Streams and Echoes

The long musical journey of Chou Wen-chung.

by Tim Page ’79CC Published Fall 2014
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The Miller Theatre, known for its contemporary-music programming — and which, in its earlier incarnation as McMillin Theater, was where many of the first American performances of early electronic music received their premieres — has been presenting six to eight Composer Portraits every year. “We knew a couple of years back that Chou’s ninetieth birthday was coming up in 2013, but sometimes it takes a little while to put things together,” Smey says. “But then I started talking to Fred Lerdahl and it all came together.”

Lerdahl, the Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition at Columbia, has known Chou since the mid-1970s. “The world I’ve lived in is due to his efforts,” Lerdahl says. “I worked with him at Columbia in 1979 as a junior professor, I went away and then came back, and now his professorship is my professorship.

“Throughout it all, he’s been a wonderful colleague — very kind, polite, and gracious. Varèse recognized his great idealism and great musicality immediately and, like Varèse, there was nothing superficial about him, and he always wanted to do things his own way. So they understood each other. In my opinion, he is writing the best music of his career right now, in his nineties!

“I’m glad the Miller programmed a percussion piece — he’s always been so very specific with students on how and where to hit the gong,” Lerdahl continues. “His string quartets are among his best pieces — I would have liked to have programmed them both, but it would have been an enormous concert, and we wanted to present the Ode to Eternal Pine, which is so pretty and poetic.”

Chou editing Edgard Varèse’s orchestra piece “Amériques” in Varèse’s studio in the 1960s. / Courtsey of Chou Wen-chung

It would be reductive to suggest that Chou writes “Chinese music,” but there is no escaping the influence his native land has had on his work. Lerdahl says that Chou felt a “moral duty to help renew China” after the excesses of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. As such, he has visited China several times, and he arranged to bring a number of Chinese-born composers to study at Columbia, among them Bright Sheng ’93SOA, Chen Yi ’93SOA, Tan Dun ’93SOA, Chinary Ung ’74SOA, and Zhou Long ’93GSAS, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2011 for his opera Madame White Snake. His wife, Chen Yi, was one of three finalists in 2006. Bright Sheng has been a Pulitzer finalist twice, in 1989 and 1991.

In Chinese music, Chou says, “you don’t start with melody and counterpoint and find what you will find. Instead, you have to think of the whole piece — right away! — including density and color and stress, and then do your best to bring it to life.”

Chou had been looking forward to visiting China again this year, but he became sick a few days before he was scheduled to leave. “I was last there about three years ago, and I was so looking forward to going back,” Chou says. “I wanted to go to Shanghai and hear a new piece of mine, as well as participate on the editorial committee for the most important music journal in China. But I have a heart condition now, and so I asked five specialists whether I should go and they all voted it down. It was a deep disappointment.”

He brightens when the discussion turns to a new work that he is finishing for performance next year in San Francisco. “I’m still struggling between naming it in Chinese or English,” he says. “But the main point is that the producer wants it and wants me there, so I hope I’ll be well enough to attend.”

By way of describing the piece, and the difference between Western and Eastern music, Chou invokes one of his great interests: calligraphy.

“It is part of the soul of the Chinese people,” he says. “And it’s very different from Western languages, which are derived from Greek and Latin and fundamentally built on an alphabet. In China, the written language” — built on ideograms — “was developed earlier. Long before the Romans, we invented paper and the use of ink. You would write with the ink and a stick as your brush. It’s a free sort of writing where you decide whether to make a point or a brushstroke, or whether you want the finished work to be light or dark. You can be very fussy — but it has nothing to do with an alphabet.

“What I mean is that this is a total process for the composer. In Western music, you might start with a melody, and by and by you will have two or three or four melodies together, which turns into counterpoint, or, if you look at them all vertically, into harmony. Step by step you build the piece that way.” But in Chinese music, Chou says, “you don’t start with melody and counterpoint and find what you will find. Instead, you have to think of the whole piece — right away! — including density and color and stress, and then do your best to bring it to life. It’s a huge and fundamental difference between the thinking in China and in the West.”

Long before “world music” became a popular genre, Chou was creating his own distinct hybrid of sound. Yet for all his innovations, and for all the boundaries he has crossed, he considers himself a “deeply rooted” composer.

“Suppose you are driving and you get lost,” he says. “In that case, you shouldn’t just look forward and keep driving to find out where you should go. Instead, you should think about where you came from and how you came to be here, and there you will find the answer. I’ve spent a lifetime involved with education, and sometimes I’m disappointed by my colleagues who all want to see what will be ‘next’ — the next trend, the next technology.

“I’m not saying that the future is unimportant — not at all! But after two world wars and countless other conflicts, we need to learn from our pasts and carry that information with us as well. Our faith in the future is nothing unless we know the past.”

Tim Page ’79CC is a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writing about music for the
Washington Post, and he is the author or editor of more than twenty books.

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