The Inestimable and Visionary Impact of Chou Wen-chung

A Primer on the Soft-Spoken Composer and Influential Teacher

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tan Dun's teacher, student of Edgard Varèse, Chou Wen-chung stands at the intersection of Asian and European traditions, of old and new logics for cross-cultural listening.

Chou Wen-Chung is a composer whose pivotal importance to contemporary music can hardly be overestimated. We can imagine, for instance, a historical narrative that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a "modernist" period, when Western composers began to look to other cultures for materials, techniques and even ways of listening that would allow them to escape from the classical tradition. Then there was a "post-modernist" movement that rejected the exoticizing tendencies of modernism and attempted to build musical languages that would deconstruct the dialectic of East and West: instead of the music of the modernists, filtering the music of other cultures through a European prism, nowadays we have composers like Tan Dun, in whose work these different musics enter into a counterpoint of two equal voices — or at least that's the idea.

But then there's Chou Wen-Chung, whose place in the history of classical music reminds us that "modern" vs. "postmodern" is just another dialectic to be deconstructed. Tan Dun's teacher, student of Edgard Varèse, Chou stands at the intersection of Asian and European traditions, of old and new logics for cross-cultural listening.

Varèse and Chou were perfectly matched. Varèse had long been eager to escape the sound world of Western classical music, pushing its boundaries with exotic percussion experiments, and shared the younger composer's engineering background — Chou had originally come to the States to study architecture before being sidetracked into music. First his student, later his close friend, Chou finally became Varèse's musical executor, completing his posthumous work.

As a teacher, Chou became a one-man conduit to the West for a generation of Chinese composers, bringing future stars like the young Tan, Bright Sheng and Zhou Long to study with him in New York, who in turn brought Chinese influences into the mainstream of new American music.

The Chinese influence in Chou's own music takes several forms. Echoes from the Gorge (1989), a large-scale percussion work described as Chou's "magnum opus," is Chinese in an abstract sense, drawing on the composer's fascination with calligraphic brushstrokes, while pieces like Yü Ko (1965) and Beijing in the Mist (1986) quote traditional instrumental works tradition, calling upon performers from the Western tradition to imitate practices from Chinese music. Chou never writes for actual Chinese instruments — but through his music, through his influence and through his teaching, he has left an indelible, unmistakable Chinese mark on European-style classical music.

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