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Chou Wen-chung


“I am influenced by the philosophy that governs every Chinese artist, whether he be poet or painter, namely, affinity to nature in conception, allusiveness in expression, and terseness in realization.”
—Chou Wen-chung

            At the age of ninety-one, Chou Wen-chung has achieved venerability without losing freshness – the freshness, in part, of one exploring a new musical landscape between east and west. Born into an élite family, he was exposed in his childhood and youth to a rich culture of literature and music, both western and Chinese (including Buddhist chant at his grandmother’s funeral, which left deep memories). However, he was also exposed to the turmoils of a country suffering invasion from Japan, interference from the west, and internal conflict, so that his education was interrupted. Music was his first love, but architecture seemed a more practical study at the time, and he won a scholarship to complete his training at Yale.

            By the time he arrived in this country, however, in the summer of 1946, music had exerted its pull, and he enrolled not at Yale but at the New England Conservatory. In January 1949 he moved to New York to live with his older brother, who, known as Wen Tsing Chow, was to become an important computer scientist. Later the same year, he was introduced to Varèse, whose pupil and assistant he became, while continuing more formal studies at Columbia. Of his relationship with Varèse, he has said: “To think of sound as ‘living’ and space as ‘open’ was all that he taught.” And these were concepts that fitted well with Chinese aesthetics. In much the same way, Chou found shared principles linking Webern’s music with Chinese calligraphy (an art that has been profoundly important to him): spareness, elegance, the maximum contained in the minimum.

            His first mature work, Landscapes (1949), a compact and lustrous orchestral suite based on three Chinese melodies, was given its first performance by Leopold Stokowski in 1953, with the San Francisco Symphony. In subsequent works Chou continued to use traditional melodies from China in a western context, his harmonic range broadening and darkening – not least in his stately piano piece The Willows are New (1957), with its persistent ninths. Then, with Metaphors for symphonic wind (1961), he introduced a new principle of “variable modes,” based on three-note sets that could be combined and altered in defined ways, a principle that again had twofold roots, in Chinese practice and contemporary western music. The result was a music of disjunct lines, uncentered harmonies, and fluctuating progress, as exemplified by Cursive for flute and piano, which was played for the first time in this theater just over half a century ago, by Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen.

            In the year of that performance, 1964, Chou returned to Columbia as a member of the faculty, on which he was to remain until 1991. His early years there were compositionally productive, with Pien for large ensemble (1966) emerging as perhaps his major achievement in an avant-garde direction. However, he had always been a fastidious composer, and after Yun (1969), for a smaller grouping, he completed nothing for almost two decades, occupying himself with teaching and with editing works by Varèse, including Nocturnal, which he completed.

            His breakthrough back into original composition came with Beijing in the Mist (1986), written for a dance project by Jacques d’Amboise involving children from the United States and China. Around this time, he was also instrumental in bringing young Chinese composers to study at Columbia, early arrivals including Chen Yi, Tan Dun, and Zhou Long. His own work was now more smoothly continuous than in the 1960s. In 1992 he completed a longstanding project: a Cello Concerto, which Janos Starker played the next year, with the American Composers Orchestra. This was followed by two string quartets, both introduced by the Brentano Quartet, and then by Twilight Colors for trios of woodwinds and strings (2007), Eternal Pine for Korean ensemble (2008), and a version of the latter for western instruments, Ode to Eternal Pine, with which this concert ends.


String Quartet No. 2 “Streams” (2003)

I. Contrapunctus variabilis I: Introduction and Fugue

II. Contrapunctus variabilis II: Zhaohun

III. Contrapunctus variabilis III: Canonic Perpetual Motion

IV. Contrapunctus variabilis IV: Episodes and Coda

            Chou’s own note provides all the necessary information:

            “My second string quartet is meant to be a humble tribute to the universality of the genius of Bach. When I was commissioned by the Brentano String Quartet for a short work in response to the Art of Fugue, I immediately decided to follow the commissioned fugue with ensuing movements on the same subject, as a quartet. It bears the subtitle ‘Streams’ suggesting the ebb and flow of distinct ideas sprung from a single source or the confluence of currents from different sources into a single intermingling entity.

            “The first movement is a strict fugue. Where it is different from a conventional fugue is that its theme undergoes radical transformations throughout the fugue according to the elasticity central to the Chinese theories of yin/yang and I-ching. If the western transformation of a fugal theme can be characterized as viewing oneself in a mirror – an exact reverse image – then the transformation in this quartet is more like seeing one’s own face undulating in a running brook or a rippling pond. Another difference is in the emphasis on the gradual ‘process’ of change as against a single ‘instance’ of change. This characteristic is found throughout the quartet.

            “The second movement is an elegy, set as a canon in two pairs, based on the yin/yang forms of the fugal theme. The Chinese subtitle, ‘Zhaohun,’ refers to a millennia-old poetic form, meaning literally ‘calling for the spirit of the deceased.’ It is in turn mournful, tender, explosive, and delirious but always constrained, and often with these qualities in juxtaposition wit each other. This wide range of emotion is expressed by the strings with mutes, in imitation of each other. This movement reminds me of the extraordinary a cappella polyphonic singing of villagers from an isolated locality in southwest China that I heard some years ago, which employed flexible but complicated imitation that is remarkably in spirit with that of this elegy. The Elegy is dedicated to the memory of my brother, Wen-tsing, who died unexpectedly shortly before I began to sketch out this movement.

            “Next comes an extremely brief scherzo-like movement in the character of ‘perpetual motion,’ although technically again a double canon. The interest here is the process of a relentless drive towards an ever-increasing tension by means of a constant expansion of the number of notes within each phrase, and of repeated bowing attacks within each beat. This steadily tightening mood is however counteracted by the ebb and flow in the tempo and the fluctuation in the dynamics. All of these means of expression in sound are in accordance with the same esthetic principles in Chinese calligraphy, where a single brushstroke in action can suggest an increasing mobility and tension while at the same time exhibiting fluctuations in texture and density. In short, this movement appears to be all about how a single calligraphic stroke completes its course of action. For a long time after the movement was composed, I was puzzled as to why I chose to depict such a theme. It only dawned on me recently that over the many months when I was composing this quartet, I was suffering a severe recurrent pain in my body that would intensify mercilessly to an unbearable climax when it would suddenly subside, very much in the manner of the arpeggio that abruptly concludes the movement.

            “The last movement is a recapitulation of the three principal expositions of the fugue. It opens with a canonic imitation in double-stops, making it practically a canon in eight parts. The superposition of double-stops on the strings made me feel sublimated while composing the movement. It is followed by a cadenza-like section leading to another eight-part section that is now homophonic, with a strong sense of searching for the meaning of life – to be one with nature. A brief coda brings the music back to where it started in the beginning, reminiscent of the introduction to the fugue. In deference to the monumental dimensions of Bach’s Art of Fugue, ‘Streams’ is consciously kept brief and concise.”


Echoes from the Gorge (1989)

            The qin, a small stringed instrument made to be placed on a flat surface and plucked, is traditionally in China a feature of the scholar’s study, taken up by its owner for moments of contemplative and extremely subtle music-making. Each note will have its particular color and shading, each silence its own length and shape; and the notes and the silences together will combine in a natural flow and wholeness, as unaffected as a landscape, or a tree, or the fall of a stream. Indeed, resemblance to nature is essential to the art of the qin.

            Echoes from the Gorge is not scored for this delicate instrument but rather for four players on an array of drums, gongs, bells, wood blocks and other untuned percussion instruments, and its dynamism is correspondingly greater. However, the aesthetic of the qin, which is so similar to the aesthetic of calligraphy, has long been a model for Chou in his composing, and the appeal also to the model of nature is revealed in the titles he gives his twelve main movements, which follow a short prelude, as follows:

            Prelude: This is marked “exploring the modes” – rhythmic modes, all derived from the sequence 3–2–1, with which the piece begins, on low gong. Entering in turn, the players are absorbed in patterns moving at different speeds. An acceleration on claves then leads into the main body of the piece.

            Raindrops on Bamboo Leaves: The pulse is suddenly uniform, passing from player to player, from instrument to instrument, as it quickens and slows down again.

            Echoes from the Gorge: Single attacks and repercussions reverberate through the silence.

             Autumn Pond: Soft drumrolls and gentle attacks.

             Clear Moon: Cymbal shimmers.

             Shadows in the Ravine: Patterings, quick figures, and again drumrolls pass around the ensemble.

             Old Tree by the Cold Spring: A six-stroke idea is varied before vanishing into simultaneous chimes from everyone on finger bells.

            Sonorous Stones: A brief process of amplification moves toward —

            Droplets Down the Rocks: Another study in pulsations.

            Drifting Clouds: A short rhythmic canon.

            Rolling Pearls: Drumrolls and flurries, changing in intensity.

            Peaks and Cascades: Again the canonic principle is at work, as the instrumental parts mount on one another.

            Falling Rocks and Flying Spray: The finale, dramatic and vigorous.


Ode to Eternal Pine (2009)

Prelude: Exploring the Modes

I. Meditating on Eternity

II. Ode to Eternal Pine

III. Lofty Peaks

IV. Profound Gorges

            The background and form of this work – scored for the standard “Pierrot lunaire plus” sextet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, and playing for around seventeen minutes – are explained in the composer’s note:

            “Ode to Eternal Pine is based on material from Eternal Pine (2008), which was commissioned by the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Korea (CMEK) for performance on traditional Korean instruments. The music, in either form, was composed in the spirit and style of chong ak, the ancient Korean chamber music, retaining its tempo, meter, and modal characteristics, with an emphasis on the fluidity of instrumental voices rather than exploitation of novel colors.

            “Chong ak is dedicated to the expression of human emotion inspired by natural phenomena but projected with serenity and dignity. In East Asian cultures, the pine, often seen on mountain peaks, is a symbol of longevity and the eternity of nature.

            “The opening movement, ‘Meditating on Eternity,’ is a reflection on the fundamental esthetic principle of East Asia, as expressed in the Chinese terms tian di ren: heaven, earth, and humanity. It suggests human emotion within the timelessness of the universe and the physical constraints on earth, the two axes symbolized by the later movements ‘Lofty Peaks’ and ‘Profound Gorges.’

            “The original thematic material and its development in each movement are continual transformations of a nuclear idea introduced after the brief Prelude. It is structured according to my variable mode principle, which enables the music not only to transform itself but also to adapt itself from one tonal format to another, such as pentatonic or chromatic.

            “Ode to Eternal Pine was commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble and dedicated to Elliott Carter."