Tag: Chinese music

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

Huang Ruo


Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)

So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.

In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”

There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.

There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.

According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.  One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”

Bun-Ching Lam: Home is Where You Park Your Suitcase

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Born in Macau, educated in Hong Kong and California, and now dividing her time between Paris and upstate New York, Bun-Ching Lam has created a fascinating body of music that is shaped by her multicultural life experiences as well as her sensitivity to a wide range of instrumental sonorities and extreme curiosity.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once,” she told us when we visited her at the home of baritone Thomas Buckner, with whom she had been rehearsing in preparation for the New York premiere of her recent song cycle Conversation with My Soul, based on texts by Lebanese-American poet and painter Etel Adnan. (The performance, with the Tana Quartet, will take place at Roulette on November 16 as part of Buckner’s Interpretations series, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.)

Macau, she acknowledged, was a challenging place for an aspiring concert music composer since, when she was growing up, live performances of classical music were extremely rare. But thanks to her father and some friends who owned classical music recordings, she was able to learn about the repertoire. At the same time, she immersed herself in many other kinds of music, from traditional Cantonese folksongs to the local jazz of Dr. Pedro Lobo to discovering the Beatles on the radio. And she learned how to play many different musical instruments, from the Chinese yangqin to the baritone horn (which she played in a school band) to the accordion. But soon her primary focus was playing the piano, although she admitted that she preferred improvising to practicing: “Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.” Still, she enrolled as a piano major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam’s composing activities did not officially begin until she came to the United States as an exchange student. She spent a year at the University of Redlands in California, where she was exposed to a wide range of experimental approaches under the tutelage of Barney Childs.  But after she returned to Hong Kong, she won an art song composition competition, which helped pay off her debts and momentarily led her to think that composing was lucrative. When she decided to pursue a graduate degree, she enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, and wound up studying composition with Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. Unlike her peers, she did not come in with a huge portfolio of works, but within only a few years, Lam began creating music in a distinct, personal style. One of her early works from this time—Bittersweet Music I for solo piccolo—remains one of her most frequently played compositions.

“One of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is,” she remembered.  “And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  … I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.”

Being Bun-Ching Lam means creating music slowly and carefully. She rarely composes more than one work per year. And although she claims that with each piece she’s “starting from scratch,” every gesture is meticulously shaped, with an end result that blurs different aesthetics seamlessly. She frequently juxtaposes instruments as well as texts from East Asia and the West, as well as from the Middle East.

“It’s all available,” she explained.  “Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?”

A conversation with Bun-Ching Lam at the home of Thomas Buckner in New York City
October 8, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  I’ve wanted to talk to you for years, but now seems a particularly apt time since the world is currently going through a very strange period of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia. More than most composers I can think of, you are so polynational, both in terms of your life and your music, to the point that I don’t think what you do could have existed if you did not have this range of experience in so many different places.

“I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.”

Bun-Ching Lam:  Absolutely.  I agree with you. Because I’ve lived in all these places, I’m familiar with so many different cultures.  I speak five languages. None of them well, of course.  But yes, I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.

FJO:  You were born and raised in Macau, which is a very unusual place already.  It, in itself, is a multicultural oasis.  When you were growing up, it was still ruled by Portugal.

BCL:  Yes, until 1999.  My piano teacher was Macanese, so our lessons consisted of Cantonese and English, because I don’t speak Portuguese but she’s speaks very good Cantonese. And then from her, I also learned a lot of English.

FJO:  So Portuguese is not one of your five languages.

BCL:  No, at that time, we had resistance about learning the colonist language.  But I should have learned Portuguese, because then I could read Pessoa in Portuguese.

FJO:  The majority of the population of Macau is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, but the colonial rulers were Portuguese. These are two very different cultures.  But because both the Chinese and the Portuguese there were separated from their motherlands, in some ways they both developed their own cultures.

BC:  The Portuguese who were there they called Macanese.  They don’t really speak the same Portuguese as the people in Portugal; the language has changed.  They have their own subculture and their own patois that the Portuguese don’t know.  And they have poets.  Actually I have a piece where I have used that particular language called Macau Cantata. It uses all the different languages that have passed through Macau.  The famous Chinese poet and playwright Tang Xianzu was in Macau. We all know his Peony Pavilion. He has this description of Macau as the first place where East and West meet. And then [Matteo] Ricci; he went to China and he was stationed in Macau, because that was the only place that you could get access to the mainland. It’s a fascinating place.  In comparison to Hong Kong, Macau actually has its own genuine culture that is very different from any other place.  Of course Hong Kong also has its local culture, but it’s very different.  And, even now, you can go from one place to the other with no problem.


FJO:  So I’m curious about how you first got exposed to music growing up in Macau.  Before you started studying piano, what were you listening to?  I have this strangely packaged CD that I got years ago that’s a collection of music from Macau that has a recording of your Saudades de Macau on it. But it also includes piano music by Father Aureo Castro and dance music by Pedro Lobo.

BCL: Pedro Lobo! We called him Dr. Lobo.  Every day at 12 o’clock, the radio program had his band on, which played a kind of jazz music. They also had a lot of pop musicians from the ‘50s. And Father Aureo—actually I was just in Macau not too long ago and it was the 55th anniversary of the music school he founded, so they had all kinds of activities and also played his music.  I was invited to do a lecture for the little kids.  It was a lot of fun.

“Listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year.”

So I heard all that, and I also heard Cantonese music and The Beatles. Everything. I loved rock music.  But actually listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year of classical music.  I had friends, so we borrowed records.  And my father loved music and had records of classical music.  The first concert I heard was Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the flute.  I didn’t hear any real live orchestral music until I was 16, when I went to Hong Kong for the first time.

FJO:  How much traditional Chinese music were you exposed to in Macau?

BCL:  Oh, there were all kinds of things.  And I also played a little on Chinese instruments.  I played the yangqin and the moon-shaped lute, but never very well. Then I played in the school band. I started out as a conductor, and then I learned to play baritone horn, because nobody wanted to play it, so I played it.  And I learned to play accordion in one day; I had to go on stage the next day.  So that was a lot of fun.

FJO:  So you were playing wind band music?

BCL:  Yeah, and we had our own transcriptions.  I actually arranged certain things.  I was 14 or 15. That was interesting because I got to learn various instruments.  I know how to play “Home, Sweet Home” on any instrument, but not very well.

FJO:  There have been at least two other composers with international reputations besides you who are from Macau. A lot of people probably don’t realize that Xian Xinghai was born in Macau, even though he became a very iconic composer in mainland China because of his role in the revolution and his Yellow River Cantata was turned into a piano concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It’s still played all the time.

BCL: He died very young.

FJO:  And then there’s Doming Lam, who I think is a very interesting composer.

BCL:  Absolutely, but he basically lives in Hong Kong.  Then he went to Canada for a while. He never really lived in Macau.

FJO:  I think in order to establish a career for himself, he had to leave Macau and go somewhere that had a larger musical scene.

BCL:  Macau is a very, very small place.  And it’s very hard to stay there forever.

FJO:  So you left Macau to study piano in Hong Kong.  But at that point, you still were not thinking of writing music.

“I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.”

BCL:  No. I wrote some little songs, and one time I sent one to a magazine but I never heard from them.  Since I don’t like to practice piano, I improvised.  I didn’t have a piano at home, so I practiced piano at school, right down in the hallway, and people would come and pass by.  My father wanted to make sure that I practiced, so he had a teacher [check in on me] and he had a little book.  Each time after I finished practicing he would say, “Very good” or “It doesn’t seem to be very good today.” But since he didn’t know anything about music, I’d just play some things, I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So many different biographies of you state that you didn’t actually start writing music until you arrived in the United States.

BCL:  Right.

FJO:  So I thought, even though you were born and raised in Macau and you studied in Hong Kong and eventually started spending a great deal of your time in France, since you started writing music here, if anyone feels the need to make any kind of nationalistic claims about your identity as a composer, a strong case could be made that you’re an American composer.

BCL: I could be.  I don’t know who I am. Sometimes in one of those ISCM things, they will say I’m a Portuguese composer.

FJO:  Really?

BCL:  Because I was born and raised in Macau. I don’t know what composer I am.  I’m just me.

FJO:  But your serious exposure to contemporary music happened in Hong Kong.  I know that you met Richard Tsang when you were there.

BCL:  Well, we were in the same class.  We were buddies. He started to write music first, and I was just a piano player.  The first time I had contact with contemporary music was when I was in the fourth year.  My piano teacher said, “You should play Schoenberg.” I actually found it quite ugly.  I was doing Opus 11.

In my second year, I went to University of Redlands as an exchange student. I was there only for one year and then I went back to Hong Kong to finish my degree there. But I wanted to learn about contemporary music, so I was playing in the new music ensemble and we were doing Cage and Barney Childs—he was the teacher.  And I learned electronic music. I just wanted to be exposed to different things.  One time, we did this John Cage thing and different music happened at the same time.  I said, “This is fun.”  That was actually in my first composition course. I studied with Barney, and I wrote a piece called Theme and Variations on a Chinese Folksong.  That was my first composition. In each variation, the style changes. Some of it sounds like Hindemith, but it sort of progressively gets more away from the tonal. It [uses] a simple tune [sings melody].  I don’t even know what the name is, but I always liked that tune.

FJO:  Do you still have a manuscript of it somewhere?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  Maybe it’ll turn up somewhere.

BCL:  In the Yale Library.  Everything turns up there.

FJO:  Or at the Sacher Foundation.

BCL:  I doubt it very much.

FJO:  So with so many places that have been part of your life, do you consider any place to be home?

“I think home is where you park your suitcase.”

BCL:  Well, I think home is where you park your suitcase.  Your root is somewhere else.  But if I carry my root with me, it’s just dangling. It never goes anywhere; it’s just where I am. Nowadays people always say the DNA.  The DNA’s there.  So it doesn’t matter where I live.  The Chinese say, “When the leaves fall off, it goes back to the root.”  Maybe one of these days I will want to go back to live in Macau, because it’s true, each time I go back there, there’s a certain kind of familiarity.  Or if I go to China. Deep down, I’m certainly Chinese. Therefore, to answer your question, I’m a Chinese composer.  I always say, “You’re once Chinese, you’ll always be Chinese.”  That’s how I think.  Somehow it’s because of how I was brought up.  Certain kinds of Confucian thinking are ingrained in me, even though I like Chuang Zhu and Lao Tzu much better; that part of the philosophical outlook on life is ingrained.

FJO:  Well, if there’s anything that more pieces of yours have in common than anything else, it’s an association with Macau. And even in the last ten years, you’ve written three works that reference Macau. Aside from the Macau Cantata, which you mentioned, there’s also Five Views of Macau and Scenes from Old Macau.

BCL:  Definitely I like Macau, but there’s also a practical reason.  I was a composer-in-residence in Macau.  They wanted me to write Macau this, Macau that.  So I think of myself like the Respighi of Macau. I’m actually tired of it, so I’m no longer composer-in-residence.  Still, the next piece I’m working on is for the Macau Youth Orchestra.  It’s more interesting to see how I can relate to the young people.

FJO:  To get back to your formative years, I’m curious about what happened next after you wrote that first piece of music when you were studying with Barney Childs. You went back to Hong Kong, but you obviously got the composing bug since not long after that you came back here to pursue a graduate degree in composition.

BCL: I had borrowed some money from the school and I was totally broke. Then the last year there was a composition competition for songs and the prize was pretty high.  Richard Tsang was also applying for it, so I thought maybe I should write a song. Then if I win, I guess I can pay back my loan.  That’s how I started.  It was a very short song. I hid in the practice room and I was looking at all the French chansons. I found some harmonies and I made this song up.  Then I entered and I won.  So I said, that’s great.  It’s very lucrative being a composer.

FJO:  That’s very different from most people’s experiences.

BCL:  Well, that was the only time that I really won some money.  I’m still waiting for my MacArthur, but I’m not holding my breath.

FJO:  Yeah, they just announced this year’s winners, so maybe next year.

BCL:  Right, it’s great.  Fantastic.

FJO:  But okay, you won this competition and you paid back the loan.

BCL:  And I went to America.

FJO:  In order to pursue a degree in composition?

BCL:  No. I went to UC San Diego for a master’s and at that time they had a track system where you had to do different things.  I picked piano of course, because I applied as a pianist, and then they had theoretical study, and then there was some sort of extended technique.  But since I don’t like history because I don’t remember anything, I said, “Okay, I’ll try composition.”  At first, I was at the undergraduate composition seminar and Bernard Rands was the teacher.  So I wrote a piece for solo flute.  That was the assignment.  Everybody had to write a piece for solo flute.  And then the next assignment was a duet.  You add another line on top of that piece, so it would be a duet for two flutes.  I said, “Wow, by the time I’m 70, I will be writing a symphony.”  But then in the second quarter, I got promoted into the graduate seminar.  But I really didn’t have a portfolio.  All the people already were composing since they were born.  I was just a beginner.

FJO:  You were a beginner, but you were already studying with Bernard Rands.

BCL:  Well, he was employed to teach there, so he had to teach anybody.

FJO:  But you ultimately wound up studying composition with a lot of other very interesting people as well. We’ve actually done talks with quite a few of the people you studied with—Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. They are so different from each other.

BCL:  Exactly.  And there was another person I studied with, Robert Erickson, who was totally different [from all of them].  I was in all of their seminars.   For me, it was fantastic that I got to learn from different people.

FJO:  And what’s fascinating is, although you came in without a portfolio of compositions in the beginning, within five years you were writing pieces that clearly have a distinct compositional identity, and which are still receiving performances, like the piccolo solo Bittersweet Music from 1981.  Of course, it helps that there isn’t a lot of solo piccolo repertoire.

BCL:  That’s right.  That’s why I pick those weird things to do.

FJO:  It’s a good idea to write a piece that can have that kind of circulation.  But still, it seems really unusual to me that you were able to create something that is so fully formed so soon after starting to write music.

BCL:  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  I think that one of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is.  And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  Can you imagine now everybody is wearing bell bottom pants. That was in the 1960s. So now you have to get rid of all your skinny pants? Why would you want to do that?  The only people who make money are the people who manufacture it!

“When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.”

Music is the same thing.  It was fashionable to write 12-tone music.  Now nobody writes 12-tone music except a few people in California, which used to be anti-12-tone music.  And now it’s all environmental—the cosmos and all those things.  Once it was fashionable to be Chinese, like 10 or 20 years ago. Now it’s fashionable to be Finnish or some other up-north people like Iceland, which is fantastic because everybody has something to offer.  So I like it.  I think it’s a great time.  People are open to different things.  But when you’re open to different things, other things get shut off.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So, would it be a fair assessment to say that you primarily compose by intuition, or is there some sort of secret system behind the pieces you’ve written? What causes a piece to get formed the way it does?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s getting progressively more difficult for me to write.  I’m writing a short piece now.  I love strange combinations, and this piece is for shakuhachi, recorder, an oud, a theorbo, and a kugo, which is a harp.  And I’m just racking my brain about how to make it work.  With each piece I’m just starting from scratch.  When it happens, it happens.  That’s why it takes me a long time to write a piece, because I don’t know what I’m doing.

FJO:  So would you say you come up with the idea of what the combination of the instruments is first, and then it leads you in a certain direction?

BCL:  Yes, but that happened to be the group that commissioned it.  There’s no repertoire; you just have to make it up.

FJO:  Interesting.  One of the things I find so fascinating about your work is how it embraces so many different cultural traditions. You’re Chinese and you’ve written a lot of works that involve Chinese instruments, as well as Chinese instruments in combination with Western instruments.  But you’ve also written works for Japanese instruments.  You mentioned this new piece has shakuhachi.  Plus you’ve written for gamelan, which is Indonesian, and for Middle Eastern instruments.  The entire world’s sounds are fair game.

BCL:  I think so.  It’s all available.  Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?  I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.

FJO:  Yet at the same time, and I guess this strikes to the whole notion of fashion, there’s a huge movement nowadays where people believe if you’re not from a culture, you can’t really understand that culture and what the larger meanings of things are from that culture, and therefore you shouldn’t be appropriating them.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.”

BCL:  Right.  That’s a big discussion. Like if you’re not black, you shouldn’t write about black culture. I don’t know.  I have no answer.  I’m not stealing; I’m just borrowing. And I’m not appropriating, because if I’m writing for shakuhachi, I’m not trying to be Japanese, or if I write for string quartet, I’m not pretending to be European.  So I don’t see any reason not to do it.  But you have to do it with respect. If as an American, you just write music that sounds like gamelan music and there is nothing really different, then maybe that could be a question.  I could be wrong.

FJO:  One thing that’s so interesting about your approach is the ways things blur together. By combining these different sound worlds, the result is music that would not have been possible from any of those places in isolation. I was listening again this morning to your song cycle Nachtgesänge, which is based on poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin. You use such an unusual combination of instruments.  You included a koto, which is Japanese, and also a saxophone, which though of European origin really came into its own in the USA. Hölderlin has been described as the most German of German poets, but you set his poetry using sonorities from all over the world. And in doing that, his poetry becomes—

BCL:  —something else. Yeah.  But I didn’t choose the instrumentation. It was for the CrossSound Festival in Alaska.  They have those players and so I chose that, but I have to find a rationale for how to combine these instruments, not only because of sound. I live with a German so that makes it work, I think. But actually the thinking is quite Chinese, because of the classification of the instruments by material.  I was thinking there’s wood, there’s brass, there’s metal, and then there’s something that’s neutral to combine them all together.  And the reason is because Hölderlin is a fantastic poet.  I also made a book with that text with some of my etchings. I learned about Hölderlin and this whole German Romantic world—how they expressed words was just fantastic, just the sounds of them. I just love it.

FJO:  So German must be one of your five languages then.

BCL:  Yes.  I understand almost everything, but when I speak everybody laughs because I just don’t say things the same way. But it’s grammatically correct, usually.

FJO:  If the unusual instrumental combinations you write for are the result of the people who are commissioning a work from you, you obviously don’t have a lot of say in that. But what if there was a combination that you felt wouldn’t work for your music?

BCL:  Then I just don’t accept the commission.

FJO:  So there have been times you’ve turned down commissions.

“Since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.'”

BCL:  Yes, since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”  I still haven’t written a woodwind quintet.  It would be kind of fun to do, but that’s also very difficult because you right away think about these bad woodwind quintets that have been written.

FJO:  But the text is something that you usually choose, I imagine, although I know that you wrote a setting of Heinrich Heine for Tom Buckner, whose home we’re in now, because it was something that he wanted, so you chose that text as a gift to him.

BCL:  Everybody loves Heine.  It was a love song.  It was a present for Kamala and Tom for their wedding anniversary.  But I usually choose the text. I’ve written some Dada songs [with texts] by Hugh Ball.  I just love that silly nonsense; you can make anything out of it.  That was written in 1985, before any big commissions.

FJO:  You are interested in so many things, so you probably read more texts than the ones you wind up setting.  What makes a text cry out to you and make you want to set it to music?

BCL:  Well, I don’t read too terribly much, because I really don’t have that much time.  I’ll just see something. But it has to speak to me somehow; I have to see an image.  For instance, I’m learning French, so I’m paying more attention to French poets.  I also still use a lot of Chinese poems.

FJO:  But the thing that I find so fascinating, to take it back again to that Hölderlin setting, is the text that you choose doesn’t necessarily determine the kind of musical sound world that that text is in.  The idea that a Japanese instrument could be used to bring out the words of Hölderlin is quite interesting. I know that you have done some settings of Chinese poetry using Chinese instruments, but then you’ve also done Chinese settings that don’t use any Chinese instruments at all.

BCL:  Right.  I think the texts I do something with are very universal.  Mostly they are poems about love or about isolation.  Human emotion is common to every culture and every language.  Therefore music is a great way to illuminate those feelings and those emotions.  For instance, there’s one piece at the concert on November 16, which is the 30th anniversary for the Interpretation Series, called Conversation with My Soul; [the text is] by the great poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan.  I wanted to write a piece for Tom and she’s Tom’s close friend; that’s a present for her 91st birthday that Tom did for her.  I wanted to write another string quartet, but I thought it might be easier to add a baritone voice to it and, for me, it was to discover the meaning of her language. Sometimes it’s very obscure, because she’s Lebanese and English is her second language, just like me, so her use of language is very different from people like John Ashbery. And the syntax—sometimes you don’t know where you are!  Just like music, it’s ambiguous; you don’t know exactly what the meaning is.

FJO:  So have you ever set a text in a language that you don’t speak to some extent?

BCL:  I try not to.  It would be difficult to set something in Greek, because it’s like Greek to me.

FJO:  Curiously, one of my favorite pieces of yours is one from very early on, your solo percussion piece Lue.

BCL:  Wow, I didn’t know that you knew my music so well.  That makes me feel happy.

FJO:  Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about since we’re talking about understanding different languages. To me that piece sounds so idiomatic for percussion, but back in 1983, when you wrote it, I can’t imagine that you would have had a ton of background with percussion instruments.

BCL:  Well, I do hit the table with the chopsticks, once in a while.  I don’t know. You just imagine.  You don’t have to draw a picture; you just know you have to reach from here to there in this time. That was a very extravagant piece.  That piece is not played very much because it costs a lot of money to rent the instruments.  But I was at Cornish, and my wonderful colleagues helped me and somehow it all worked.

FJO:  It’s interesting that it doesn’t get performed much because it’s one of the only pieces of yours that there are two different commercial recordings of.

BCL:  Is that right?

FJO:  There’s the first recording that was released on CRI decades ago and then a more recent one on Mutable.

BCL:  Right.  Well, it’s too expensive.  Nobody plays that.  They don’t want to move those things anymore.  There have been other performances in New Jersey because of a percussion teacher there.

FJO:  Raymond DesRoches.

BCL:  He’s great.

FJO:  You wrote a second percussion piece later on called Klang, which I’ve never heard and would love to hear.

BCL:  There was a commercial recording of it in Europe, but I don’t know how commercial it is, with a great percussionist, Fritz Hauser, a Swiss guy.  He just did a big festival in Lucerne and he commissioned that piece. The great thing is that he always had two bass drums.  I love kung fu books [even though] I don’t read too many of them; [in kung fu] human beings have a way to separate the body. You can have your left trying to control your right, so you try to separate yourself.  So that piece [Klang] is very difficult to play because he has to do all these things. So I had fun doing that piece, but very few people play that piece also.  I think he was the only person who played it.

FJO:  I suppose that’s the opposite of the piece you wrote for piccolo, Bittersweet Music, which many people have performed.

BCL:  Yeah.  Maybe.  It’s short.  And it’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter.

FJO:  You’ve written three pieces with that title.  The third one is for bass flute, which is a lot less common.

BCL:  Yeah, a lot of people don’t have bass flute, so I don’t think that piece has been played very much.

FJO:  There is at least one video of it online which is really nice.  Another piece that I wanted to talk with you a bit about is …Like Water, which has also been recorded twice.  It’s a trio of Western instruments—violin, piano, and percussion—but once again, it’s such a seamless blur of East and West, Asian, European, and American traditions.  If I didn’t know it was your music, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out where this music came from; I’d have no idea.

BCL:  Oh, that’s great.  Thank you.  I’m from Mars!

FJO:  Though it’s seamless, from minute to minute it goes through so many different stylistic sound worlds, so I’m wondering what your roadmap for that piece was.

“The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.”

BCL:  Well, that piece was written for dance.  It was a collaboration with the choreographer June Watanabe.  The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.  You can’t just add a couple of minutes here or there, except Stravinsky who just adds more repeats!  She wanted a piece that had something to do with water.  So I just wrote pieces for her. Each day, I wrote one, more or less.  I’d just get up in the morning and say, “Okay, today I’ll write one.” Then one after the other, because I had a deadline.  That helps too, once in a while. Instead of just dreaming about a piece, you actually have to work on it and finish it.  So that’s how it all came about.  And then it was for The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and they are wonderful musicians; they can play anything.

FJO:  You’ve mostly written pieces for smaller ensembles, but I wanted to talk with you a bit about the orchestra, because you have written several orchestra pieces and have also conducted them. Earlier in this conversation you were talking about writing a piece when you studied with Bernard Rands that started as a solo and then became a duo, and you imagined that it would eventually become a symphony.

BCL:  Well, I still haven’t written a symphony, so I’m still waiting.

FJO:  Do you want to?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s too difficult to write a symphony.

FJO:  You’ve written concertos, though.

BCL:  Yeah.

FJO:  Including two pipa concertos.

BCL:  Actually both of them will be performed in Germany at the end of this month, which is very rare.

FJO:  Together on the same concert?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  Wow.

BCL:  They’re going to do it three times.  So this is a great treat for me.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.  So are there a lot of performances of your music in Europe?

BCL:  No, not really.  Once in a while.

FJO:  Does it help to be based there a good deal of the time?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  So then what led you to spend so much of your time in Paris?

BCL:  The food is better!

FJO:  There’s some pretty good food in New York, too.

BCL:  It’s true, but I don’t live in New York anymore.  I’m kidding, but in terms of ingredients, it’s still better [in Paris].  But that’s not really the main thing; it’s the culture. Since I left New York, Paris seems to be a good city to be in right now.

FJO:   I’ve enjoyed the times that I’ve been there. And, at this point, I imagine you are probably also able to find musicians there who play pipa and shakuhachi and any other instrument you’d want to write for.

BCL:  Well, these other musicians are in Seattle or New York.  I think for the variety of multicultural things, the United States is still the best.  In Germany, there are some people.  Wu Wei is there.  And I just did a piece for a pipa player in Geneva.  There are so many pipa players everywhere now, and they’re all very, very good.

FJO:  Are they all Chinese?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  There’s now all this repertoire for Asian instruments that’s part of Western contemporary music, either in combination with Western instruments or just for those instruments, even pieces that are being composed by people who are not originally from Asia. But most of the players are still Asian, even though there are now some really terrific shakuhachi players who are not Asian. With the other instruments, like pipa, that hasn’t happened so much yet.

BCL:  I think it’s going to change soon.  Hasn’t Manhattan School of Music started a Chinese music program?  And in the Midwest, there are centers.  There are Confucius Institutes all over the world.  They all have music programs.  So it’s changing.  It’s going to take a while, but before too long, it might be very cool to learn to play pipa.  The Silk Road is everywhere, so people may want to learn that.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  Now in terms of big projects, you said writing a symphony is very hard.  But you’ve done two rather large music-theater type pieces.  The one that I’m more familiar with is The Child God.  It’s a big piece.

BCL:  That’s only half an hour.

FJO:  Yeah, but many symphonies are about a half an hour, unless you want to be Mahler.

“I don’t want to be Mahler. I don’t want to be Respighi, either. I want to be me.”

BCL:  No, I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.  But Mahler is such a great composer; I’m not in the same league.

FJO:  So what pieces would you want to write if you were given the opportunity to write them?

BCL:  I don’t really have any goal or wish, just what comes to mind. I have to work on this youth orchestra piece.  That will be 25 minutes.  So that can be a symphony.

FJO:  There you go.  There’s your symphony.

BCL:  Yeah, but I don’t want to call it a symphony.  It just has too much implication somehow.  Symphonies, symphonias, everybody playing together—that’s the original definition.  I want to start with number nine, and I will die right away.

FJO:  Well I hope that doesn’t happen.  So don’t write that one yet.

BCL:  Yeah, I’m postponing it.  Until I’m 95, then it’s about time to go.

The Importance of Exchange

As China enters a new era of modernization and globalization, musical exchange becomes an increasingly pressing matter. While a news outlet may express certain views or statistics on trade, there is very little effort made to bridge the gap in cultural understanding. This is where the intersection of Chinese traditional music and new music has the potential to play an important role.

Composers’ Approaches to Musical Exchange

After a dinner at Gao Weijie’s house in September 2017 with Gao Weijie, Gao Ping (photographer), Dutch ethnomusicologist Frank Kouwenhoven, and lawyer Wang Teng.

After a dinner at Gao Weijie’s house in September 2017 with Gao Weijie, Gao Ping (photographer), Dutch ethnomusicologist Frank Kouwenhoven, and lawyer Wang Teng.

One Chinese composer who has centered his life around the concept of exchange is my mentor, Gao Weijie 高为杰. Having turned eighty this year, Gao Weijie is of a slightly older generation than many of the composers who had the chance to go abroad to study following the Cultural Revolution. Yet, he emerged from this period with a mission to learn as much about the music of the world as possible.

While a news outlet may express certain views or statistics on trade, there is very little effort made to bridge the gap in cultural understanding.

A principle vehicle for this was a composer collective he founded in Chengdu called 作曲家创作探索会 Zuoqujia chuangzuo tansuo hui (Composers’ Association for the Exploration of Compositional Creations), whose earliest activities date from 1983.

In the words of Gao Weijie:

The group had two main objectives:

1. To study and write about music from outside of China, of which we knew next to nothing. As this was the period in which China was just opening up, it was necessary to learn as much as possible and to commit ourselves to the study of technique.

Our resources were in newly-arrived analysis texts—from Allen Forte, Schenker, and others—as well as what we could obtain from the large publishing houses. Composers who traveled abroad would bring home scores from overseas. Additionally, Western composers began to come to China around this time. The first of these was the English composer Alexander Goehr, who in 1982 came to Beijing, bringing with him many scores from Schoenberg and thereafter.

2. The second motivation of the Zuoqujia chuangzuo tansuo hui was composer exchange. The concerts were few and far in between—often, we did not have the money—but through sharing scores and discussing the pieces, we learnt from one another. When someone’s piece was performed and there was a recording, we would all listen. These activities and research took place not as students, but in our free time as amateurs driven by passion.

Gao Weijie’s knowledge of both Chinese and Western traditional and contemporary music is parallel to few. He has spent his life writing both music and theoretical articles while teaching composition in order to share what he has amassed. His apartment is full of scores, recordings, and posters from concerts past; in fact, he has had to compile a handwritten library catalogue just to keep track of everything.

Gao Weijie’s library catalogue. Photo by the author.

Gao Weijie’s library catalogue. Photo by the author.

Gao Weijie’s drive to learn has not slowed with time. His most recent work, Flying Apsara 飞天 (2018), is scored for Chinese folk orchestra and takes its inspiration from the Qiuci (Kizil Cave) Frescoes in China’s Xinjiang Province. It will be premiered this coming October in a tour across China.

A representative example of Gao Laoshi’s work can be heard in his Origin of Dream I for dizi and Western flute:

Many exciting composers and performers across the world are engaged in related intercultural spheres.

Gao Weijie’s son, composer and pianist Gao Ping 高平 is one of the most important Chinese composers of the younger generation and likewise been active in creating musical exchange. Having previously lived in the United States and New Zealand, where he taught at the University of Canterbury, he is now the Chair of the Music Department at Capital Normal University in Beijing. Gao Ping’s wife Wang Wei splits her time between Beijing and Chengdu and runs an organization which arranges concerts and art exhibitions across the country. Through their joint efforts, they have built a musical bridge between performers in New Zealand, China, and the U.S. In October of this year, they brought over the New Zealand String Quartet for several concerts; the program included Gao Ping’s work Bright Light and Cloud Shadows 天光云影 (2007) alongside pieces by other Chinese and New Zealand composers.

Another interpretation of exchange can be found in the purely compositional construction of a piece. Composer Wenhui Xie’s 谢文辉 work as slow as… 时间片 (2014) for guzheng, piano, and dizi/xun uses elements of improvisation and indeterminacy to build performer-composer dialogue. This conversational approach is strengthened through Wenhui’s inclusion of herself as a pianist. This piece of Wenhui’s was one of the earliest compositions I heard for Chinese instruments and the one that made the greatest impression upon me at the time.

In addition to the aforementioned Chinese composers based in Mainland China, I have had the chance to interact with many exciting composers and performers across the world who are engaged in related intercultural spheres. Australian composers Corrina Bonshek and Bruce Crossman both take inspiration from Asian musical traditions and work with traditional Chinese instruments; American composers Joel Hoffman and Rob McClure have worked in China and engaged with Chinese music; Chinese and Taiwanese composers now living in the United States, including Huijuan Ling and Chen-hui Jen, are creating exchange through their varied artistic practices.

Logistical Challenges and Potential

Simple matters such as differences in internet usage and promotion render it difficult to know what is happening in the U.S. or in China.

While the compositional activity in China today is vital, there are several challenges facing the exchange of contemporary music. Simple matters such as differences in internet usage and promotion—Youku versus YouTube, Douyin versus Instagram, WeChat versus Facebook—render it difficult to know what is happening in the U.S. or in China if one is not already aware of it. Language presents a related barrier, as there is insufficient translation of the texts and articles on contemporary music which are published in China. Once one speaks Chinese and lives in that world, it is accessible, but that requires a not-insignificant time investment. There are further differences in the logic behind presenting organizations and musical taste at large. Chinese audiences are, in my experience, quite conservative. After the premiere of my orchestral work Haumea with the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra in 2015, a woman approached me and reprimanded me for using such “extreme and unbearable” harmony—in what was, in my opinion, a moderately tame piece compared to much modern music.

This conservatism perhaps stems from differing prioritization in educational models. While Gao Weijie acknowledges the merits of focusing so much on traditional musical elements, he also admits that many students have insufficient exposure to contemporary works. (I remember my shock at the beginning upon discovering that most of my adoptive sisters and classmates at China Conservatory had not heard of even the most famous living composers.)

This year’s joint presentation of the Beijing Modern Music Festival and ISCM perhaps opened a new chapter for dialogue with China. While the understanding of Chinese music and exchange is still relatively small, there is steady progress being made.

Gao Weijie’s thoughts on this matter are as follows:

Today, the outside understanding of China still has many limitations. At the same time, more and more Chinese are interested in the outside world and living abroad.

Ultimately, culture across the world requires more exchange. Chinese contemporary music must continue to innovate and develop, connecting back to Chinese tradition while still being in touch with the rest of humanity. I hope that more and more Western composers can engage in exchange: research, performance, and composition. It is in this way that we can come to integrate ourselves with the world.

Poetry and Community in Guangzhou


While I have been pursuing compositional projects and researching Chinese instruments, so much of the learning that has taken place for me in China has come from extra-musical sources: the environment, the language, and the conversations and interactions with people whose life experiences do not match my own.

Upon returning from my first stay in China in 2016, I began to seek out works by living Chinese writers in order to help enrich my understanding of the country beyond the music I had studied. Librettist Kendall A. suggested the poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s (郑小琼), and I was struck by both the power of her words and the evocations of a side of China I had only seen hints of. Zheng was a former migrant factory worker in Southern China; her poetry captures not only the daily life of workers and their conditions, but transforms it into a sort of music which dances on one’s tongue. (The Chinese noun for poetry is shi ge 诗歌, consisting of the characters for both poetry and song).

I was struck by both the power of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s words and the evocations of a side of China I had only seen hints of.

At the start, my Chinese was too weak to grasp the full breadth of her imagery in its original form. There were a few assorted poems available in translation online, and from there I began corresponding with her translators, who graciously sent along several others which they had finished but not yet published. I asked one if he might be able to connect me to Zheng Xiaoqiong; a few weeks later, we became WeChat contacts. From that time, her poetry was always on my mind. I returned to her work in Chinese last year, and began copying, memorizing, and reciting it to myself. After falling in love with one specific poem, Zheng Xiaoqiong gave me permission to set fragments of it, and invited me to come visit if I had a chance. In late April of this year, I arrived in Guangzhou to spend a weekend with her.

Zheng Xiaoqiong is full of life. She phoned just after I landed, the words spilling out of her mouth at a pace I could just keep up with. We had dinner that night before heading to her building, where she works as an editor for a publication about modern Chinese literature containing poetry, critiques on poetic theory, short stories, and essays. The beauty of the situation is that everyone employed by the publication lives and works in the same complex. This allows them some flexibility with time to pursue artistic endeavors, while maintaining the practicality of a consistent day job. (She was leaving for Germany for a week as a guest on a poetry exchange on the same day I left.) The proximity to one another allows the writers to have salons and readings to share their work each week. As Zheng Xiaoqiong said, one of the most important things to her as a writer was the access to consistent jiao liu (交流): exchange.

In fact, it was exchange which led Xiaoqiong to first become a poet. Because she was from a rural village in Sichuan Province, she had no chance to attend university; the sole option for leaving her hometown was through entering the factories. There she took solace in books which were passed around covertly after hours, and, at 22, she began to write poems which drew upon her experiences in spite of opposition from the factory managers.

When she asked about my plans for setting her poem the next day, I shared my ideas. As a composer and a non-native speaker of Mandarin, I knew that my readings would not match her own. Yet, to learn that she often reads her work in her native Sichuan dialect gave me a freedom to present her words in a way which would not be so strictly tied to one interpretation of the text. I then asked the obvious question: what does a factory sound like? Her eyes grew wide, and she said that it varies immensely depending on what it was the factory produced. Then she began to recall… disorderly crashes… electronics humming… drones…

She thought for another moment, and asked if I would like to go.

Later that day, we arrived in Dongguan, a city an hour and a half outside of Guangzhou. We first went to their library and museum, where we met two of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s close friends. One, Sai Ren (塞壬), was a novelist and the librarian in Dongguan; the other, Zhan You Bing (占有兵), was a photographer and documentarian who had been studying Chinese factories for the past decade. We first sipped tea and looked over his books before entering the section of the museum used as storage for his collection. There were clothes, tickets, rolls of film, work schedules, and books and books of photos with covers hand-sewn from denim jeans.

At dinner we were joined by a poet based in Shenzhen, Xue Fang (雪芳). She explained to me one-on-one that what set Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poetry apart was not its subject matter (“actually, there are many migrant worker poets… ”), but her use of language and her unstoppable vision. “Of all the workers in Chinese factories, how many are able to leave? And then to create artistic work of that depth…”.

We visited five factories… It was a sonically overwhelming experience, accompanied by an emptiness.

We visited five factories as a group the next day: a hardware factory, an electronics factory, a factory which produces the plastic wrapping material for children’s toys, a chemical factory, and a shoe factory. It was a sonically overwhelming experience, accompanied by an emptiness. I remembered a hollow feeling I had encountered once before when I exited the subway in Beijing at the wrong station, walking out into a wasteland of construction sites. At one point we sat drinking tea and eating cherries with a factory boss (lao ban 老板) while he watched CCTV displays of the workers in the sweatshop behind him sorting plastic in the dark.

A worker sorting through silicon molds at an electronics factory in Dongguan, China. Photo by the author.


Zheng Xiaoqiong is no longer a migrant worker, but she is connected to a community of writers who share those experiences, as well as a larger community of writers and editors across China and a community of poets and translators abroad. Her poems are sourced in the lives of real people, but not in some tangential way: she returns on the weekends to talk to the workers and then amplifies their experiences through her writing. This connection is the lifeblood of her work.

 Zheng Xiaoqiong and the author in an electronics factory in Dongguan, China. Photo by Zhan You Bing 占有兵.

Zheng Xiaoqiong and the author in an electronics factory in Dongguan, China.
Photo by Zhan You Bing 占有兵.

Community is created through exchange. Zheng Xiaoqiong finds this not only at her publication, but in her friends who accompanied us to the factories. She explained that while they only have the chance to meet in person a few times a year, they stay in touch through phone calls and WeChat, encouraging one another in their writing pursuits. The conversations I shared with everyone in the group that weekend were passionate and covered both the situations of factory workers and the shared challenges we face as writers of words and of music.

Community is created through exchange.

My weekend with Zheng Xiaoqiong informed my understanding of her work, and built a connection between us past words on a page into friendship. Exchange with China is not simply reading a poem from the Tang Dynasty and setting it. Rather, it is based in personal connections and requires a coming to terms with the complexities of modern life in China today.

An excerpt of 辜月 Gu Yue (2017), another work from the same set of voice and percussion works containing Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem. Composed by the author for percussionist Yongyun Zhang 张永韵.

An excerpt of 辜月 Gu Yue (2017), another work from the same set of voice and percussion works containing Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem. Composed by the author for percussionist Yongyun Zhang 张永韵.

For Summer Rain

In March 2015, I arrived in Beijing for what started as a six-month stint and then sprawled into a year. I had come to study with Chinese composer Gao Weijie 高为杰 at the China Conservatory of Music 中国音乐学院, an institution whose primary focus is the study, protection, and promotion of Chinese folk music and traditional Chinese instruments. It was an immersive experience, and one which changed my life.

I have been living on and off in China since this time, while continuing to focus much of my compositional work around Chinese instruments. This series shares four different interpretations of and perspectives on exchange through my experiences and observations as a composer.


My interest in Chinese music developed after experiencing a concert of new works for traditional Chinese instruments while studying in Cincinnati in late 2013. I was taken aback not so much by the pieces on that particular program, but by the possibilities the instruments presented — a thought which was coupled with the sudden realization that my exposure to music up until that point had been limited to the canons of jazz, classical, and contemporary music.

I went on to spend several weeks in the summer of 2014 in Taiwan to study Chinese music on a research grant from the University of Cincinnati. In observing rehearsals, conversing with instrumentalists, and attending concerts (including a festival for Nanguan, also called Nanyin 南音), it became clear that this work would require sincere investment over a longer timespan if it were to result in musical understanding.

That I am still here is a testament to the supportive relationships that have formed along the way, as much as it is due to the magic of Chinese music.

My teacher at the time, Joel Hoffman, encouraged me greatly as I considered the possibility for further study in China. My initial goals were to research and write for Chinese instruments, to experience the Chinese approach to teaching composition, and to learn from a country which remains too-frequently misunderstood by the rest of the world. That I am still here is a testament to the supportive relationships with performers, friends, and mentors that have formed along the way, as much as it is due to the magic of Chinese music and a lingering feeling that I am only at the start.

New Music for Pipa

Xia Yuyan 夏雨言 is a virtuoso performer of pipa 琵琶, a Chinese plucked string instrument. She was born in 1991 in Jiang Yin City, Jiangsu province and came to Beijing alone at age eleven to pursue advanced study with a major teacher. Our professors introduced us shortly after my arrival in Beijing, and we began what has become an ongoing three-year project of composing, performing, and recording new works for pipa.

What Yuyan found elegant, I found cliché; what I found elegant, she found incomprehensible.

The collaborative process for my first piece proved to be quite difficult from the onset. What Yuyan found elegant, I found cliché; what I found elegant, she found incomprehensible. While performers I had worked with previously were largely deferential to my ideas, Yuyan took no hesitation in telling me what to trash and that I simply had to do better. We met week after week one-on-one, and I became a bit of a pipa roadie, attending every rehearsal and concert she gave within a six-month span. Frustration eventually gave way to friendship, with us learning when to stand up for ourselves and when to trust one another. The answers lay somewhere in the space in between — not in an “East-West” fusion sense, but in the symbiotic give and take between our aesthetic ideals and the resulting sounds.

This first piece was For Summer Rain; the title is a translation of part of her name rather than being obliquely programmatic. (There is always the question of audience with new music, but for this work, my first audience was Yuyan). It was premiered in October 2015 in Beijing.

A trio for Malaysian yangqin performer Jia Wei Ng, American saxophonist Jason Pockrus, and Yuyan followed. I touched the ground while floating away was premiered the following spring in Beijing.

Our most recent collaboration — a work for solo pipa with voice (琵琶弹唱) named 空 (kōng), or Void — was finished this past March, and then presented in two lecture recitals at Tsinghua (清华大学) and Shandong Universities (山东大学哲学系) before Yuyan’s premiere of the work at the 21st CHIME (Chinese Music in Europe) Conference in Lisbon this past May.

The chance to present lecture recitals together was a welcome opportunity to share our musical exchange on a broader scale with audiences who had little exposure to Chinese instruments. Articulating in our respective second languages what our collaborations have entailed was a daunting experience for each of us. But in Yuyan’s view, the best way to embrace both life and working together is shunqi ziran 顺其自然: to go with the flow.

With an instrument of such rich capabilities, perhaps the only limitations are the ones the composer self-imposes.

While matters of technical understanding towards an instrument become easier with time, there is still much to learn about pipa as well as from one another. With an instrument of such rich capabilities, perhaps the only limitations are the ones the composer self-imposes.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations

My work with Yuyan represents but a sliver of her interests and activities as an artist. Plenty of performers are technically proficient, but her individualistic spirit and expressive range are a rare combination. These traits have led Yuyan to branch out far past what might be considered “traditional pipa performance”.

While we were rehearsing For Summer Rain, Yuyan introduced me to Jiang Shaofeng 姜少峰 (b. 1987), a Chinese dancer who has fallen in love with American tap dance. For the past several years, they have been creating works blending pipa, dance, and percussion. One example of this collaboration can be heard in a composition of Yuyan’s called Encounter:

Their duo of pipa and tap dance morphed into a multi-media performance group called No.Future between 2016 and 2017. Comprised of pipa (Xia Yuyan 夏雨言), dance (Jiang Shaofeng 姜少峰), beatbox (Gu Hong Long 贾宏龙), and voice/keyboard (Pei Ying Yan 裴颖妍), the ensemble performed in various venues around Beijing. Yet, as Yuyan pointed out, it can be difficult for independent artists in China to stay together in groups long term without sponsorship or the support of agents.

Photo of No.Future in performance, provided by Xia Yuyan.

Photo of No.Future in performance, provided by Xia Yuyan 夏雨言.

Other projects Yuyan has been involved with include improvisational workshops with modern dancers in Sichuan Province in August 2017 and a series of collaborative performances with Shaofeng and artist Luan Jiaqi 栾佳齐. Through amplifying Yuyan’s instrument and the board upon which Shaofeng dances while simultaneously placing an amplifier beneath a canvas, Luan creates artistic conditions in which paint can catch the paths of the vibrations they produce.

Xia Yuyan talking with Luan Jiaqi in front of a circular table.

Photo of Xia Yuyan 夏雨言 with artist Luan Jiaqi 栾佳齐, provided by Xia Yuyan 夏雨言.

As Yuyan stated, “My current belief since leaving conservatory is that life is not only about music. Moreover, it is not merely a matter of practicing one’s instrument. The most important thing is how one thinks, how one feels — towards life, or towards one’s inner states. And then you must decide the artistic way in which you want to express yourself. So this is why I am so interested in photography or painting: I feel that all artistic media contain their own music.”

“All artistic media contain their own music.”

On Exchange

“Without exchange there is no understanding” (没有交流,没有理解) — Gao Weijie 高为杰

I am not interested in pursuing a direct transfer or imitation of media from Chinese to Western music or vice versa. Rather, what the process of writing for Chinese instrumentalists— and particularly for Yuyan — has done is to expand my conception of sound and timbre, leading me to write music that looks carefully at the nature and acoustics of any given instrument in order to build a delicate palette exploring texture, color, and forms of release. In moving back and forth between projects for Chinese and Western instruments, it is the dialogue, the push and pull, the constant shifting of the ground beneath one’s feet that challenges and excites me as a composer.

I am not interested in pursuing a direct transfer or imitation of media from Chinese to Western music or vice versa.

Yuyan too has been impacted. As she put it, “Our collaboration has opened me up to a new form of musical expression. Working with Rachel has allowed me to grasp that silence is also a type of musical language.”

Xia Yuyan holding a pipa in March 2018. Photo by Rachel C. Walker.

Yuyan after a rehearsal of 空 kong in March 2018. Photo by the author.

When Yuyan and I began our collaboration in March 2015, she joked — and in hindsight, it seems she was serious— that once I discovered pipa, I would not be able to turn my back upon it. We were not friends immediately, and I am not sure that either of us imagined that we would still be working together now, but some of the most beautiful moments of my life have been spent in her apartment, listening to the sway of the Chinese lute.

New Music for Chinese Instruments

In my opinion, the most exciting new music being composed and performed in East Asia is for traditional Asian instruments.  I’m particularly intrigued by the new music people are writing for Chinese instruments.

A lot of what excites me about these new works is the sound of the Chinese instruments themselves, as well as their rich musical and performance histories.  In fact, in most cases, these instruments’ histories are even older than most contemporary Western instruments.  For example, the “xiao” (a vertical end-blown flute) and “dizi” (a traverse—e.g. horizontal—side-blown flute) both have histories and performance practices that date back thousands of years.  Also, the music and performance practices of Chinese instruments are often deeply tied to Chinese aesthetics and philosophy.

The best new music for Chinese instruments engages with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.

For me, the best new music for Chinese instruments engages with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.  I also think that compositions that use this kind of informed approach provide a good example of the “confluence of cultures” that composer and thinker Chou Wen-chung (周文中) advocates.

For this post I’m first going to provide some background by describing some of my experience learning about traditional Chinese music and then discuss some of the 20th-century history of Chinese instruments.  Finally, I am going present some new music for these instruments by seven contemporary composers.

I began to study music for Chinese instruments nearly nine years ago while I was earning my doctorate at the University of California, San Diego.  Some of the first new music I encountered for these instruments were pieces composed by my wife Chen-Hui Jen (任真慧), whom I first met at our graduate student orientation.  I later learned more about the history and aesthetics of Chinese music while auditing a course taught by the Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (梁雷, b. 1972).   Lastly, one of the most meaningful experiences I had with Chinese music at UCSD was taking “guqin” lessons with Alex Khalili – a fellow doctorate student who had studied the instrument in China with the master Zeng Chengwei (曾成偉).

The guqin is a seven-string fretless zither that is often associated with scholars and thinkers.  For example, experts and guqin masters even speak of a “qin tao” (way of the qin) and use the playing the guqin as a way to understand the right way to live, or even reach enlightenment.  The guqin is also one of the world’s oldest instruments.  For example, the oldest extant composition for a solo instrument in the world is a guqin composition that is commonly attributed to Confucius –“Lonely Orchid” (幽蘭 or 碣石調幽蘭).

The guqin also has a rich classical tradition where the many different playing techniques—such as specific strokes of the fingers, various types of vibrato, and the numerous ways one can play each pitch—are each imbued with deep poetic and spiritual significance.  For example, most classical guqin compositions start with plucked open strings and harmonics.  The open strings are supposed to signify the earth, while the harmonics signify the sky or the heavens.  By starting a composition with these sounds, the beginning of the composition provides a definition of the universe.  After this introduction, the performer then begins to play music by stopping the string with his left hand.  These stopped notes, in contrast to the natural images that the open strings and harmonics evoke, symbolize humanity and human will.

Guan Pinghu (管平湖,1897-1967) performing “Flowing Water” (流水), a composition that first appeared in notation in 1425.

While studying the guqin and traditional Chinese music, I was particularly struck by its relationships to poetry and philosophy.  I’ve also found that the symbolic coding of sounds that I first encountered in classical guqin music has now become central to how I compose and think about my own music.

(Before continuing, if you are interested in learning about the different types of Chinese instruments, there are fortunately many online resources.  For example, the Taiwanese ensemble the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra has a good basic description of the most widely used instruments on the English version of their website.  Wikipedia also has an introductory entry on Chinese instruments that links to entries on nearly every Chinese instrument.)

Most new music for Chinese instruments can be described by the Chinese term “Sizhu” (絲竹, silk and bamboo).  This term refers to the materials that these instruments were traditionally made of.   Historically these instruments were also not widely standardized and performers often played traditional Chinese music together in small ad hoc chamber ensembles.

In 1920s China, there was a movement to modify as well as standardize the tunings and performance techniques of these instruments.  The advocates of these modifications looked to Western instruments as models for ways to “improve” the local instruments.  Some of the modifications included replacing silk with stronger metal or plastic-wrapped metal strings to make the instruments louder, adapting instruments to fit equal temperament, and increasing the pitch ranges of instruments like the sheng (a mouth organ) and the pipa (a four-string fretted lute).

One of the leaders of this movement was the composer and musician Liu Tian-Hua (劉天華, 1895-1932).  Lin studied Western composition and founded “Guoyue Gai Jin She” (The Organization of Chinese National Music Improvement) in the 1920s.  He also adapted the five-line staff for both his compositions and transcriptions for Chinese instruments.  This notation made it easier for Chinese instrumentalists to play together.  In terms of modifying the instruments, he added additional frets to the pipa so that it could play more pitches and play in 12-tone equal temperament. He also borrowed techniques from Western string playing to adapt the erhu (a two-string fiddle) from an instrument that primarily plays accompaniment to a highly virtuosic instrument not unlike the violin.

Today, the modern Chinese orchestra is a firmly established ensemble all over the world, and most major cities in the Chinese-speaking world have their own local Chinese orchestra.

All of these modifications of Chinese instruments also led to the founding of the modern Chinese orchestra, a large ensemble modeled on the Western orchestra.  The Chinese orchestra groups Chinese instruments into different families in a manner similar to how the Western orchestra groups instruments together.  For example, in the Chinese orchestra all of the huqin (different sized two-string fiddles) are grouped into a large string section that sits at the front of the ensemble.

Originally these Chinese orchestras mostly played music based on traditional Chinese music and themes.  People called this music National music in order to distinguish it from the music that a Western orchestra performs.  Today, the modern Chinese orchestra is a firmly established ensemble all over the world, and most major cities in the Chinese-speaking world have their own local Chinese orchestra.

In the past, Chinese instruments were mostly taught and performed within societies  (i.e. groups of people interested in performing, studying, and teaching Chinese instruments).  Although I am unfamiliar with other countries in the region, in the 1970s Taiwan began to offer official Chinese instrument training at universities, high schools, and even elementary schools throughout the country.  As a result of these and similar education programs, there are now many highly skilled Chinese instrument performers through Asia and across the globe. The education programs have been so successful that many young Chinese instrumentalists are just as virtuosic on their instruments as the best Western instrument performers.

A Taiwan elementary school Chinese music ensemble performing National music.

In recent decades, a number of composers have worked to write and promote a kind of “new music” for Chinese instruments that moves beyond the aforementioned National music.  I am going to focus on just a few of the many composers who write new music using this approach. Also, since most of my Asian experience and knowledge of new Asian music is based in Taiwan, I am mostly going to present the music of Taiwanese composers.

Ma Shui-Long: Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra (1981) for dizi and Chinese orchestra

Ma Shui-Long (馬水龍, 1939 – 2015) was one of the most important senior composers and composition educators in Taiwan, as well as one of the first Taiwanese composers to gain an international reputation.  Ma was also one of the first Taiwanese composers to frequently compose new music for the modern Chinese instruments.  In addition to writing more serious concert music, he also wrote more popular works, such as the Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra.  As a university administrator as well as a member of the Taiwanese Ministries of Education and Culture, Ma also played a crucial role in developing music composition curricula in Taiwan.

Pan Hwang-Long: East and West VII (2016) for three Chinese instruments and four Western instruments performed by C Camerata Taipei

Pan Hwang-Long (潘皇龍, b. 1945) is one of the most important and influential living composers in Taiwan.  After studying with Isang Yun and Helmut Lachenmann in Germany from 1976 to 1982, he returned to Taiwan to teach, compose, and promote new music in Asia.  Pan also developed a composition technique to synthesize some of his teachers’ methods for writing for instruments with Asian musical approaches and thought.  In this system, he classifies the different types of sounds that instruments make—such as trills, glissandi, harmonics, tremolos, etc.—into different categories.  He then uses these categories as the elements that define or guide the structure and form of a composition.  One of the tremendous advantages of this approach is that it presents a way to merge Lachenmann’s modern deconstructive approach with a traditional Asian focus on sound as a structural element.  This approach also presents an intelligent way to combine different instruments and create novel methods of structural and formal expression.

In the 1990s, Pan Hwang-Long began to regularly collaborate with the Taiwanese Sizhu ensemble Chai Found Music Workshop on creating and promoting new music for Chinese instruments.  In 1998, Pan wrote his first work that combined Eastern (or Chinese) and Western instruments together, East and WestEast and West VII is the seventh piece in this cycle of works that combines instruments from different global cultures.  This composition features a unique, angular, bold, and distinct character that any listener familiar with Pan’s music can easily identify.

(N.B. Although the title of this cycle officially translates to East and West, the original Chinese title 東南西北 translates to “East South West North.”  Unlike the simple opposition that the English title suggests, the original Chinese title carries many additional layers of meaning that are literally lost in translation.)

Tung Chao-Ming: Lotusduft (2008) for solo guzheng

This past Sunday, I attended one of the best Chinese instrument concerts I’ve heard.

This past Sunday (May 15, 2016), I attended one of the best Chinese instrument concerts I’ve heard – a concert of guzheng music by Qin Wenchen (秦文琛, b. 1966) and Tung Chao-Ming (董昭民, b. 1969).  A highlight of the concert was when the tremendous young guzheng virtuoso Kuo Min-Chin (郭岷勤, b.1986) performed the three works I’ve shared directly above.

Qin Wenchen is considered one of the most important living Chinese composers.  He was born in Inner Mongolia and studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  After graduating he was hired to teach composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the most prestigious music school in China.  After becoming a professor, he received a scholarship to study with Nicolaus Huber in Germany from 1998 to 2001.  Qin’s music is very special in that he aims to develop an aesthetic that focuses on Chinese arts and his own Mongolian culture rather than any aspect of Western culture.

Chao-Ming is, in my opinion, one of the best younger Taiwanese composers.  He is also a dear friend and one of my colleagues at National Chiao Tung University.  Chao-Ming was one of Qin Wenchen’s classmates when they both studied with Huber.  While living in Germany, Chao-Ming also studied with Mauricio Kagel.   Besides composing, Chao-Ming plays many Chinese instruments, often works with technology, improvises, and frequently produces large collaborative inter-media theater pieces.  These other activities often influence his compositions.  For example, his music often features theatrical elements and/or experiment with instrumental techniques and the choreography of performance.  Recently, like Qin, he has been working to create a new, uniquely Chinese and Asian approach to composition.

The modern guzheng is a 21-string zither with 21 movable bridges.  Traditionally performers pluck the strings on the right side of the bridge and apply pressure to strings to the left side to raise or lower the sounding pitch.   The guzheng is also traditionally tuned to a pentatonic scale.

Qin Wenchen breaks both of these traditional guzheng approaches in his companion compositions Prayer Flags in the Wind (2010) and Chorales in the Wind (2011).  Both works require the performer to tune every string on the right side to different octaves and small microtonal variations of the same pitch.  In Prayer Flags in the Wind, the performer does not pluck the strings.  Instead, he or she bows and strikes the guzheng with a fiddle bow to evoke a sustained aura of Lamaistic ritual music.  In performance, the resulting sounds of the guzheng’s sympathetic resonances fill the concert space and gave me visions of the wide-open expanses of a desert.

A remarkable feature of Qin’s guzheng tuning for these two pieces is that the left side of the guzheng, which performers normally don’t pluck, is tuned very close to a pentatonic scale.  The composition Chorales in the Wind takes advantage of this by slowly revealing a simple melody played on the wrong side of the bridge.   To me, the uneven and slightly broken timbres of these strings evoke an impression of an exotic Chinese folk instrument playing a lost traditional lament.

In Lotusduft, Chao-Ming deconstructs how each hand and subtle finger movement is used to play the guzheng to create new methods of playing the instrument.  These new techniques, although related to traditional ones, greatly expand the timbral, gestural, and expressive power of the instrument.  As the work unfolds, these unique sound combinations reveal many related melodic fragments that progressively unify the work.  Also, at a few points in the work, Chao-Ming even choreographs the performer’s movements in the air above the instrument.  In those moments, it feels to me as if the work’s life and energy is so great that it cannot even be contained within the guzheng itself.  (N.B. Although I posted an audio file of this composition directly above, I also recommend watching this video of Yu-Chen Wang playing the same work so that you can appreciate its visual elements.)

Chen-Hui Jen: Through a Fading Autumn (2009-2010) for 2 huqins, pipa, and guzheng

Chen-Hui Jen (任真慧, b. 1981) is a young and very talented composer from Taiwan, as well as my lovely wife.  In Taiwan, she worked with Lee Tzyy-Sheng during high school and her undergraduate studies, and then with Pan Hwang-Long during her master’s studies.  After moving to America, she worked with Chinary Ung during her doctorate studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Chen-Hui grew up around music for Chinese instruments.  Her mom plays the guzheng as well as many other Sizhu instruments, and both she and her sister studied erhu before entering college.  Since finishing her undergraduate degree, Chen-Hui has composed many pieces that feature Chinese instruments.   A number of these works have won major prizes in Taiwan and have been selected for performance at international festivals.  Since 2008, she has also collaborated regularly with the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra.

Through a Fading Autumn is one of Chen-Hui’s most personal and deeply moving compositions.  The work is a memorial honoring her younger sister, who passed away in the fall of 2009.  Structurally, the work can be described as a concerto for two huqin that act either as one super huqin or as two soloists.  The two huqin can also be seen to represent Chen-Hui and her sister.  The plucking sounds of guzheng and pipa are designed to provide a timbral contrast.  However, given the personal nature of the work, one could also interpret the guzheng and pipa as representing their mother and father.  In the beautiful last minutes of the work, all four instruments share a Buddhist funeral prayer melody.  One could hear this moment as the four family members praying together.  (N.B. This recording features the huqin teacher Chen-Hui and her sister studied with.  Also, two of Chen-Hui’s closest cousins play huqin and pipa on this recording.)

Jacob Sudol: …after a mountain stream rain  (谿山遇雨) (2011) for six Chinese instruments, performed by members of Chai Found Music Workshop

…after a mountain stream rain (谿山遇雨) is the first piece I composed for Sizhu ensemble.  I wrote the work for the Chai Found Music Workshop Formosa Landscape/2011 Sizhu Music Composition Contest and the work won third prize.

The composition draws its inspiration from a trip I took with Chen-Hui and some of her family to Xitou, Taiwan, in July 2010.  The composition represents a sonic memory of the first walk we took after arriving at our destination.

The work is broken into two sections; each describes a different scene from this walk.

The first part, approximately one half of the composition, evokes the high mountain forest in Xitou. This begins with rubbing and breath sounds that represent both literal and metaphorical or nostalgic mists, similar to the rubbing sounds in the classical guqin composition Mists over Xiao and Xiang Rivers (瀟湘水雲).   In …after a mountain stream rain, these rubbing mist-like sounds occasionally go along with pitch bends in the same way they would on the guqin.  However, as the music progresses, these mist-like sounds develop new identities such as the winds that precede an afternoon Summer monsoon rain and the scratching of forest locusts.  At the same time as these sonic transformations, pitches begin to arrive and gradually begin to descend and swirl like a pre-sunset rain shower.

The second half evokes a grand view of clouds evaporating and lifting from the edges of the mountains near Xitou.  As the music progresses to the end, the material gradually fades away, resembling both the darkening sky and the scene receding back into memory.

  • If you are interested in hearing more new music for Chinese instruments, Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra’s YouTube channel has an incredibly large collection of videos from their performances. You can also typically find more videos online if you search a composer’s Chinese name.
  • If you are interested in learning more about the guqin, I highly recommend the book The Lore of the Chinese Lute (1938) by Robert H. Van Gulik. This work is so widely appreciated that I’ve even seen Chinese translations of it on sale in Taiwan.
  • Finally, I need to mention that I would not have been able to write this post without the help of my lovely wife, Jen Chen-Hui. She graciously shared some of her research to help me write the parts about Pan Hwang-Long and the Westernization of Chinese instruments. She also gave me advice throughout the writing of this post as well as suggested and helped me track down a number of the online musical examples that I was unable to find on my own.

Chou Wen-chung: Living With History

A conversation in Chou Wen-chung’s home (formerly the home of Edgard Varèse) in New York City
January 16, 2013–2:30 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Few people today, let alone composers, have had as action-packed a life as Chou Wen-chung. Born in China’s Shandong Province only a decade after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) into a family that traces its lineage back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), Chou grew up during a period of social and political transformation in which traditional Eastern and contemporary Western culture briefly co-existed. Shortly after witnessing the horrors of World War II and narrowly escaping the occupying Japanese troops, Chou arrived in the United States on a fellowship to study architecture at Yale. He dropped out before completing a semester, however, since he knew that his true calling was music. After briefly studying in Boston with Nicolas Slonimsky, he then moved to New York City where he met Edgard Varèse. After only a couple of lessons with the legendary French-American iconoclast in his Greenwich Village home, Chou became his assistant, helping to turn Varèse’s byzantine sketches into decipherable and performable musical scores; that home would later be the place where Chou Wen-chung and his wife have lived for decades.

Although this legendary musical revolutionary would be his lifelong mentor, Chou is a consummate traditionalist who has devoted his entire life to reconciling the disparate musical legacies of East and West. Exposed to an extremely wide variety of Chinese music growing up (much of which is no longer heard today), Chou also first experienced Western classical music at a very early age. He started playing the violin at age 9 and soon developed what would be a lifelong love for string quartets, though it did not manifest itself into his own musical compositions until 1996. Chou has always worked on pieces very slowly and after much consideration. As he said when we spoke:

I write very few works. Because I think a great deal, even while composing. Even if I already have the work laid out, I do further digging into it. It’s my nature and it’s because of my background. I feel the pressure. I can write a piece I like, but I feel that to me that has no purpose.

In fact, for nearly twenty years (between 1966 and 1986), Chou’s pen was silent. Curiously, Varèse also had a similar hiatus, not releasing any musical compositions between his 1936 Density 21.5 for solo flute and Déserts, completed in 1954. Also curious is the fact that Varèse’s work on Déserts began a few years earlier, right around the time when Chou Wen-chung came into his life, and Chou ended his own compositional silence around the same time that he brought a group of Chinese composers to the United States to study composition—a group that included Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Ge Gan-ru. But those parallels are not quite as neat as they would be in a Hollywood film. For starters, Chou takes no credit for Varèse’s return to composing. He empathically stated that Varèse never stopped composing. Rather, he was unable to complete several projects he had worked on during those years because he did not have access to the technology he needed for realizing them. In addition, he was depressed from the general lack of understanding for what he was trying to do. As for Chou’s own story, sorting out Varèse’s manuscripts following his death in 1965 became an all-consuming activity. That, while maintaining a full-time teaching position at Columbia University as well as taking on additional responsibilities in developing Columbia’s School of the Arts, afforded him no time to write his own music. And then he became more and more involved with establishing academic ties to China and made his first return trip there since the People’s Republic had been established. He is quick to point out, however, that his students had nothing to do with his return to composition, either, since he did his best never to discuss his own music with them.

I don’t think of my students in that sense at all. My idea then was to help bring out Chinese talented young composers to have high level Western training. … I was determined not to use myself as an example. They shouldn’t be overwhelmed by my views.

My talk with Chou Wen-chung took many twists and turns during the two hours we spent with him, and the conversation we had felt like it was only the beginning. I wanted to stay for many more hours, perhaps days. In addition to Chou’s amazing life story and thoughts about music, culture, and history, there’s something about his fabled home that made this one of the most special afternoons I have experienced. And it’s far more than the ghost of Varèse, who continues to exude a palpable presence in that home nearly half a century after his death. A two thousand year-old Chinese vase sat on the coffee table between us when we spoke, and upstairs in Chou’s compositional study—though it is something of a Varèse shrine—is a dazzling collection of instruments from all over Asia as well as a baton once held by Franz Liszt. Everything I saw there was a constant reminder of that cultural synthesis which has been Chou Wen-chung’s life work.


Frank J. Oteri: We’re sitting here in a room alongside a 2,000-year-old vase and a scholar’s stone, a naturally-formed sculpture from the bottom of a lake that probably took many, many centuries to evolve into its current form. Both of these objects are from China, where you grew up. China is a country with a civilization that is very different than ours especially in that it is much older. A lot of your ideas about life, music, art, culture, and interpersonal relations evolved out of your personal background. In fact, I was reading somewhere that you yourself are a descendant of a Song Dynasty philosopher. That’s a lot of weight to grow up carrying.
Chou Wen-chung: That is the problem of being a member of a society that has had such a long history. To Chinese minds, frankly, the Song Dynasty is not that old. So that helps, but it does mean that you feel the weight. The advantage is that to me it’s even more important than faith. This is something that you feel in your own heart and your own mind. When you are aware of that, you have to say, “What am I supposed to do? Have I done something right, at all? How do I achieve that?” That has affected me from when I first became interested in music. I think that’s very important. Your ultimate achievement in the field you choose depends heavily on your answer to these questions: Who am I? For whom am I speaking? What is my heritage? What right do I have to talk like this? If I don’t know anything about Renaissance music, I don’t have the right to talk about that. I don’t even have the right to imitate that. That’s the problem with many, many creative artists. They see it—I come, I see, I conquer—and just imitate that in their music, or start a new theory out of that. That to me is not being truly, culturally honest. Only when you understand that, can you become a real artist, because artists have to be inventive. That’s my belief. It comes from your heart and your brain. I think the heart is more important. You need the blood, otherwise your brain can’t function. And that’s very important. Your heritage is here.
FJO: It’s funny to hear that, and it’s obviously true, but you have lived more than 60 years of your life in the United States, which has a very different way of looking at things. Nothing is that old. We tear a building down and put a new one up tomorrow. That mode of thinking seems antithetical to yours. So despite all your years here, you have not really become American in a way.
CWC: I think nobody can completely forget his or her past. And your past lives with you because it’s something you cannot deny. You cannot push it away. It’s in you. Unless, of course, if someone were—let’s say—born in this country after several generations, then it’s completely transformed. But otherwise, I don’t believe so. I think it’s there.
FJO: So how does this apply to music? By the time you were growing up in China, the emperor was gone. It was no longer imperial China, so it was a contemporary state to some extent even though the culture was still very much connected to much older literary, musical, and visual art traditions. In the 1930s, people were probably not listening to a lot of Western classical music in China, or even Western popular music, or any of the music that has become so international at this point. You were probably mostly listening to traditional Chinese music.
CWC: Actually, it was very complex. As a matter of fact, I regard it as fortunate that I was born into a world that was very mixed. I heard all kinds of Chinese music, which most Chinese today cannot even dream of. I’m not talking about minority music, country music, and so on, I’m talking about the kind of music you would hear in major cities, cultural centers. Music was in the street all the time. I knew local music so well by ear that if we took a train or a car, I would know just by hearing the music where I was just by listening to it.
FJO: I know there were Western composers around that time who were incorporating elements of Chinese music as well as Chinese-born composers who did things with Western instruments. Plus recordings of all kinds of music had already begun disseminating all over the world.
CWC: Well, I have to say, in this regard I benefitted from the Imperialism that took place during the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. I was brought up in cities that were already mixed with Western culture as well as having a still preserved Chinese heritage.


Just a few of the many instruments that surround the walls of Chou Wen-chung’s composition studio. Photo by Alexandra Gardner.

My first discovery of the importance of music to life was in Qingdao. Our house there had a big garden and late in the afternoon I was allowed to play outside. One day, I heard some strange sounds. So I followed the sound, and as I got closer, I heard music. I opened the door and saw the servants who were happy and singing. They were playing traditional Chinese instruments, and drinking the cheapest wine, Kaoliang. I can still smell the pungent smell. It was at that time that I understood that music is related to happiness and recognized the importance of music.
Shortly after that, when I was a little older, my mother would take me around with her to visit her friends in the afternoon. While my mother talked with them I would look around for something to amuse myself. One day I got into a place and I saw something very strange—a harmonium. I was not such a genius as Mozart, so I did not compose an opera on that instrument, but I learned something. You know what I learned? Not the tuning. I didn’t have perfect pitch—I didn’t even know what perfect pitch was—but I found that there were the pedals. I pushed the pedals, and I tried to play on the keys. The harder I pushed, the louder it became. The softer I pushed, the softer the sound. That stuck in my mind. If you ever go to the Paul Sacher Foundation, check on my music, you will see, I probably have used more crescendo-diminuendo than Debussy ever did. That’s purely because I got the pleasure of hearing the sound get louder and softer. I cannot resist the temptation, even right now when I’m almost 90. That’s what I was saying: your background is so important, your environment and heritage.

Cursive by Chou Wen-chung

A page from the score of Chou Wen-chung’s Cursive for flute and piano (C.F. Peters P6842), which was premiered by Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen.
© 1963 by C.F. Peters Corp. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and the composer.

When did I decide to be a composer? Many composers probably were just like Mozart, brought up in that ambience. Naturally he would become a composer. I didn’t have that kind of luck or that kind of environment. Because of the Japanese invasion of China, my father moved us to Shanghai in 1937. In Shanghai, there was an international settlement where foreigners could live without being subjugated to Chinese law. Subsequently, Chinese could also move in there. As the war began, many people went there, and my father took us and left us there with my mother since he had to retreat to the interior of China. By that time I already could read English newspapers. In Shanghai, you could buy papers in Chinese and Western languages, mostly English and French. So I read the paper with a headline saying composer Maurice Ravel died. That was a shock to me. I didn’t know Ravel. I didn’t even know his music at that time. I heard his music later on. I said, “Composer? I never thought composers could be living.” I thought music was written by dead people, because every composer I had heard of—Chinese or Western—was dead. So, I said, “Ah, I love music. I want to be a composer.” Ravel died a little too soon, frankly, but if I didn’t read that news account, I would not have dreamed of being a composer; that had a major impact on me.
FJO: I imagine your family wanted you to pursue other studies and not music.
CWC: Right, more “serious” studies.
FJO: You were just saying that you weren’t Mozart writing an opera at the harmonium. Well, Mozart’s father made sure he’d be a composer from when he was in the cradle. But you were training in architecture. So it was quite a rebellion for you to become a composer.
CWC: I’m glad I did not stay in China to study music, to be a composer. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, through the war, quite a number of Chinese came abroad to study, though only a few studied music. But what they did was absolutely copying. I purposefully used the word copying, because what they wrote was not just imitation Western music, it was written without real knowledge of Western music.
By the 1920s, there was a strong reaction against the failures of the Qing, the Manchu dynasty, which by that time had already existed nearly 300 years. So the intellectuals, or the children of intellectual families, thought that the only future was to learn from the West, to build up the society again. On the other hand, they accepted—from my point of view—a kind of inferiority complex. “We have wasted hundreds of years. Let’s catch up.” But catching up doesn’t mean you have to admit you are inferior. “If you are really inferior, you will never catch up.” That’s what I said to my colleagues. I said, “If you want to catch up with someone, you don’t just follow the person. You have to find new ways to get ahead. And your new ways may be old Chinese ways.”
FJO: So this idea of a synthesis between Western music and Chinese musical ideas, musical theories, musical modes, which has been your life’s work, had already occurred to you before you came here.
CWC: Yes, exactly. But I did feel that I had to master the art of music from the West, because I could tell with my ear that in Western music there were more possibilities. With Chinese music, you feel it. You have no idea the kind of Chinese music I heard. I would walk to school, and suddenly a group, maybe a dozen people, would surround someone who’s performing. You go there. You throw in a few pennies. You can stand there and hear the music. So that’s how I heard all the classical Chinese music and the special regional music. My family traveled a lot to different regions and that was very good training. You don’t get chauvinistic, saying, oh, I’m only interested in this kind of music, because that’s what I’ve heard.
FJO: But you didn’t come to America to study music. And perhaps, at the time you decided to come to the United States, it might not have been the first choice for someone wanting to study Western music. Someone wanting to master Western music probably would have gone to Europe instead, but you came here to study architecture, and music still took over.
CWC: That is purely incidental, and I’m not sure that was a mistake. If there was no war with Japan, and my father would have let me decide on where to go at that time, I probably would have gone to Italy or to Vienna. I was even thinking of Paris or maybe Germany, but at that time Vienna was still culturally more important than Berlin. I was really dreaming of going to Italy. By that time, I was a record collector. I had heard all the [string] quartets, and so I was hooked on quartets from when I was in junior high.
What made me really so familiar with music was purely accidental. We were in Hanko [now known as Wuhan], which had a number of foreign settlements and the French were culturally very dominant. When my oldest brother came home for the winter recess, we decided jointly to go hunt for the best toys. We walked through the main street of the French settlement and saw a beautiful store window with very colorful things hanging inside. So we walked in, and were amazed by the beautiful Christmas decorations. And we saw something very attractive hanging there. But it was expensive, so we pooled our money, bought it and took it home. My oldest brother immediately found out it was not a toy; it was an instrument—a three-quarter size violin. Being the first born, he said, “I want a teacher to study with.” So my father sent him to a violin teacher. One week after he’s taking his lessons, he wanted to be a teacher. So he pointed to me and said, “You are my student.” So, whatever he learned from his teacher, he passed on to me. That’s how I started music.
FJO: It’s so interesting that string quartets were so important to you early on, since as a composer you didn’t feel comfortable enough to write and put forward a string quartet until the late 1990s. That’s a very long journey to write in the form that was the first form of Western music that you were attracted to.
CWC: Right, right. There’s a reason. In China, the most important music is Qin music. And the Qin player is literally the composer. The Qin player doesn’t play for himself or herself. Usually there is someone else who understands the music and listens—basically it’s a communication process. To me, the string quartet is really a Western Qin music in terms of communication. In this case, four people are sharing their minds with the listener. I’m the composer in this case, but I’m a listener as well. And the quartet is one person. They have to be. That’s the idea: four people playing together. As I compose, I am communicating with the quartet as one entity just as I would communicate with a Qin player. So when I wrote those quartets, it was very, very personal. It really was a dialogue with myself. That I had not written a string quartet before Clouds meant that I was not ready to have such an intimate dialogue with myself.

String Quartet No. 1 "Clouds" by Chou Wen-chung

A page from the score of Chou Wen-chung’s String Quartet No. 1 “Clouds” (C.F. Peters P67750)
© 1997 by C.F. Peters Corp. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and the composer.

FJO: Getting back to your decision to study in America instead of Europe, of course, there was a war raging throughout Europe as well that was ripping the culture apart. And at that time, many of the top European composers—including Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Martinů, Milhaud, Hindemith, Kurt Weill—fled to the United States. Even though people looked to Europe as being the source for Western classical music, by the 1940s it no longer could be. So you came to America, and you were at Yale studying to be an architect, presumably to go back to China, to rebuild China, to make it a modern place. But then you decide to forget that and to pursue being a composer, studying with Otto Luening and Nicolas Slonimsky.
CWC: The war actually lasted more than four years. Eight years in China, way before this country was involved. And the last four years, I was completely on my own. I want to give you that background, so you can see how one’s decisions are influenced by the circumstances one is in.
Before 1937, I was already studying violin seriously, and I was also experimenting with other instruments on my own. I showed you a pipa and a mandolin; as a matter of fact, my second brother bought the mandolin at a pawn shop, but he didn’t play much with it. Of course I discovered the fingering is the same [as a violin], so I began to play with it. I taught myself all kinds of instruments. That is an interesting indication that I was really hooked, because at that time you really had to study very seriously. We hardly had any time to play, so to practice violin a few hours a day, you had to work very hard. When the Japanese conquered most of China and after Ravel died, I felt I had to be a composer, but I wouldn’t dare tell my father that. When Pearl Harbor took place, I had just entered college. To say you wanted to be a musician, everybody would accuse you of not being patriotic. Even though the war had started, I was fortunate. I would be playing a slow movement by Mozart or Bach, and I would hear artillery shots because the international settlement was between the Chinese side and the Japanese side and they would aim at each other with field guns. So cannonballs would fly over. Anybody who’s been to war knows they sound like a group of dogs barking. Rrrrwww rrrwww. I remember practicing a Mozart slow movement and there was rrrwww, rrrwww, and rrwhaaang, and then you smell things and all that. Just imagine a 13-year-old boy playing some beautiful slow movement by some wonderful Viennese composer, and then you hear all those cannonballs flying over your head, and then you hear the explosions. Then in the summer time, when the windows were open, suddenly the whole area turns gray and ultimately you smell death.
How do you feel when you play romantic European composers under such circumstances? That really gave me a lot of trouble. I wondered whether I should join the army to go fight, but I was too young anyway, so it’s very hard to say. A lot of artists today, of course, have different kinds of experiences. But I can see why there was such a revival of musical innovation after the Second World War in Europe. I did not dare tell my father or my classmates I wanted to be a violinist. I just played the violin, that’s all. But then I felt I must study something important. I really did not want to study engineering. My brother studied electrical engineering actually, and eventually made tremendous contributions to this country during the war. So I thought I had to be useful, too. I thought of architecture. I said, “Well, this is half art, half engineering, and China needs rebuilding.” So that’s when I decided to study architecture. I was accepted as a student at St. John’s University in Shanghai in the summer.
Then the Japanese came and occupied Shanghai, foreign settlement or not. I had just turned 18 and would be drafted by the Japanese. That would have been really unbelievable, so I had to escape. I escaped, and left my mother and her younger children in Shanghai. These were some very difficult events. Fortunately I was not personally touched, but I saw and I heard, and I was pursued. But somehow luck was always with me.
There was one time when Japanese soldiers came to look for me and my companions at night in a tiny village by the sea. We had to climb over the wall in the backyard to the next house which was a little one-room restaurant, and there was a little wedding going on. We were dressed in pajamas, so we looked like peasants. I was so scared. We heard exactly was happening just above us—people being brutalized; the screaming and crying went on for some time. Other soldiers came downstairs to look for us. I was saved because one wedding guest who was sitting there drinking just pulled me down and put his arm over my head to hide me. He handed me a wine cup and said, “Drink. Laugh.” So a Japanese soldier walked right behind me without recognizing me. Just imagine the psychology of that moment. After that, I was saying, “No, I have to be a composer. I don’t want to build buildings.” My children all complain that they didn’t want to hear my music when they were young at home. They were scared of my music.
FJO: But you still came here and initially were enrolled in a program to study architecture.
CWC: That’s because I had to. I had to finish my college training. I had gotten a degree for civil engineering because the schools didn’t offer architecture. When I got the degree, it was 1945 and the war had ended. Meanwhile I had written a paper on potential architectural innovations and sent it to my older brother who was already in this country teaching at MIT. So he sent my paper to some places here, looking for a scholarship for me. Surprisingly, Yale University accepted me. That’s why I went there. I arrived in Boston and my brother took me to Yale, and said goodbye, good riddance. But for more than a week, as I recall, I stayed in my room. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I really wanted to continue with this scholarship. Can you believe it? The only way I could come to this country was to get a scholarship to Yale and register as a student. So I went to see the dean, saying I had decided not to [continue]. Having [later] been a dean myself, I know how he felt. But I felt I had no choice. That shows you another important thing about being an artist. If you have conviction in your art, you have to be daring. You don’t care what critics or what other artists would say. You are going to do it.
You have to understand the risk I took. I was given a tremendous scholarship. I didn’t have any other money. I couldn’t survive. Besides I would have a problem with the American government, the immigration office, since my visa was based on going to Yale. But I never thought of those questions. I took a train back to Boston where my brother lived, and I thought he would really throw me out, or send me back to China. But no. He picked up a letter and said, “This is your father’s letter. Read it.” I opened it. It was my father’s handwriting. “I know Wen-chung really wants to be a composer, to study music. If he has to, let him.” Can you think of another father like that? Really? Throughout my junior high years to graduating from college, he said no—very serious, absolute no. And yet secretly, he told my brother. He was testing me. If it’s a life and death situation and he still picks to be a composer, let him. That was his position.
FJO: So you ultimately studied music here, and even though you’ve taken many trips back to China, all of the music that you acknowledge now, everything that’s published and performed, was written here in this country. So do you consider it to be American music?
CWC: Absolutely, although some people may disagree. I think I’m lucky to have been here from the beginning. I think education in Europe at that time would have been wrong for me as a composer from a totally different cultural background. I was lucky in this country. There were other immigrants here like Nicolas Slonimsky and Varèse, even Otto Luening. His father came here, he was trained in Germany, not here, you see. I had tremendous good luck, or maybe I always picked the right people to deal with. I went to see Slonimsky, because he played Varèse’s music and I wanted to know why composers should write like that. The way he talked, I was convinced Slonimsky knew a lot about music. And of course, he did. So I went to see him, wanting to be a student with him. If I went to someone else, I might have made a mistake. I thought he would ask me all about the great 19th-century European composers, or early 20th-century. Do you know the first question he asked me? “What do you know about Chinese music?” I answered as honest as I could. I said, “I don’t know.” Actually I knew much more than many people at my stage. From his facial expression and the voice, I knew he wanted the truth. Not just “Oh yes, I played erhu and pipa.” I knew Peking Opera. I was interested in Tibetan music, but I didn’t say that. I said, “No I don’t,” and he looked at me and said, “Why are you here?” He said, “Why don’t you go study Chinese music first?” I said, “I want to study Chinese music, but I also want to study Western music.” So that’s how I started. You see, it’s not a question of whether I am American, or to what degree one is an American. I have spent most of my life here, which for some people is a whole life at my age; I came here when I was 23 years old.
FJO: And not very long after that you met Varèse, who became such a very important part of your life.
CWC: Absolutely. Even before Slonimsky, [I met] a well-known music critic in Boston at that time, Warren Storey Smith. I think he wrote for the Boston Herald. He was very New England-ish, almost British, always with a waist coat, pacing back and forth. It was Christmas time, and whoever has taught knows that’s a time the teacher would amuse the students. So, at the last session before Christmas recess, he said, “I want you guys to hear some music, and you tell me what it is.” So, he put something on. And you could see he was very pleased. It was pure noise. Crazy noise. Incredible noise. But not war noise. It was kind of an innocent noise. It turned out to be Varèse. It probably wasn’t helped by the 1920s recordings. But I could not get rid of the sound. I still can see myself walking up and down Huntingdon Avenue between New England Conservatory and the Museum of Fine Arts asking myself, “Why should a composer make all that noise? What is it?” I didn’t have a score either. It just bothered me, I remember. Finally, after the People’s Republic was established, I didn’t have money. I had to come to New York to live with my brother because he moved to New York.
Meanwhile I still tried to study music, but it was very hard for me to select the teachers. I heard about Bohuslav Martinů, and I thought I might go to study with him because he also did not come from Western Europe. Even though Czechoslovakia was part of Western Europe, their culture was different so I thought he might have a better understanding of the kind of music I would be interested in. That was my rationale. And he accepted me as his student. I had studied so much counterpoint and all that kind of stuff at the New England Conservatory, which was very, very conservative in its curriculum. I’m thankful for that. So I decided to work out counterpoint with Chinese ideas. Of course, it was very difficult because Chinese music is fundamentally [monophonic]. It isn’t pentatonic, but it gives the impression of being pentatonic. So I tried to work out some structures, and I was very proud of it. I showed it to Martinů. Typically most teachers play it on the piano. Many teachers would just say very good or not good. But he played very few notes, then stopped and turned around. “Why?” he said. I understood that to be “Oh, you’re stupid. Counterpoint cannot be done with five pitches. Where’s your dominant-tonic resolution?” So I apologized to him. Later I thought better of myself. Wait a minute. Why do we need tonal resolution? Who made the decision, God or someone, that you have to finish a piece on a tonic, approaching it with a dominant? Even if it’s subdominant, you are already doing something wrong. But by the time I thought about that, he had already died. So, I feel I owe him something, because I should have told him, and it would have been interesting to see how he responded to that.
After that, I met Colin McPhee, purely by chance. John Cage would have loved to hear this kind of story. I had just arrived in New York in 1949 and, as usual, the first place I would go to is a museum or a concert hall. So I was walking into the Museum of Modern Art, and on the other side of the door, as I was pushing, I suddenly saw a Chinese girl that I had not seen for many years. She was a childhood [friend] I had not seen for many years since the war. So she said, “What are you doing here?” And I told her. And then she asked if I could do her a favor. She had agreed to take a composer to Chinatown to hear a Chinese opera—more accurately Cantonese opera—and she was sick with the flu. She said, “Could you take this composer there?” I said, “Who is it?” “Colin McPhee.” I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” My interest was in his experience in Bali. So I went to see McPhee, and McPhee was magnificent. He kept on talking to me about what I was looking for, for days. Finally, we were running down the list of composers in New York. We didn’t think anyone was right. Suddenly one day, he said, “Here it is. Varèse is your teacher.” Just like that. But he said, “I can call him, and I’m sure he will take you. But you have to promise me one thing. You are like a young poet. Varèse is like a volcano, and volcanos explode periodically. And you have to resist it. You promise me, then I’ll call him.”


A portrait of Varèse still hangs prominently in Chou Wen-chung’s composition studio to this day. Photo by Alexandra Gardner.

Then, one day Varèse called, so I came to see him—right in this room, behind you, right there. His piano was here. At that time, the keyboard was facing that way. He was very prickly. We barely shook hands. We had not even sat down. He said, “Where’s your music?” Before I came, I was so worried about bringing a piece, but I finally brought a piece that I was so ashamed of, and that was the first movement of Landscapes. By that time, I thought I was stupid, that my music was cheap, barely a few notes, and he’s writing such complex, noisy music. I had nothing else, unless I showed him an exercise. So I took that. He grabbed it, took it to the piano, and examined it for a long, long time. I would estimate at least more than 20 minutes. I thought, “My God, it’s such a simple piece, so short; I wrote only the first movement. Why is he spending so much time? He must be thinking of how to tell me off and say, ‘Forget it. You cannot be a composer,’ to say that politely or shockingly.” So I was really trembling. He turned around and came to me. And he said, “That’s beautiful,” and I couldn’t believe it. And then I realized he was asking the same question. “How come the music is so simple?” And apparently it attracted his attention. And so from then on, yes, life changed. We worked out very well with each other in terms of temperament and all that. I studied with him for only a few months—I think it was July or August when I met him, and by November he got me to help him as an assistant. He really had confidence in me from the very beginning. Our relationship was very, very unusual.

Landscapes by Chou Wen-chung

A page from the score of Chou Wen-chung’s 1949 Landscapes for orchestra (C.F. Peters P67750), the first score Chou Wen-chung showed to Edgard Varèse.
© by C.F. Peters Corp. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and the composer.

FJO: It’s unusual considering that the music you were writing at that point in time was very, very different from his music.
CWC: That’s right.
FJO: But to be his assistant and to help him sort through stuff, you had to find a way to get inside his head. The ideas that you had about music were very different from his, so that’s actually quite remarkable. One might be able to hear Varèse’s lasting influence in pieces of yours from much later on, but Landscapes sounds worlds away from Varèse.
CWC: By 1948, I decided to be on my own as a composer. I threw away the early works, and I began to write Landscapes. I’d finished the first movement, and I finished the piece with him. Varèse was really a wonderful person, but he was also very severe. His interpersonal skills, you might say, were very transparent. If he didn’t like something, he’d just say it. He didn’t even know how it hurt people.
Just to give you an example, I think it was ’52; I had just gotten into the graduate program at Columbia and I had discovered Webern on my own. At that time, in New York, very few people ever talked about Webern. I discovered his music in the old New York Public Library Music Division by the East River, under the 59th Street Bridge. I went through all of Webern’s music, and I was influenced by him. I began to experiment because the music sounded so much like Chinese Qin music, the tone color, register, and dynamics change constantly. And the pitches go off from each other and come back. These are very typically, abstractly speaking, like Qin music. It gave me that impression, so I was experimenting to see how one can use Qin music as inspiration and to learn from Webern how you can indeed express Qin music aesthetics on Western instruments.
I didn’t tell this to Varèse, so he thought what I was writing was copying Webern and he tolerated it for I think two, three weeks. One day, he suddenly turned to me and said, “Wen-chung, do you want to be a composer?” I knew of course something was wrong. “Yes, I think I do.” “Then you have to be daring.” “I think I’m pretty brave. I’m willing to undertake anything.” Then he said, “Okay, then someday you have to piss on your music.” I don’t think any teacher has ever told their students to piss on their music, in the actual process of teaching. Maybe afterwards. And not only that, then he stood up, pointed to my music, and said, “Piss now,” and left. He walked up the staircase.
I went home and said my life’s finished. I was borrowing my brother’s money to survive here. What am I supposed to do? I don’t have another piece. But as I walked into my brother’s apartment, I went to the piano and saw another manuscript that I forgot about. It was my other experiment, the Seven Poems of the T’ang Dynasty.
I had no choice, either I just don’t go to see him again or else I have to bring him something. I didn’t think he would accept that piece either, but I brought it anyway but I didn’t dare hand it to him. When I came in, he was not in the room, so I took advantage of that and put the manuscript on the piano very prominently. I thought I would just go away, but as I was going out, he came in. Sometimes I’m someone who cannot talk, who doesn’t have the skill for giving speeches, but I’m inspired sometimes under difficult situations. When I saw this big man coming in, I knew I was in trouble, so I said timidly, “I’m going to piss” and went into his bathroom, closed the door, giving him enough time to discover the manuscript. When I came back into the room, he was looking at the music and when he heard me, he turned around and said, “Wen-Chung, this is you.” And then he hired me as his assistant.

Seven Poems of the T'ang Dynasty by Chou Wen-chung

A page from the score of Chou Wen-chung’s 1949 Seven Poems of the T’ang Dynasty.
© 1952 Merion Music Inc. All rights administered by Theodore Presser Company. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and composer.

FJO: I’d like to know a little bit more about And the Fallen Petals. I have a recording of it on LP, which I treasure. It’s a beautiful piece, very moving and very subtle as well. Back when you wrote it, for one year, it was the most widely played piece of new orchestral music by an American composer. But now that LP is long out of print and there has never been another recording on CD or any other format. It’s very disheartening that a piece of this quality, that received so much attention, could now be so unfairly overlooked.
CWC: I don’t know. I know that there was one year that it was played by seven major American orchestras. And, I think, Musical America every year kept statistics of who gets the most performances. At that time, it was phenomenal for modern music. You’re right. But from my point of view, those are my really early works—All in the Spring Wind, And the Fallen Petals, Landscapes. But you can see I was writing honest music, my own music. I was trying to open myself up. I wasn’t really thinking what’s fashionable or what would attract attention. After the Second World War, people were looking for unusual music. In a way it was unusual to the ears of that time, in terms of texture, the sound quality, the structure, almost every sense of it. And yet in a way, it’s simple. It’s easy for people to respond to. Starting in 1952, I was very active at Columbia. I was, in fact, the very first musical assistant at the Electronic Music Center. I was looking for myself. Very few people had my kind of background. So it’s understandable that people found it interesting.

And the Fallen Petals by Chou Wen-chung

A page from the score of Chou Wen-chung’s And the Fallen Petals (C.F. Peters P6227).
© 1956 by C.F. Peters Corp. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and the composer.

But since then, I think, for people to be interested, something has to be shocking, totally different, totally unacceptable, and so on. It has to be something you’ve never heard of. You hear this, you hear that, and so on. So the attitude is different now. At that time, the attitude was—you may say—more natural or more naïve. We have been exposed to more kinds of music. But on the other hand, maybe we are becoming less sophisticated in the sense that when we hear something, we want to hear something that’s unusual because it’s structured this way, or because it has some kind of theory, some kind of philosophy. I think we are spoiled by that tendency in the 1960s and ‘70s. On the other hand, we are so familiar with so many types of music, that it is very hard for anyone to try to write a piece today that would shock people anymore. And unless we’re shocked, I think we don’t respond very much nowadays. I think that to me, this has to do with the society and the music industry and with music education. I don’t mind saying at my age that much depends on the attitude of the composer—himself or herself. I have the impression today we’re searching for something that’s unique. I wasn’t looking for something unique, but it was regarded as something unique. I was looking for myself. If you know Chinese music and know the history of Western music, you can see what I was trying to do. At that time, it made sense.
I still listen to Beethoven. I still listen to Bach. I think most composers would think it’s unbelievable because that’s way in the past. I think we’re in changing times today. At that time, someone may say we were more naïve. I don’t think we were naïve; we were more innocent. Today, everything has been developed to a large extent. Commercialism. All curiosity is off, unless you do something totally different. John Cage started that.
I was there when his famous silence piece was played. I was with all the composers. You name it. We were all there to hear this first performance. I cannot describe to you the effect of that. Fantastic effect. But when we thought about it, we realized we were duped. It was funny. It was really “enlightening.” I have to give credit to John Cage, except the piece can be played only once. That’s the trouble. Once for each generation you might say. David Tudor went up there pompously, arranging his seat, and sat down to begin to play. Suddenly he shut the cover of the piano, and walked away very properly. And complete silence—total silence, longer than his timing. People were shocked. There was shouting. It’s unbelievable. Now you can do it only once. But today, I can bet you one out of every five composers is still looking for that opportunity. But that kind of thing happens only once.
FJO: To get back to your music, you had such an incredible success with And the Fallen Petals, so then you really codified your theory of music—the whole idea of the variable modes. Your system got very precise, and it’s very masterful. But it developed at a time when that kind of thing probably really couldn’t be done by an orchestra, which at the time was the medium that probably offered composers the most public exposure. So instead you focused on chamber music. And by that time there were extraordinary musicians, like the players in The Group for Contemporary Music, who were willing to tackle and did tackle just about anything. And the members were composers as well as players; people like Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen were playing your music. But it didn’t reach a wider audience the way those early pieces did because, as you say, the society changed. Your music kept growing, but fewer people got to hear it, which I think is a shame.
CWC: Well, I don’t know about that. I write very few works, because I think a great deal, even while composing. Even if I already have the work laid out, I do further digging into it. It’s my nature and it’s because of my background. I feel the pressure. I can write a piece I like, but I feel that, to me, that has no purpose. You can see that’s why I talked about my childhood and discovering music, discovering the differences between East and West, yet how I love both, and how I believe that the future depends on the East and West being brought together. There are many theoretical reasons for that. So I disregard, as in the case of Varèse, how people react to it. When I compose, I do not think of only myself, but I do not think of my audience. I think of people I admired in history. I think of people who understand the same of kind of issues that we people in the 21st century should face, so I can best communicate with those people.
FJO: To take it to a different area. I wanted to follow up on something that you said before about writing music very slowly and writing very few works. That is very similar to Varèse who put very few works forward. And like Varèse, also destroying all the music you wrote before you came here; he did the same thing. Amériques was the first piece of his that he wanted people to know about. But something even further happened, I guess in the same way that there was this very long period where Varèse did not write any music from Density 21.5 through to Déserts. He started writing music again when he connected with you, after this long period. You also had this very long period from about 1969 to 1986, where you did not have a single piece of music that you put forward. I don’t know. Maybe there was music that you wrote, but those years are missing.
CWC: I think our cases are not exactly the same. Varèse seemed to be silent for a long time. But, in fact, he was still composing. Varèse is a very tragic case because people were really against him. I don’t think people are against me. I have been very lucky. I have been recognized by so many people. My case is very different. I studied Varèse’s life very carefully. You don’t want to be in my position. If you knew how Varèse felt, it would affect your listening to his music. He really was mistreated, no question about that. We don’t have time to go into that. And that hurt him, because he was sincere. He was not like the grandmasters from Europe today. He really believed in what he was doing. He was doing things quietly. He did not establish big schools and teach other students to think in the same manner. He was so disappointed. Take Déserts as an example. He actually started to write some of the music immediately after he finished Ionisation. And he went through a number of projects that have not been carried out, but he kept whatever manuscripts he liked, or later on he burned some in a fury. But he kept a lot. (Actually, some of the manuscripts were in my handwriting.) He burned some of his sketches but he still used a lot of the older sketches. They date to the ‘30s under different titles and so on. He had in mind several pieces. Two or three in particular were important, like Astronomer for example. Which sketch was used for what piece is very hard to tell now. He mixed them together in Déserts. And so, he was composing, but he was not finishing works. As early as the 1930s, he wanted to use electronic means. At that time, the term electronic was not invented yet. He spent a lot of time trying to see if you could work at some sound studio, but he never got to. At one point very late in 1930s, he almost committed suicide, that’s for sure, because we know a friend who was a doctor who managed to help him out of that crisis.
It was bad that people just did not want to take him seriously. At that time, it was unheard of: What does a composer want a laboratory for and all that? Even though there were plenty of scientists who were very much on his side. But when he needed industrial help, he couldn’t get it. For example, when I was working at Columbia, I had the privilege of using all the up-to-date electronic devices but I had to keep that from Varèse because Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky would be angry if I told Varèse anything. That was very difficult. I could not tell them what Varèse was thinking of. That went on for years. But at the time when I came into his life, he was already active with Déserts. I was here every weekday. I was sitting here. Putting his sketches down, always newly written sketches, all the sketches revised and so on. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. The real challenge was when I had to put them together, and to go ask him, “How come we don’t have notes here? What happened?” It was a great education for me, of course.
FJO: So then what made you be silent as a composer for so many years?
CWC: Two factors happened at the same time that would have silenced anyone else completely. Number one is ordinary. I was teaching at Columbia, and for some reason, I immediately was involved in a lot of things. I was designing the doctoral composition program at Columbia. Otto Luening set it up for one semester, then he retired. When I got tenure, I became in charge of building up the doctoral program. I was responsible for developing the School of the Arts, and so on. I did not want to be the dean because I didn’t want to go raise money, so I was only taking care of educational issues, academic issues. (Even though in the end, I probably raised more money, much more money than the dean himself. But that’s something else.) And I was teaching a full load. Meanwhile, I began to develop contact with China in the early ‘70s which helped lead to US-China diplomatic rapprochement. I set up the Center for US-China Arts Exchange and spent 30 years on arts exchange and preservation of the arts in China. So I had three jobs at Columbia, at that time.
And Varèse happened to have died at that time, ‘65. So I intentionally stopped doing what I was going to do. I had to postpone for many years the completion of most of my major works such as Echoes from the Gorge and the Cello Concerto. My priority, aside from the other jobs, was to take care of Varèse’s music. He left everything just a total mess. And I ran into all kinds of problems. There were obstructions from family and professionals that took up many years of my time. I did not understand that my job was just to turn suitcases full of documents over to Sacher. I thought I had to sort them out, because I knew these things and that took years.
Also, ever since the ‘50s, I’ve served in many music organizations particularly those for composers, including as president of Composers Recording Inc. (CRI) which was responsible for recording many American composers at that time, the only outlet for composers in the American market.
So all those added together left very little time for me to devote myself to composing. And also, on top of that, as a composer, I think I’m different from the majority of them. I don’t just sit down and compose. I get an idea to compose. I’m very much aware, not only of technical, theoretical, aesthetic questions, but of what someone like me should do. I did not think I should write music just for fun just for myself, or just for performers who like to do it. I didn’t want to repeat myself. It’s not that I felt I had a responsibility, it’s just I want to do that. My job is, as much as I could as a modern person, to look back at Chinese heritage and really ask the question, “Does it deserve to continue?” My ancestors gave it up by the end of 19th century. Should I take that up first? Or should I follow Western tradition, write a piece that everybody likes? You want to express your own musical language? I felt my responsibility is to build my ideas, my career, my work on the basis of how to revive potential contributions to the future of music of the world by the Chinese musical heritage—which is by far the longest continuous musical heritage in history—and, in view of the time lag, to merge it with modern ideas.
FJO: Well, when you came into Varèse’s life, he became active as a composer again, in a public way. You had this period of silence, and you said you were making all of these connections to China. You brought a whole group of composers here and they have gone on to become extraordinarily famous, successful, and well respected. Zhou Long won the Pulitzer Prize. His wife, Chen Yi, won the Charles Ives Living, the Stoeger Prize, and was a Pulitzer finalist. Bright Sheng won a MacArthur and was also a Pulitzer finalist. Tan Dun has won an Oscar and a Grammy and had one of his operas staged at the Metropolitan Opera. They all came here and studied with you around the same time you started writing music again. By being able to connect with them, the way Varèse connected to you, perhaps something made you realize that you needed to return to composing, this thing that was so important to you that you dropped out of Yale and ran the risk of being deported and having your family disown you.
CWC: No, not really. I tell you, not at all. In fact, it’s a major issue. I don’t think I should say too much about that because I’m very easily misunderstood. Regarding Varèse, I don’t think Varèse became active on Déserts because of contact with me. Even though he and I talked a lot. I wish we recorded our conversations. He never complained. When I complained about how Varèse was treated, it’s from me, not from him, from reading his stuff and watching him. You have no idea. Sometimes I would come in early in the morning, I sometimes would stay the whole day here, several times a week. I would come in the morning, ring the bell, and he would come out at 11 o’clock in his dressing gown and he would say softly, “Wen-chung, I didn’t sleep a wink again last night.” Why? Sadness. He wanted to do electronic music. It was his idea to begin with. And I was manipulating the most fashionable, the most developed equipment. He couldn’t have a normal cheap tape recorder. And of course, he didn’t want to say anything. You could see how sad he was. He wanted to do that in the 1930s.
Now, with me, it’s different. I don’t think of my students in that sense at all. My idea then was to help bring out talented young Chinese composers to have high level Western training. I was determined not to use myself as an example. They shouldn’t be overwhelmed by my views.
We will never have a Bach or a Beethoven. But we have other geniuses here. We have developed, by now, a reasonable, sizeable—the equivalent of one dynasty in China, but still—a respectable history. We should deal with our own history. I invented this seminar on 20th-century techniques. I’m glad I called it 20th century and not 21st century, because that doesn’t fit anymore. This is the foundation you have to build up. I think our problem today is that we forgot that. And maybe this country is a little young, but it’s not really that young anymore. We have to figure out what this country has best to offer—socially, politically, then above all, culturally.

Echoes from the Gorge by Chou Wen-chung

A page from the score of Chou Wen-chung’s Echoes from the Gorge (C.F. Peters P67289)
© 1989 by C.F. Peters Corp. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher and the composer.