Streams and Echoes

The long musical journey of Chou Wen-chung.

by Tim Page ’79CC Published Fall 2014
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Photograph by Karli Cadel

Chou Wen-chung vividly recalls the first time he felt the transformative power of music. It was the 1920s. He was a boy in Qingdao, which was not yet the gigantic metropolitan area of 8.5 million people that it is today, though it was already one of China’s busiest cities.

“I must have been about four years old,” says Chou ’54GSAS, who turned ninety-one this past June. “I had just begun to be aware of things, walking around freely, on my own, in our big garden. I heard sounds coming from the small house where the servants were — they’d left the door open and I was awfully little and they didn’t seem to mind that I came in. There they were, a handful of people, male and female, laughing and drinking a very cheap form of alcohol called kaoliang. They were playing instruments and singing, and I saw that they were happy and relaxed. I understood right away that these sounds were something through which you could express your happiness.”

It was the sort of epiphany that can lead to a life in music. After his family moved to Shanghai in 1937, Chou, then fourteen, was walking by an international newsstand and saw a headline announcing the death of Maurice Ravel.

The news shocked him: it had never occurred to him that a composer could be living.

“I thought composers were a gift from nature and that music was written by dead people, because every composer I had heard of, Chinese or Western, was dead,” Chou says. “And I thought, ‘Could I become a composer? How wonderful!’ After that, I was fascinated, and this is how I dared, with my kind father’s permission, to begin studying composition a few years later.”

Chou came to the United States in 1946 as a young refugee from the Second World War and the succeeding battles for power in China. He was awarded a graduate fellowship to study architecture at Yale (he had taken a degree in the subject back home at Chongqing University) but dropped out before the semester was finished and came to New York to study music at Columbia in 1952. “I knew at that point,” he says, “that I would either be a composer or have a very unhappy life.”

Chou is a gentle, courtly man who exudes warm interest and kindness. His music, which ranges from settings of early Chinese poetry to masterly string quartets and a haunting cello concerto, combines Western modernism with Eastern styles and sonic textures in a manner that is personal, organic, and beguiling.

The postwar period was remarkable at Columbia. Chou took his master’s degree with the composer Otto Luening at just the time when Luening ’81HON and his colleague Vladimir Ussachevsky were engaged in a collaboration that would lead to the birth, in 1958, of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the first such institution in the United States. The center began as a means of experimenting with sound on recording tape, and later ventured into the development of computer music and written music for synthesizers.

Chou came to know some of the most interesting cultural figures of the day. His first finished composition, Landscapes, an orchestral setting of three Chinese songs, received its premiere with the San Francisco Symphony in 1953 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. His several residencies at the upstate New York arts colony Yaddo led to a collaboration with the poet Ted Hughes based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead and to a lifelong friendship with the novelist Dawn Powell.

But he formed his most significant professional relationship with the modernist composer Edgard Varèse, who described his own music as “organized sound” and defined “noise” simply as any sound one didn’t like. Whether Varèse was writing for solo flute (Density 21.5) or for a percussion orchestra with bass drums, chimes, piano, glockenspiel, anvils, sleigh bells, and high and low sirens (Ionisation), the influence he exerted on such varied admirers as Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn was enormous.

Chou met Varèse in 1949 and became his student and assistant as the older composer was creating his last works, such as Déserts (1954), for wind instruments, percussion, piano, and magnetic tape, and Poème Électronique, an eight-minute work for tape alone that was commissioned for the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958. Scholars who seek out Varèse’s manuscript of Déserts will find Chou’s meticulous, unmistakable handwriting.

Chou returned to Columbia in 1964 to teach composition, which he continued to do for twenty-seven years, succeeding Luening as principal instructor in musical composition in 1969. He implemented the college’s music curriculum and was in charge of academic affairs at the newly created School of the Arts.

After Varèse died, in 1965, Chou completed the master’s last piece, Nocturnal, for soprano, male chorus, and orchestra (it would be performed for the first time in 1968), and began to edit scores dating back to 1918. As Varèse’s most celebrated pupil, Chou has remained a busy proselytizer for his master’s work, and he has lived for the past four decades in the same Sullivan Street house in Greenwich Village that Varèse bought in 1925.

In October, a “Composer Portraits” concert at Columbia’s Miller Theatre paid homage to Chou. The program was devoted mostly to his later music — the Ode to Eternal Pine (2009), the String Quartet no. 2 (2003), and Echoes from the Gorge (1989) — and was played entirely by the Brentano String Quartet, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Talujon percussion quartet, the groups for which it was written.

“He’s just an amazing figure, and he has had a huge influence on so many musicians,” says Melissa Smey, who is the executive director of the Miller Theatre and the Arts Initiative at Columbia. “I met him when I was an undergraduate flute player at the University of Connecticut, and I found his work Cursive for flute and piano. His lovely spirit comes through in his music, and then you meet him in person and all your preconceptions are validated.”

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