Modern Voice, Ancient Origins
Edgard Varèse’s Protégé Chou Wen-chung, Going Strong at 91
In his youth, Chou Wen-chung, the 91-year-old subject of a Composer Portrait at the Columbia UniversityMiller Theater on Thursday, had many strict teachers. One was Edgard Varèse, the temperamental French-born Modernist and godfather of electronic music, who once showed his displeasure by throwing a score of Mr. Chou’s on the floor and ordering him to urinate on it. Then there was Bohuslav Martinu, the Czech symphonist, who reacted to a fugue Mr. Chou had written using Chinese melodic material with a single, withering, “Why?”
But the sternest teacher of all was war, which swept over Mr. Chou’s native China in 1937, and which, over the next eight years, forced him to flee from one town to the next and often brought him face to face with death. In Shanghai, he practiced Bach and Mozart on the violin to the sound of artillery fire. Later, he trained his hearing as a university student in Guilin, where he learned to identify the flight path of Japanese warplanes by their sound. During a recent interview in his West Village townhouse, Mr. Chou recounted many harrowing war stories.
“This is the kind of thing we don’t want to experience,” he said after describing a traumatic escape from Guilin in 1944, moments before Japanese forces entered the city. “But if you do experience it, use that. We have to learn from life.”
As Mr. Chou spoke, Varèse frowned down at him from an oil portrait that hung above his desk. In fact, it is in Varèse’s former house where Mr. Chou (his name is pronounced Joe Wen-joong) now lives with his wife, the pianist Yi-an Chang. Its rooms are filled with Chinese antiques and samples of Mr. Chou’s own elegant calligraphy art; a collection of instruments from around the world, including a wall of hanging gongs; and small treasures that once belonged to Varèse. As such, the house is a physical expression of Mr. Chou’s lifelong pursuit of a union of Chinese culture, rooted in serious scholarship, and the architectural rigors of Western music.
“I never regarded myself as a Chinese composer,” Mr. Chou said. “I regard myself as a 20th-century composer. I have to reflect my time: That is my responsibility.”
Even so, there is a strong Chinese inflection in much of Mr. Chou’s music, even in works for purely Western instruments, like the gorgeous, brooding “The Willows Are New,” for solo piano, or in his elegant string quartets, which at times imitate the sounds of a Chinese zither or that of the bowed two-string erhu. On Thursday night’s program, the Brentano Quartet will perform his String Quartet No. 2 (“Streams”) in a program that also features the New York New Music Ensemble and Talujon. He has also written works for Chinese and Korean instruments, and for a broad spectrum of percussion instruments.
As a child, Mr. Chou was exposed to many different styles of Chinese music, even as he was reading translations of European fairy tales his father took home from his travels. As a toddler, he stumbled on an impromptu party in his home’s servants’ quarters.
“I opened the door, and there was a strong smell of cheap Chinese wine, and they were singing and playing,” he said. “I thought, ‘That is real life.’ From then on, I associated music with pleasure and enjoyment.”
But Mr. Chou also remembers watching first-rate musicians play for pennies in the streets, because the breakdown of the old social order had all but wiped out traditional patronage of the arts. Preserving and, where necessary, restoring knowledge of those arts — among them classical poetry and calligraphy — would become a vital concern of his after he moved to the United States in 1949.
At Columbia University, where he began teaching in 1964, he gave informal seminars on Chinese philosophy and aesthetics to the ever-growing numbers of Chinese composition students. The best known of these are Tan Dun (who, among other distinctions, won an Oscar for his score to the 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”); Bright Sheng, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001; and Zhou Long, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2011.
In a phone interview, Mr. Sheng recalled feeling intimidated by Mr. Chou. Coming out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he said he and his peers had had little training in the Chinese arts that Mr. Chou insisted they be familiar with.
“We would have weekly dinner seminars at his home, or sometimes in a restaurant, where he would discuss these philosophical ideas,” Mr. Sheng said, noting that topics might cover the I Ching’s system of divination and its application to music; percussion rhythms of Chinese opera; or calligraphy and the art of capturing the illusion of motion on paper. “In the beginning, we went out of respect and the lure of food, but in the end, he made a deep impression.”
As founder and director of the U.S.-China Arts Exchange at Columbia, Mr. Chou also poured substantial energies — at the expense of his own composing — into bridging the cultural divide between East and West. On that subject, he said, his optimism is waning.
“I’m very worried about Europe,” he said. “It is very, very late for Europeans to still not be paying attention to non-European cultures.”
Then again, Mr. Chou knows the value of patience. Varèse’s verdict that Mr. Chou’s music was fit for toilet paper would not be his last word on the subject. The two worked very closely together for years.
In 1996, Mr. Chou completed “Clouds,” a landmark work for string quartet that possesses a profoundly autumnal beauty. It represents the fruit of half a century spent studying what Mr. Chou called one of his prime musical influences: clouds. It’s also a testament to the silent encouragement of perhaps his most gentle teacher: his father.
He recalled a day in Nanjing when he came home early from middle school. “I went to the garden and lay down in the grass,” he said. “The weather was going to change, and you could see the cloud formations move. I was fascinated. All of a sudden, a shadow came over me, and it was my father: ‘What are you doing? Why are you not studying?’ I could tell from his face he was furious. I had to tell him the truth: ‘I am attracted by the clouds. I want to see how they move.’ ”
Mr. Chou said his father then walked away without saying another word. “He knew I was discovering something, and he did not want to interfere with me. He let me think it out.”
- ^ 牛津簡明音樂詞典（第四版），人民音樂出版社
Chou Wen-chung (Chinese: 周 文 中; pinyin: Zhōu Wénzhōng; born June 29, 1923 in Yantai (Chefoo), Shandong, China) is aChinese American composer of contemporary classical music. He emigrated in 1946 to the United States and received his music training at the New England Conservatory and Columbia University. Chou is credited by Nicolas Slonimsky to be one of the first Chinese composer who has attempted to translate authentic oriental melo-rhythms into the terms of modern Western music.