Professor of composition Daniel Asia. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Professor of composition Daniel Asia. (photo credit: Courtesy)

What if, instead of starting a survey of classical music with Christian Gregorian chants, Music History 101 started with Torah cantillation? And instead of beginning with the Greeks, Philosophy 101 was introduced with the Hebrew Bible?

Sitting during his spring break in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, Daniel Asia, professor of composition at the University of Arizona, suggests that most everything traditionally taught in American universities about the basis of Judeo-Christian Western culture is misleading.

At his Center for the Study of American Ideals and Culture, Asia is attempting to correct prevalent cultural conceptions and create an equal emphasis between “Judeo” and “Christian” when studying Judeo-Christian culture.

‘We’re dealing with small issues: how to save the Jewish People, Western civilization; save art, music…’

Asia makes light of the lofty name of the center he directs and says, “We’re dealing with small issues: how to save the Jewish People, Western civilization; save art, music…”

The center’s stated goals are “to restore balance in the dialogue over the value of the heritage of Western civilization, beginning with the contributions of Jerusalem (Religion — the basic Jewish texts of Bible and Talmud), Athens (Philosophy — Plato, Socrates), and Rome (art and architecture) in the development of the American polity, and the expression of the American soul through the arts.”

In other words, save Western civilization, art, music…

Asia is attempting to reinvent a curriculum for high arts through an interdisciplinary program, including anything from literature to sciences. “Our new major will offer students the option of engaging a cohesive and coordinated course of studies. The major will include required courses in philosophy, music, history, religion, literature, science and social policy, and the arts.”

In an era of Tea Party politics, thinking like a Founding Father may appeal to today’s freshmen

Asia’s goal in this Renaissance Man-type education: to create better American leaders who understand the underpinnings of American culture. In an era of Tea Party politics, thinking like a Founding Father may appeal to today’s freshmen.

Though the center has been in existence for three years, Asia is still searching for the grant money that will turn it into the grandiose operation he envisions. In the meantime it is slowly making a mark on campus with concerts, such as last year’s Constitution Day Celebration, and other co-sponsored events.

For Asia the composer, being Jewish and American are of equal weight. “People ask me, ‘Is your music Jewish?’ Of course it is, I grew up Jewish. ‘Is it American?’ Of course! I grew up American.”

One of the first overtly Jewish-themed pieces he attempted was as a “19-year-old pisher” at Amherst College, where, after an in-depth course on the Holocaust, he attempted to deal with the subject in music — and failed. “I decided this was beyond my capacity at this point.”

The past four decades of prolific composition has more than made up for that early hesitation. And of the dozen CDs of his recorded material (released on Summit Records), about half have a Jewish link.

Asia’s music can be broadly categorized as modern Classical, an oxymoronic term for contemporary composers who dabble in experimental forms while retaining the rubric of orchestral composition. Some of Asia’s pieces are digital and performed via synthesizers; often they involve choirs and a baritone soloist (intentionally, as many cantors are baritones and Jewish congregations are good patrons). But while most pieces are tonal and fairly easy on the ear, he does challenge the listener.

‘What do you hear when in synagogue? Imagine everyone at once davening the amida’

He refers to two pieces, “Cry” and “Awesome Silent Fire,” which are, ahem, not the easiest to listen to and might be categorized by us plebeians under “cacophony.”

He chuckles, “What do you hear when in synagogue? Imagine everyone at once davening the amida.” Attempt to put a swarm of a congregation all muttering the same prayers in random tempos and what do you get? Cacophony.

Asia the educator is never far from the composer. “There should be a place for music that is complex, but accessible. There is a way to educate through art music. I’m trying to make something that 50 years later you can say that it stands the test of time… but sometimes you have to have patience. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense until 30 minutes into the piece.”

Patience and looking at the broader picture. Two virtues Asia is attempting to disseminate, both through his music and at the germinating Center for the Study of American Ideals and Culture.