman, recording this EP has been an emotional and intensely personal process, which helped her cope with the trauma of 2020.

In March of 2020, Friedman experienced an anti-Asian racist incident. While walking in New York’s Central Park at midday, she was verbally assaulted by a large man, who shouted racist insults and tried to rush her. For the next six months, she felt unable to leave her apartment. Later in the year, she and her family all became sick with COVID-19.

Donna Weng Friedman

Meanwhile, anti-Asian violence continued to increase around the U.S. Last year, the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, a non-partisan research and policy center, reported that the number of anti-Asian hate crimes rose by nearly 150%. According to their data, hate crimes in New York City, where Friedman lives, increased by 833% to 28 in 2020 from only three in 2019.

“Seeing (anti-Asian hate) last year was so heartbreaking,” Friedman says. “I felt it was my responsibility to do something.”

In response, she decided to share music from AAPI composers and performers with her community. Last May for AAPI heritage month, she created the video series Heritage & Harmony in partnership with WQXR. The series includes eight traditional and contemporary works by AAPI composers, including Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu, the first video game score to win a Grammy Award.  

Since then, Friedman has continued to perform works by underrepresented composers, leading to the creation of Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings. The EP opens with Prelude for solo piano by Moon. A Korean-American composer and pianist, she was one of Friedman’s fellow piano students at Juilliard before she began composing professionally. Written in 1995, Prelude was her first composition. 

“This song touched me on a very deep level,” Freidman says. “It’s so hard to explain. It gives me this sense of calm and contentment.”

The third track is Ung’s Space Between the Fish and the Moon for solo piano, which Friedman previously recorded for the WXQR series. Ung is a Cambodian composer based in California who draws on elements of traditional Cambodian music and Buddhist spirituality in his work. Space Between the Fish and the Moon was inspired by the poem Night Oceans by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet.

Friedman feels a strong connection to Ung’s works, which remind her of her own Buddhist upbringing.

“This piece is very special to me,” she says. “It reminds me of attending the Buddhist temple on Sundays with my parents. During the meditation, monks would ring these little bells. It would create this reflective atmosphere, which I hear in Ung’s music.”

Friedman with soprano Indira Mahajan

For the other two works, Friedman decided to pivot toward underrepresented composers outside of the AAPI community. Price, the first Black woman recognized as a symphonic composer, has seen a resurgence in popularity since her unpublished scores were discovered in 2018. Bonds, a former student of Price, was known for her arrangements of Black spirituals and collaborations with the poet Langston Hughes.

In collaboration with Mahajan. Friedman recorded Price’s art song Night, set to text by Black poet Louise C. Wallace, and Bond’s arrangement of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Hes Got the Whole World in His Hands is very uplifting,” Friedman says. “It makes me feel hopeful and optimistic, even after my family became sick with COVID. I am very grateful that my family and I are healthy now, and I’m grateful to have this music.”

Though sharing her story has been difficult, Friedman hopes it will inspire others to speak out about anti-Asian racism and empower others to becomes allies, even in small ways.

“I think the AAPI community is finally speaking out,” she says. “We are finally finding our voices together.”

“There are so many people who want to support the AAPI community, but they don’t know what to do and how to do it,” Friedman continues. “By streaming this EP, they can directly support our community. Every little bit helps.”

CORRECTIONS: Friedman was verbally assaulted by a man in New York’s Central Park, not a white man as an earlier version of this story stated. The sentence on Chinary Ung’s use of ideas drawn from Buddhist spirituality has been re-worded to better reflect the connection outlined in his personal bio. The source of information on hate crimes has been identified, information that was not originally included in the article.

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