Works by Chou Wen-Chung



Chou Wen-Chung


Echoes from the Gorge






Music of Chou wen-chung




"It is difficult to over-estimate Chou Wen-chung's importance. [His work] is of considerable significance in the slow rapprochement of Western and Eastern musics in the second half of the 20th century"


Brian Morton, Contemporary Composers, 1992




"Chou's music is a remarkably successful fusion of Chinese tradition and sophisticated Western vocabulary and style. Almost all his major works take as points of departure Chinese poetry, painting, calligraphy or philosophical and aesthetic ideas, and he is conscious of his place in the long tradition of Chinese art."


Edward Murray, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980




"But a really profound 'meeting of East and West' ú on the philosophical, aesthetic, and technical levels ú has rarely been achieved. Perhaps it required a composer from the East, but one with thorough mastery of Western traditions and techniques, to accomplish this creative synthesis. Such a composer is Chou Wen-chung"


Gilbert Chase, America's Music, 1966




"As in the case of Schoenberg, an approach to music that seemed violently extreme and intensely personal turns out to have unexpectedly seminal possibilities."


Alfred Frankenstein, High Fidelity, April, 1956




"Chou [is] a 20th century innovator just as daring as was Gabrieli back in the days of Venice's musical glory."


William Mootz, The Louisville Courier-Journal, October, 1955




Half a century ago when he came to this country, Chou was already aware that Western music stood at the crossroads. He was prophetic in arguing for a fusion of cultural traditions of the East and the West at a time before such discussions were ubiquitous. In 1957 Chou suggested that the world had reached "the stage where an ideal merger of Oriental and Occidental musical ideas [could] take place." A decade later, he observed that "the beginning of a re-merger of Eastern and Western musical concepts and practices [was] actually taking place." By 1977 he felt "there should be less talk about influence than confluence," which connotes "mutual or reciprocal actions."




Chou noted that "the West, in its preoccupation with polyphonic writing, has more or less forsaken those particular aspects in music of which the East has remained master." But Western composers "have begun exploring the immense resources in musical expression afforded by controlling and varying the articulation, timbre, and intensity of individual tones ú precisely the same resources that have been of primary importance to Eastern Music." He believed the two traditions "once shared the same sources and that, after a thousand years of divergence, they are now merging to form the mainstream of a new musical tradition."




Can true fusion be achieved? Chou ú while addressing the West on absorbing non-Western ideas ú prescribes the approach necessary for achieving fusion: "[I]n studying non-Western music, one must consider the character and tradition of its culture as well as all the inherent qualities of the material itself, not all of which are perceptible or definable according to established Western concepts."




To Chou, building a new mainstream requires a process of cross-pollination that transcends cultural colonialism or chauvinism. His work shuns musical fashion, but aspires to fusing traditions from disparate sources and forging a music of the futurehis music is part of this inevitable confluence that leads to such a future. Chou has infused Eastern elements into Western music; at the same time, he is formulating a new syntax for Asian music that incorporates Western thinking into a practice rooted in the classical traditions of Asia. Since Chou regards the polarity of East and West as fundamentally arbitrary, he seeks to fashion a music that unites the yin-yang cultures of the Occident and Orient into one inseparable whole, one placing equal value on both traditions.




Diverse Eastern sources have shaped his work from the broadest conceptual framework to the minutest surface details. Taoist affinity to nature, I Ching's (Book of Change) concept of change, the yin-yang theory of complementary forces, the poetics of motion and texture in the brushwork of calligraphy and painting, the timbral and imagistic richness of ch'in (or zither) music, the pictorial suggestiveness of Chinese poetry, the elegant formal designs of East Asian musical practices (from which Chou developed his theories of single tones and variable modes), and the music theory and practices of India and Southeast Asia: these are the pervasive concepts that inform his work.




From the West, Chou has integrated into his work its many musical principles. Western tradition, as embodied by the contrapuntal and harmonic discipline of Bach, the rhythmic and thematic plasticity of Brahms, the coloristic and formal inventions of Debussy, and the spatial and geometric concepts of sound of Varèse, is all absorbed into his music. Chou shares with these masters an independence in musical thinking, showing in his music deep philosophical underpinning, technical integrity, formal elegance, and executive finesse.




"Seminal," "profound,""mastery": such descriptions accorded the work of Chou have issued forth from critics since the beginning of his career in the early 1950s. The comparison of his music by Frankenstein as being visionary and daring on par with that of Western pioneers like Schoenberg and Gabrieli and masterly on the level of great Eastern artists of the visual arts and literature suggests that Chou's innovation comes not through annihilation of the past, but rather its assimilation. Indeed Chou has made a fundamental albeit quiet impact. Through his innumerable contacts over the decades with colleagues and students East and West, he has widened their musical imaginings. That many agree his music achieves true East-West fusion and looks to the future seems undeniable. Morton's comment is representative: "If the future of creative music really is a 'Pacific' synthesis which absorbs the best of the European emigré avant-garde, native American and Commonwealth musics, and the arts of South and East Asia, then Chou Wen-chung is already at the vanguard. He belongs with the wenren, the 'engineer-pioneers in art'."




Chou was born in Chefoo (Yentai), China in 1923 to a family of wenren, or literati, tradition. He developed an early fascination for music and was educated in the 1920s through the 1940s against a backdrop of upheaval in a country recovering from Western colonialism, Eastern feudalism, and World War II. Urged to help rebuild China, he studied civil engineering instead of music, earning a baccalaureate in 1945 after the war.




Chou came to the U.S. in 1946 on a four-year architecture scholarship at Yale University. But he gave it up to pursue his dream in music. He studied with Varèse, as well as Martinu, Slonimsky and Luening, attending the New England Conservatory of Music and Columbia University. To acquire fluency in the traditions of East and West, Chou did extensive research of Western and Eastern musics and arts at Columbia throughout the 1950s, in part on a Rockefeller grant.




His international reputation came with the orchestral works Landscapes (1949), All in the Spring Wind (1953), and And the Fallen Petals (1954). The last became the most played contemporary work in the U.S. for one year in the 1950s. His work has been performed by major orchestras throughout the world. He was made an honorary life member of the Asian Composers League (1981), member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982), and honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music (1994). He was also appointed Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition at Columbia (1984).




His involvement as artist, teacher, scholar, cultural advocate and administrator allows him a wholistic grasp of the challenges facing the arts. As Varèse's literary executor, Chou completed the unfinished Nocturnal, and edited and prepared new editions of other works. He was the first technical assistant at Columbia's Electronic Music Laboratory (1955-7), first of its kind in this country. As teacher for over three decades at Columbia, he has produced a generation of composers. He has contributed to publications on contemporary and Chinese music, offering insight into Asian concepts. As academic dean of the School of the Arts (1976-1987) at Columbia and chairman of its doctoral composition program (1969-1989), Chou was the moving spirit shaping policies and providing artistic vision for the school. He developed its composition program, whose student body increased tenfold under his tenure. Under his presidency (1970-1975), Composers Recording, Inc. (CRI), an organization devoted to American music, was revitalized and brought into financial solvency.




The Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange (1978) was founded by Chou in response to the inexorable confluence of world cultures. It has designed and implemented many far-reaching projects in the arts. A recent project brought the Pacific Music Festival from conception to reality, involving Asian countries and the West. Another, the Yunnan Project, designed to preserve and develop minority cultures in that Chinese province, may emerge as a model for other endangered cultures in the world. Chou was recognized by a John D. Rockefeller 3rd Award (1992), which honors "significant contribution to the understanding, practice or study of the visual or performing arts of Asia."




The relationship between these endeavors and his own art is one of reciprocal nourishment, conforming to the wenren tradition of service as an integral part of a complete artist. Through his involvement Chou has been able to probe deeply into issues affecting the entire realm of arts. This in turn fuels his own music. The interactive process clearly echoes Chou's approach to being a composer: "One must search beyond the procedures of a musical practice, discern its original esthetic commitments, and trace how its tradition has evolved. If one is blessed with a cross-cultural heritage, one must then regard it as a privilege and obligation to commit the search in both practices."




Echoes from the Gorge (1989), subtitled A Quartet for Percussion, is the magnum opus of Chou: it represents a summation of all the concepts, East and West,


acquired throughout his career. This work deploys vast timbral resources, yet is unprecedented in the thoroughness with which it codifies certain Western percussion practices according to 1) timbres, 2) sticks with regards to articulation and, 3) contact location on the instruments. Such extensive codification results in a vast network of intrinsic structures comparable to Chinese ideograms.




The concept of calligraphy, in which, according to Chou, "the desired contour and texture of a character are achieved by the flow of ink through a coordination of pressure, direction, speed and viscosity", is also at work. The predetermined form in this piece emerges as the spontaneous manifestation of a continual directional change, as in the movement of a brush under the calligrapher's control. And the Fallen Petals, the orchestral work employing this same principle, prompts historian H.H. Stuckenschmidt to call Chou a "musical calligrapher."




The yin-yang concept of interaction controls the way the instruments relate to one another. The four parts, each with its own distinct rhythm derived from a single source, along with such elements as timbre and register, interact continually to create a totality in motion.




Rather than assuming a Western form, this work employs an elaborate design derived from "the preeminent musical form in East Asia, wherein all sections of a composition are elaborations or reductions of one and the same nuclear idea," Chou explains. Echoes From the Gorge contains an introduction followed by twelve sections, each being subtitled with an evocative imagery as in ch'in music, including "echoes from the gorge," "clear moon," "falling rocks and flying spray."




As with Varèse's Ionisation, Echoes From the Gorge explores the structural value of musical elements other than that of pitch. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that Chou regards Ionisation as the most representative work of Varèse wherein all the composer's concepts are revealed. Without any conscious intention by Chou, his piece is a fitting tribute to Varèse.




Yü Ko (1965), or "fisherman's song," is originally an ancient ch'in melody in tablature notation composed by Mao Min-chung (c.1280). The fisherman is a symbol of man in communion with nature. The intention of this work is to produce, through the actual deciphering of the tablature notation, a modern realization that amplifies the rich variety in tone production found in the precise ch'in finger technique, one that employs over a hundred symbols (chien-tzu) to achieve an elusive yet vital expression that is the essence of this art. The composer clarifies: "I have magnified, as closely to the original as possible, these inflections in pitch, articulation, timbre, dynamics and rhythm to a more perceptible level."




Critic Frankenstein believes this work is "full of the melancholy of Chinese poetry and mysticism that comes out so strongly in Sung Dynasty painting. It is one of the very few musical compositions, indeed, that seem thoroughly equivalent, in East-West terms, to the great-master periods and styles of Chinese literature and visual art."




Yün (1969) "is based on the Chinese philosophic concept of art as the moment when 'the universe and the individual merge as one' (tien jen he yi). That is when macrocosm and microcosm resonate in sympathy", Chou explains. "The title, Yün, is taken from the expression ch'i yün, the foremost principle in Chinese art, which means reverberation (yün) of the revitalizing force in nature (ch'i)." This Taoist concept permeates the piece, which revels in the resonances of nature. Some of these resonances are audible and include "wind and thunder, rain drops and cascades, frogs and cicadas" Others are inaudible. The approach to listening is clarified in Chuang Tzu: "When it cannot be heard by the ear, listen with the mind, when it cannot be heard by the mind, listen through ch'i."




Chou employs a flexible system of variable modes to control both pitched instruments and non-pitched percussion parts to represent two "lines" in reflection of one another. All other elements also complement one another. This conforms to the yin-yang principle found in nature wherein a reflection represents an inexact shadow of the original. For example, the concave shape of one line is reflected by the convex contour of the other. These lines intermingle and "resonate" in space and time and symbolize the continual reverberations in nature.




Yün shares with another important chamber work Pien the same points of departure and multiplicity of ideas. But Pien is as complex as Yün is simple.




In his early works of the 1940s and 1950s, Chou was grappling with the challenge of fusing the East and West: how may Chinese material be developed with Western techniques yet remain intrinsically Eastern? The solution is found in the Suite for Harp and Wind Quintet (1951) and the orchestral work Landscapes (1949), composed with the principle which, according to Chou, is "to recapture the color, mood and emotion implied in the seemingly simple folk material, by means of its own transmutation without adding whatsoever that is not already aurally present in itself."




The principle as applied to this work: the melodic material generates the structural elements of form, rhythm, sonority and instrumentation. For instance, certain melodic intervals within a phrase may be assigned to different registers on particular instruments to achieve the sonorities and colors that are already implied by the melody itself. Thus a change in interval may bring about a concurrent shift in tonality, timbre, register, and color. This work uses as raw material five traditional Chinese melodies (of which three are also used in Landscapes) cast in five continuous movements, each of a contrasting character.




In Windswept Peaks (1990), respect for the traditional instrumental idiom and transcendence of East-West dichotomy are integral concepts. The desire to go beyond a readily definable Chinese sound or Western character is found also in his most recent work, Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1992).




The yin-yang concept is responsible for the manner in which Windswept Peaks is cast as a double duo for violin/cello and clarinet/piano and for the permutation of the variable modes. At any instance, the four instruments create complementary interacting motions by employing four simultaneous variable modes that continually transform themselves into each other.




As in Echoes From the Gorge, imagery is integral to the meaning of the piece. "Windswept peaks," or shan tao, literally "mountain waves," is an aesthetic expression widely used in Chinese arts. The movement of these waves of sound over mountain tops invoked here finds parallel in the brushwork of calligraphy, which shapes the linear progression of this work.




This work is dedicated to Chinese intellectuals, wenren, whom Chou characterizes this way: "Frequently suppressed and persecuted, they stand tall among the mightiest peaks in the history of humanity. The image of windswept peaks suggests the unadorned beauty of inner strength, as symbolized by the gnarled pines and craggy rocks. This stark imagery began to permeate my musical thinking when the tragic event of June Fourth, 1989, at Tiananmen took place soon after I started composing this piece."




The emotions invoked by this momentous event account for the unconventional processes of the piece. Its energy never resolves but simply dissipates; motions accumulate momentum but become truncated. There are violent eruptions where things are torn asunder; there are quiet contemplations where one reminisces and yearns.




David Tsang © 1995




This recording had its impetus in the retrospective concert of music by Chou Wen-chung at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, on April 1, 1993. The event was sponsored by the Celebration Committee for Chou Wen-chung's 70th Birthday, Isaac Stern, honorary chairperson, and Norma F. Flender, chairperson, in collaboration with the Greenwich House Arts Division, Dr. B.C. Vermeersch, director. The concert and its recording are made possible in part by funds from the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation, the Virgil Thomson Foundation, Ltd., Walter and Esther Hewlett, David Rockefeller, Jr., Leni and Henry Spencer, and many others.




This is a live recording made at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, March 31- April 2, 1993.




The broad dynamic range of this disc necessitates care in adjusting your equipment's volume dial.




Boston Musica Viva




Established in 1969, the Boston Musica Viva (BMV) was the first professional ensemble dedicated to 20th century music in Massachusetts. Usually a new work is premiered at each concert, one director Richard Pittman requests of an American composer. In its long history, BMV has performed some 400 works by nearly 200 composers, many of which were world premieres. In 1991 BMV was awarded the American Composers Alliance Laurel Leaf Award for "distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging American music." In addition to its subscription series at home, BMV regularly tours its programs throughout the United States and Europe. BMV has championed numerous composers who later won Pulitzer prizes, among them John Harbison, Donald Martino, Joseph Schwantner, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. BMV has made twelve recordings, including those on the Northeastern, Delos and Neuma labels.




New Music Consort




The New Music Consort, Claire Heldrich and Madeleine Shapiro, directors, is a top ensemble specializing in contemporary music. The 1993 first prize winner of Chamber Music America/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Award, the Consort has appeared in the "Making Music Together Festival" in Moscow, the first American Arts Festival in London, the Reykjavik Festival in Iceland, and the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. The ensemble also performed in a documentary on Cage for PBS, and has been the subject of programs by Monitor Radio and T.V. The Consort has received commissioning awards from Chamber Music America, Meet the Composer/AT&T/Rockefeller Foundation, Cary Trust, Jerome Foundation, NEA and Nonesuch-Warner Communications. The Consort has recorded for New World Records, CRI, and Mode Records and is Ensemble-in-Residence at the Manhattan School of Music.




Speculum Musicae




Speculum Musicae has long been recognized as one of the finest chamber ensembles in the world. Dedicated to the music of our time, the ensemble draws on repertoire from the "classics" of the 1900s to newly commissioned works from established and emerging composers. Besides an annual series at Merkin Concert Hall in New York, Speculum Musicae tours regularly. Recent engagements have included those at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Library of Congress, the New Music Los Angeles series, the New York Philharmonic's New Horizons series, and the chamber


music societies of Denver and Baltimore. The ensemble has also toured Great Britain, including a 1988 performance at the Bath Festival which was taped for BBC Television, and Germany, and was featured at Poland's Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1986. Speculum Musicae is in-residence at the School of the Arts at Columbia University. The ensemble has recorded for CRI, Nonesuch, New World, Columbia and Bridge Records.




Producer: Timothy Martyn ·Associate Producer: David Tsang · Balance Engineer: Charles Jon Petrie ·Digital Editing: Carl Talbot ·Liner Notes: © 1995 David Tsang · Cover Design: Sumin Chou




Recorded March 31-April 2, 1993 at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City






Chou Wen-Chung




Echoes from the Gorge (1989) (18:33)




(A Quartet for Percussion)




Raindrops on Bamboo Leaves




Echoes from the Gorge




Autumn Pond




Clear Moon




Shadows in the Ravine




Old Tree by the Cold Spring




Sonorous Stones




Droplets down the Rocks




Drifting Clouds




Rolling Pearls




Peaks and Cascades




Falling Rocks and Flying Spray




New Music Consort




William Trigg, percussion ·Paul Guerguerian, percussion




Frank Cassara, percussion ·Michael Lipsey, percussion




Claire Heldrich, conductor




Yü Ko (1965) (5:39)




New Music Consort




Mary Rowell, violin · Judith Pearce, alto flute




Robert Ingliss, English horn · Allen Blustine, bass clarinet


Ron Borror, trombone ·Donald Hayward, bass trombone




Christopher Oldfather, piano


William Trigg, percussion ·Frank Cassara, percussion


Claire Heldrich, conductor




Yün (1969) (12:32)




Speculum Musicae




Elizabeth Brown, flute ·Allen Blustine, clarinet


Ethan Silverman, bassoon ·William Purvis, horn


Ray Mase, trumpet ·Hugh Eddy, trombone


Christopher Oldfather, piano ·Jim Baker, percussion


Eric Charlston, percussion




Donald Palma, conductor




Suite for Harp & Wind Quintet (1951)






Speculum Musicae




Elizabeth Brown, flute ·Marcia Butler, oboe


Allen Blustine, clarinet ·Ethan Silverman, bassoon




William Purvis, horn ·Victoria Drake, harp






Windswept Peaks (1990) (16:23)


Boston Musica Viva




Nancy Cirillo, violin ·Ronald Lowry, 'cello




William Wrzesion, clarinet ·Hugh Hinton, piano




Richard Pittman, conductor






TOTAL TIME = 60:25