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  • aapimusicians

Saunder Choi

1. What is your name and your profession(s)? Saunder Choi. Composer, choral artist, arranger and orchestrator.

2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? Filipino-Chinese. Filipino Citizenship but based in the US on an O1 visa.

3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Both my parents are not musicians. They're business people who run a food import and distribution company.

4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. Well, I did not grow up in America. I'm an immigrant. I suppose one of the biggest hurdles I had to go through (and am still going through) is obtaining my O1 "Extraordinary Ability" visa, and consequently applying for a green card to stay here permanently. The US government makes legal immigration so difficult, convoluted, and expensive, no wonder a lot of people who aren't as fortunate remain undocumented. The system is broken and inefficient, and favors those who can afford to wait and have money to spend. My experience in America as a musician of color isn't unique. Of course the experience has run the gamut, from being tokenized, to having my music only programmed in "world music" concerts that continue to center whiteness, to people being surprised when they hear me speak English knowing I did not grow up hear, often exclaiming "Oh wow, you have no accent at all."

5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? I was born and raised in the Philippines, and only moved to the US for music school when I was 23. My family is Filipino-Chinese, and with that comes a whole set of subcultures, similar to American Jews, etc. I still have a lot of close friends in the Philippines, and my family is still there. I still listen to Philippine and Chinese music I grew up singing, as well as collaborate with Filipino artists on projects. Lastly, growing up in a family where food is part of the business, I continue to enjoy the food that I grew up with-- often seeking new Filipino restaurants that open up in LA, as well as supporting the classics (Max's, Jollibee, Red Ribbon, etc.).

6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? I started singing when I was 7, and started learning about theory and composition at around 12. My first foray into composition is when I arranged a very popular Filipino pop song for my high school glee club -- Shine by Trina Belamide, performed by Asia's songbird Regine Velasquez, which coincidentally celebrates its 25th year this year. After high school, I joined the world-renowned Philippine Madrigal Singers, and went on various tours with them for 5 years. During this time, I was also one of the resident composers and arrangers for the group--- I wrote a lot of music for them, and got to perform in various festivals and competitions around the world. In 2012, I moved to Boston to pursue an undergraduate degree in Music Composition at Berklee College of Music. In 2014, I moved to LA to pursue my MM in Composition at the USC Thornton School.

6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? I initially wanted to go to the University of the Philippines straight out of highschool to study music composition and choral conducting. My parents wanted me to help out in the family business, and told me to get another degree first. I actually went to De La Salle University Manila and graduated with a degree in Communications in 2010.

7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. I've written for a lot of choruses around the world: from the Philippine Madrigal Singers, to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, to the Crossing Choir and the LA Choral Lab. Each project and collaboration is special to me and form the diverse fabric of my choral work. Probably one of my more successful works is my piece "New Colossus" -- written for the LA Choral Lab, it is now being performed by various choral ensembles around the US. I've also orchestrated and arranged for Tony Award winner and Broadway legend, Lea Salonga. It was recently featured in a PBS special, as well as released as a recording with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Lea is one of the most important artists and influences that I grew up listening to, and one of the firsts to pave a path for Filipino/Asian artists and musicians on the American stage. It was such an honor to work with her. One of the most fulfilling work I've done is serving as a composer-teaching artist with the LA Master Chorale Oratorio Project where we teach students how to compose and write their own oratorio. As a vocalist, I also do session work and sang in the soundtracks of Lion King (live action), Mulan (live action), and Call to the Wild.

8. Describe to me your dream project. As of now, I would love to write a big, full-length opera, with a full symphony, chorus, and soloists maybe about Ibong Adarna or the life of Carlos Bulosan (all Filipino related stories). Though I am currently writing a short opera with chamber instruments and soloists, the opportunity to write for a full ensemble is rare!

9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? I've mentioned some of these in number 4. I think the biggest one is tokenization and not being afforded the same 360-degree perspective that White people often get. People continue to see us as a 2-dimensional monolith, capable only of things that fit the AAPI stereotype, when truth be told, we are capable of so much more. We are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional; we should not only be considered for "ethnic" gigs, but for ALL gigs.

10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? There are a lot. I mentioned Lea Salonga earlier-- Ryan Cayabyab is one of the most important Filipino composers who have influenced who I am as a musician. Mark Anthony Carpio of the Philippine Madrigal Singers inevitably shaped my choral artistry with his impeccable interpretation of various choral works. I also love the works of Tan Dun and Eudenice Palaruan.

10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? My hope for our community is that we continue to be heard and seen, and that sometimes need work on our part-- to be vocal, to speak our truth, and claim our space in our respective industries.

11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? Speak up. You deserve the space. Don't let anyone claim it.

12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? I am working on several commissions for choirs I've always wanted to write for. The LA Master Chorale, Seattle Pro Musica, Golden Bridge, etc. All of these are very very exciting for me. But most of all, I'm just excited to be making music with people in person after a long, hard year of isolation. Choirs were hailed as "super spreaders" early on, so choral artists are among the last to reopen, and go back to rehearsals.

13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. Food. Cooking. Mixology. Restaurants. If there is a new swanky restaurant you want to check out, I will be there if you want someone to go with.

14. Any final thoughts? (non-self-promotional). Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? The time has come for us to claim our space and be vocal about our needs.

Instagram: @musicmanchoi

YouTube: Saunder Choi

Soundcloud: Saunder Choi

Photo provided by Saunder Choi

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