Tag: studying composition

It’s All People. And It’s All Connected

Previously in this space:

1. I talked about a dangerously irresponsible workplace and my escape from it to a life of music, from Boston to Arkansas to Austin.

2. I talked about Vermont College of Fine Arts, a school that profoundly shaped who I am in ways that I can barely begin to describe. (I tried valiantly to do so, regardless.)

3. I talked about the burgeoning scene surrounding video game music (as well as covers and arrangements thereof) and the way that I fell into that world.

And now I’m stepping back and looking at the thread tying everything together. Writing all of this down has been an opportunity to sort through some of the chaos of the last ten years or so. It’s funny. I’ve written humor columns, product reviews, how-tos, and plenty of ad copy. I’ve never really sat down and written about myself. I don’t generally find myself that interesting. After all, I already know how the story goes.

But maybe I don’t. This has given me a lot of perspective on my own life. And with that in mind, I’d like to talk about where I am now. But first I’d like to retrace my steps slightly, with an emphasis on the people that I knew, and the ways that they were interconnected.

Jazz band, first time through UCA.

Jazz band, first time through UCA. My one tenuous connection to the world of music at that time in my life. Photo by Rodney Steele

Everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people.

One of the things that I already knew–and had already made a point of appreciating as often as possible–is that everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people. I’m an enthusiastic evangelist for telling the people in your life that you love them. I rail against the weird American myth of the “self-made man.” And yet I am humbled anew when I review these articles and think about how much of my life comes down to the other people in it.

When I was working at the psych hospital, a handful of the people around me kept me from losing my own mind. (Mental health workers do break down, you know. We used to joke about whether we’d get an employee discount if we had to be committed ourselves.) My supervisor on the night shift did a lot to keep me sane. And the mental health supervisor on the women’s trauma ward, where I worked most of my shifts, was and remains an inspiration to me. Every now and then we check in. She’s in a completely different field of medicine, with new credentials, and a beautiful family. Seeing her current fulfillment compared to where we used to be means everything to me.

I am grateful to my mother, father, sister, and wife, for reminding me that the only one keeping me out of music was myself. They encouraged me from youth through college, and on into my adult life. Once I realized the only thing keeping me from creative work was me, I finally accepted the support that had always been there. I try now to honor their love with my effort. I am grateful to Kerri, a college friend from Arkansas. She became a psychiatrist in a nearby town. Her perspective on what mental health could be pulled me out of the gaslighting and downtrodden attitude that the hospital had filled me with and made me realize that the problem wasn’t “I can’t hack it.” The problem was that I was in a toxic environment masquerading as a therapeutic milieu.

I am grateful for Dr. Jackie Lamar, the noted saxophone professor who spent her career at the University of Central Arkansas to shepherd the program that her father had built there. When I shot her a “Hey, remember me?” email out of the blue, she welcomed me into her program with open arms. She helped me navigate my second undergraduate degree program and get out quickly, with my sanity intact. The entire time I was there, she begged me to do something more practical than composition. She steered me towards other avenues within music. I told her that I was through compromising with myself, and declined. But I never stopped appreciating the fact that she was looking out for me.

Dr. Paul Dickinson taught me how to make my best music, instead of his.

I am grateful for Dr. Paul Dickinson. A lover of 20th-century classical music, he showed me the wonders of Messiaen, Nancarrow, and Berio. Nearly every piece was introduced with, “This is the greatest piece ever written.” Despite his leanings, he taught me how to make my best music, instead of his. I am grateful for Dr. Stefanie Dickinson, who taught me ear training and advanced theory during the time Paul taught my private lessons. They are two of the finest musicians and people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I am grateful to Jared Vincenti, a friend and filmmaker from Boston who jumped at the chance to let me compose for him for his master’s thesis film and for an entire web series. I am grateful to Amanda, a mezzo-soprano (turned airplane mechanic, turned airport administrator) who befriended and encouraged me. Likewise, Holly, a bassoon player, immediately became a good friend and confidant when I felt bad about the fact that I was in college with my little sister’s class. Years later, one of my Vermont College of Fine Arts pieces was programmed at Queens College, and I stayed on her sofa in Brooklyn to take in the performance.

I’m grateful to the Army of Kind Strangers band – Dolan, Terrence, Logan, Sam, Allison, Michael, Perry, Rachel, Malcolm, Barrett, Jimmy, Trent, Kaleb, Tyler, Ethan, Doug, Lance, Robert, Kayla, Jatrice, Matthew, Nathaniel, Brittany, Bailey, Anthony, Sean, Dylan, Morgan, Connor, Josh, Yuezhi, and Andrew (who played trumpet and recorded it all). Every one of these people took time they didn’t have to, on my account. All I had to give them was pizza and friendship, and they gladly and warmly gave of their time. Every hour we spent in a classroom with all the desks shoved off to one side recording represented at least 12 hours, collectively that they all could have been doing anything else.

Dr. Dickinson gave me the flyer that led me to the Vermont College of Fine Arts. There, Sarah Madru tried like hell to talk me into coming. She patched me through to Rick Baitz, then the faculty chair, who talked with me for hours as I sorted my feelings through. All of this is in line with the tone set by program director Carol Beatty, herself a good friend at this point.

All of this is beautiful and terrifying to me. Some of my closest friends, and literally dozens of other people that I love dearly, are in my life because one professor handed me a mailer, because he knew I’d been frustrated with my graduate school search. Without that friendship, I wouldn’t have had any of these others. And without any of these others, I can’t imagine a terrible lot going on in my life to be thrilled with.

Rick served as my first advisor, but all of my advisors have given me career advice and friendly counsel above and beyond their role through the school. Ravi Krishnaswami gave me my first big break composing. I landed an advertising jingle for a popular sci-fi video game series. The jingle wound up in the game itself, and the company has used it elsewhere at every opportunity. We’ve also done some songwriting together just for us, and it’s been immensely rewarding. Another mentor, Don DiNicola, has allowed me to collaborate on a number of projects now. I’ve done everything for him from script editing to voiceover work.

My wife Maegan first introduced me to Lauren, then her coworker at the ad department of a liberal arts school. Lauren introduced me to Sebastian as he was forming Materia, a tribute album that grew into an entire record label for video game covers and original soundtracks. Through that platform, I met – this sounds like an exaggeration – several dozen of my favorite people. If I start naming them, I’ll leave people out. I think it best not to try. But I’ve had tearful, heartful conversations now with people from Seattle to New York. Not to mention Scotland, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, and Sweden. Any time we travel for work or for vacation, I have friends I can call to meet up and break bread with. That is a priceless, precious gift. And when life throws me a curveball and I find myself on the road unexpectedly, it’s an incredible comfort.

Not all of my video game music (VGM) friends are far-flung, though. I met Sirenstar, Nate Chambers, not to mention Lauren’s bandmates, and the two other VGM bands, in town. Later another Materia friend and collaborator, Bonnie, had recently gone freelance and was mulling a move to town. We helped show her around while she figured out whether this move was really the life change she wanted. Since then, all of us have collaborated on a number of things. Nate and I have scored a game together, and pitched at least three more. We’re flying out to speak at a conference in October about some neat work we did with carefully composed music that can randomize itself for hours (based on minutes of music) before you hear the same thing twice.

It all circles back around to the people you know. I’ve made constant, conscious effort to let the people in my life know how much I love them. And I’ve certainly tried to be there for them. You don’t ever want to wind up with your own back against the wall, but when I found myself there, they gathered and lifted me back up in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

When I lost my job in April, I called my graduate advisors. I called my friends from the VGM scene and from grad school. I called family. And people came together in an incredible way. Bonnie, now settled in Austin, sent me freelance work editing her voiceover for a computer game until I got back on my feet. Ravi, Rick, and Don all talked me through my options as I strove to discern whether I wanted to pursue freelance work or another office job. Nate’s wife, also a dear friend, wound up helping me find the job that I have now. She added me to a local Facebook group for digital jobs. I found a copywriting gig that I immediately fell in love with. I get to write, so I’m doing creative work to pay the bills. It’s remote, so I can spend time composing instead of dealing with Austin traffic. I adore my coworkers and the environment. And none of that would have happened without Ange’s help. (And Nate’s before her, and Lauren’s before him, and so on, because this is how life works.)

Through Materia, I found a software program that lets you write music using sampled sounds from old video game consoles – the original Nintendo, Sega Genesis, etc. A month or two later, a grad school friend needed retro video game-style music for a film he was working on. I was able to contribute, using the tools I picked up in this other sphere of my life.

Last year, my friend Sirenstar sang in Houston for a show with noted game composer Akira Yamaoka. This year, when the same concert series was looking for a saxophonist to accompany composer Darren Korb, she threw my name out and got me the gig. I got to spend a delightful day watching a fantastic composer practice harmonies with one of his most trusted collaborators, before accompanying them onstage. It was an absolute delight.

Each relationship shaped the prior one.

With each successive friendship, with each new opportunity, I am acutely aware of the way that each relationship shaped the prior one. Without people encouraging me to escape Boston, none of this would have happened. Without Mae, I wouldn’t have met Lauren, and in turn Sirenstar, and never would have played the Darren Korb show. I keep these things with me because each moment is filled with their spirit. Every opportunity is a chance to honor those connections more deeply with my actions.

Some of the connections have surprised me. In Chicago, a school friend and a video game music composer friend have known each other since grad school days. In Toronto, a friend leads a big-band swing group that covers Nintendo music. She knows another one of my grad school buddies.

I try to continue the cycle. A game composer asks if anyone plays any Indian or Middle Eastern string instruments other than sitar. I hook him up with an oud player that I met in grad school. I don’t know how that worked out, but I at least made the connection, because so many people have made connections for me. Another Materia member is a game music journalist, and mentions wanting to interview the composer behind the songs the street musicians sing in the Dishonored series. Well, that’s my buddy Ravi. I set them up on Facebook and before I know it, the interview is out.

One Materia album honors a game wherein you have three days to stop the moon from crashing into the Earth. The game’s atmosphere dabbles more than a bit in existential terror and omnipresent despair. One of my grad school friends wrote his thesis on the game’s themes. Not the musical themes, mind. The music was original. He was mining the emotional themes. He wrote a multi-movement suite where the music spanned fixed media, an early music ensemble, choir, and more, all exploring the internal turmoil of one of the game’s tertiary characters. I had to bring him onto the tribute album. He’s now a beloved member of the community, and he’s having the time of his life there.

I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me.

The point of all this meandering is that it all comes down to the relationships we forge. I don’t say that in a disingenuous way. I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me. That was true when I was in high school. It was true when I was at the psych hospital. And it’s true now. We are the links in the chains that tether us to a life worth living. The world is enormous and terrifying. Any sense that we can wrench from our unfeeling universe is going to be a group effort.

Be kind. Help each other up. Don’t close the door behind you. Say yes to everything. Nurture. Be brave enough to walk in empathy. And for the love of everything you hold holy, tell your friends you love them.

A cake with a photo of Garrett Steele's face on it.

The cake for my senior recital at University of Central Arkansas. Uncomfortable with the attention a composition recital represented, I played the whole thing like an egomaniac. The concert was called “Michael Garrett Steele Presents Michael Garrett Steele, The Concert: An Evening with Michael Garrett Steele”.

A Few Things I Failed to Mention

The first two systems of the engraved score of Susan Kander's composition A Few Things I Failed to Mention

From the score of A Few Things I Failed to Mention Copyright © 2015 by Susan Kander (BMI). All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

It is December 15, concert night for Purchase New Music: student instrumentalists, after serious coaching from faculty, will perform the pieces written by student composers. I am finally getting a master’s degree after many years in the composing business, and it is my first time participating in such an evening. I’m not too bummed that my teacher, composer Huang Ruo, won’t be there. In the first place, he knows the music well and has taught me a great deal during the composing process, so I don’t feel he needs to hear it realized. In the second place, he’s in Amsterdam where he is composer-in-residence at the Royal Concertgebouw and his new piano concerto is premiering. I can hardly begrudge him that!

This is one of the neat things about the Purchase composition faculty: professors Laura Kaminsky, Du Yun, and Huang Ruo are all extraordinarily “happening” these days, with premiers and productions of their operas, concerti, and chamber music going on all over the map. No one of them is anything like the others in their music and I am very eager to find out if that is reflected in the students’ work. Tonight I will get to listen to nine other pieces besides my own, ranging from solo studies to sextets. I’m excited to hear my young colleagues’ music. Looking at the program is illuminating: every composer’s birthdate is listed in the usual practice, and they cluster around the mid-to-late 1990s. Two birthdates are a bit earlier: one woman already has a degree in visual arts and is an adventurous singer-songwriter and guitarist. The second is my fellow grad student, a jazz pianist and composer with a flourishing career already. Both women have come to the program to deepen their skills in orchestration and non-improvised music in order to grow and push their own boundaries in their primary fields. Both are exciting artists, a bit older than the others. Then there’s me: “b. 1957.” It just looks so funny there on the page.

The newcomers are featured early in the program, those who are working with one to three instruments. They are clearly learning their way around gathering and developing the contents of their mind’s ear and putting it on the page for a player’s eye to interpret. There is some surprise lyricism in one, all are decidedly interesting, and no two are alike. The former visual artist has written a moving program note articulating the frustration involved in reconciling her deficit in musical notation proficiency with her musical imagination and intuition. She notes that “the drive of an artist relies heavily on dissatisfaction” and I think she has said a True Thing. I can’t wait to hear what she does next as her skills increase.

There are three works for the same sextet—flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, and piano—conducted by the head of the program. Again, they are quite different one from the other. The senior has written a quiet, beautifully textured work of subtle complexity that makes me grin as I listen with my eyes closed. It flows, delights, surprises, all without huzzah and with extraordinary control, and the players both understand and reveal its magic. A piece by a junior has a more programmatic approach, some very appealing atmospheric writing and a beautifully controlled, lovely ending. My graduate student colleague, the jazz artist, is pursuing shapes and layers of sound in a gentle, beautiful stream that intensifies to a Zen sort of climax and then falls back to earth. She has told me she had so much fun writing it—her first non-improvisation-based work in which she controls every beat—that she plans to continue and extend it next semester. She has found a new path.

At a certain moment, sitting in the recital hall that is very gratifyingly full of audience members—a hallmark of Purchase Conservatory: students go to each other’s recitals—I ask myself, “What am I doing here? What can I get out of this collection of youthful assays, aside from the energy that is ever-present and contagious?” I listen more, and after a while it comes to me: just as these kids are not afraid of clicking this or that button on today’s technology (which both my husband and I very much are), they are not afraid of poking into any musical corner. There doesn’t seem to be any outside to the box marked Music. Everything is inside. The senior had the percussionist toss individual coins of different weight onto the floor during his piece, adding a varying, gentle accent to the texture. All of sound, I think, is at their disposal—unburdened either by aesthetic or historic expectation or by their own previous successes. Not that they don’t know history and music, but for them what counts as music is a sound world vastly larger than mine. This is what I’m here for. When I realize this, I can almost feel the walls of my own mind push back and away. I listen more.

Another freshman has written a violent work for viola, cello, bass, and guitar, which he conducts himself. I am surprised by the music: it bespeaks an extraordinarily intense musical life residing in the mind and spirit of this polite, genial gentleman. His conducting is unorthodox but apparently communicative to the players who give him the intensity he is looking for. It is miles from anything else on the program and I can’t wait to hear his next several pieces.

Woodstock, the girl who was the lone female last year and is now a junior, has written for the same whackadoodle quintet as I have: bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. By keeping the music light and jazzy, I think she solves the essential balance problems of the group better than I have. I’ve heard pieces of hers before. Her music is often theatrical; she cannot hide either her inborn ebullient showmanship or her gourmand’s compulsion to pack too many things into one piece. In this case, not only has she written a long, sardonic text, spoken by the players over the music, but she and a friend dance in a free-form, silly way throughout the piece, hopping and rolling over under around and through the players. The result, intended or otherwise, is to obfuscate the music, which is inventive, cogent, fun, and well-played. I’m sorry about the dancing: it makes it hard to really listen to what is very enjoyable stuff. In addition, it makes me wonder, is she simply reminding us that not all music is serious, which is great; or worse, is she undermining herself, urging us not to take her music seriously? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that musical history tells us, if anyone is likely to make an actual living writing music from this group, chances are it will be Woodstock!

I’m happy to report that my musicians go beyond themselves when they perform A Few Things I Failed to Mention. Lots more dynamics help shape things, more notes fall in the right places. (I can finally make an informed decision that I should have followed my instincts and thrown out the opening movement back when I threw out two others.) There are two successive measures in the fifth movement that have demanded the most time in rehearsal: the players get really close on the first one, the second one not so much, but the movement itself achieves more continuity than ever before. In the sixth and final movement, the players start well, keeping a tight rein on the slow, suspenseful beginning, managing nicely the gradual build-up of tension and anxiety. The increasing rhythmic density of the middle section rolls out more smoothly than ever before and I remind myself to breathe. The last page, a sudden, short, fast freak-out—rhythmic, high, and loud—is absolutely primo. The piece doesn’t really end: it just stops like someone pulled a plug. In the sudden silence after the last blast, the players’ surprise and relief is wonderful to see. In that moment, I love them all.

I can’t wait for my second semester to get under way.

Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head

A red umbrella in heavy rain

I am two months into my first semester of graduate school in composition at SUNY Purchase.   I have finished the first “student composition” of my life under the useful eye of my teacher Huang Ruo.  (All the composing I did for theory classes in college doesn’t count.)  Having written eight short movements for the assigned oddball group of bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass, I have thrown out two, put the remaining six in a new order, and written a bassoon cadenza linking two middle movements to help the piece congeal.  I had chosen a title for maximum flexibility:  A Few Things I Failed to Mention.  Now the nine-minute piece goes to the musicians who will be playing it in the course named Purchase New Music.

My players range from freshman to graduate level and two are sort of on loan from the jazz department.  It is my first experience writing for students and I am concerned.  I don’t really know what to expect in terms of technical proficiency, especially with the brass where I have the least experience.  At every lesson I worried aloud to Huang Ruo about the difficulty of some of the ensemble playing; I didn’t want to be setting anyone up for a terrible experience, myself included.  Neither, however, did I want to sacrifice my own stretching for the comfort of others.  Huang Ruo was insistent that I write for myself; the kids would come through.  So I did.

The piece is handed in to Dominic Donato, head of the course, for vetting.  He pronounces it “well-made.”  Together we decide that the players will be better off playing from the score instead of from parts, as there is a great deal of rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity.  I make big scores for everyone and hand them out the week before the first coaching.  I am thrilled to find out my group’s coach is flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, head of performance at the conservatory and a new music superhero on the New York scene.

A great thing about Purchase New Music is that our pieces are coached just as seriously as if they were Brahms or Mozart:  four coachings over four weeks with top-flight New York players.  I only know Tara as an incredible musician; it’s clear from the first minute of the first coaching that as a teacher she is a force of nature.   Which is a darn good thing, because from the beginning it’s also clear that my piece poses new technical challenges for this group of young musicians who naturally haven’t encountered much contemporary music.

The learning goes very slowly with many passages that must be taken apart measure by measure and put back together instrument by instrument.  Tara, who tends to cruise at warp speed, slows down, reviews the composite rhythms and how each player’s part fits in to them, over and over.  She is careful to teach the math that underpins funky tuplets.  What seems to stick with them at first is lost on repeat; they need time to absorb the complicated rhythms.  Inevitably, some get it quicker than others.  The music is demanding but it fits together very sensibly and naturally; all three teachers involved have stressed that.  Of course I am nervous as I watch the kids struggle, but all the faculty assure me that history indicates they will come through in the end, so I keep my mouth shut and watch Tara the Music Ninja do her work.

Tara’s process for digesting new music fast and well is an education all by itself, one that I as a non-performing composer find supremely important to understand.  I have sat in on countless rehearsals before and listened closely to the working conversations of professional chamber musicians.  I know there is often more than one way to put music on the page, and I try to keep an eye on how players can be helped, or at least not hindered, through beaming, enharmonic choices, time signatures, etc.  Sometimes there isn’t any super elegant way to write a moment and it’s going to look scary on the page no matter what, but I try to keep these to a minimum.  Seeing Tara decode and demystify the music for these young players, and getting her comments on how it might usefully look different here and there, is fantastic.

Four weeks and four coachings go by. The kids are all perfectly capable, willing, and optimistic about the music, but it’s clear that insignificant rehearsing is going on between coachings. There are auditions for grad school to prepare for, student recitals, all have very full academic loads, and it’s hard under the best of circumstances for five busy musicians to get together in a room.  I am increasingly concerned.  It is in this difficult situation where the biggest change in educational gestalt since my time in school reveals itself:  there doesn’t seem to be any fear factor among the students—fear of showing up for a coaching unprepared—and this is beyond my understanding.  Over the weeks, there are times when I think that, back in the day, faced with repeatedly unprepared students, I would have expected a coach of Tara’s caliber to simply walk out of the room.  Maybe they still do in other schools, but here, now, I gather that chastising—much less shaming—isn’t the way. However much Tara’s patience is being put to the test—and it is—she continues to work patiently and positively with the kids.

At the fourth and last coaching, Tara has alerted Dominic, the head of the new music program, to the situation.   With the concert in six days, much of the music is still largely out of reach.  Dominic comes in and delivers a gentle, eloquent exhortation, acknowledging that A Few Things I Failed to Mention isn’t a “student piece” but is a well put together composition that will help them gain better skills.  He underlines that skills are a pre-requisite for working in the real world and that new music is where a lot of gigs are found.  It’s a good talk without an ounce of guilt-inducing messaging.  On the contrary, he lights a terrific fire under the kids, getting them excited about the doable work ahead.  He instructs them to schedule—right then and there—three rehearsals over the next six days.  They do that.  They will meet by themselves for the first, and then I will coach them the second and third.

When I meet with them, more notes are in place but we still have a long way to go and a recital the next day.  I have been unable to make too many judgments about my own composing up to now because I’ve been waiting for dynamics to come in to the picture.  Dynamics in this unnatural quintet are absolutely essential, and the slow parts start to blend the way I imagined.  But now I realize what feels like an error on my part: with fast music for brass, I begin to conclude, when it comes to playing quietly, on time, and in tune: pick two.  I wonder: have I set us all up for failure?

But the kids are far from giving up.  They truly want to knock down and own the whole piece. They work so hard the last two days that my heart goes out to them.  I’m sure that they could play this piece well if they’d done right by it when they first got it more than four weeks ago.  Why didn’t they?  Who knows?

Our last, Hail Mary coaching is the afternoon of the recital and they make more progress, but I worry about them blowing themselves out before the performance.  They have two other pieces to play on the program as well.  I stop the rehearsal.  What will be, will be.

The Long and Winding Road

A country road that twists and turns

A country road that twists and turns

The Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase is on a flat green campus an easy forty minutes north of New York City. Mine is the only car in sight as I am rounding the long campus drive to my first day of graduate school. In an eye-blink, out of the woods on my left, a golden animal darts across the road in front of me, lopes across the green field on my right and disappears into more woods. Cat-like but more than twice cat size, with sharp ears and a stubbed tail, I hear myself shout: “Bobcat!” A stunning wild animal, independent, insouciant even; I feel as if my bobcat has consecrated, in unforgettable style, the first day of the next two years of my life. Midway through a career as a composer and librettist, I am a (late-ish) middle-aged graduate student in composition.

Today I am just a bit trepidatious, however, because over the summer a change has occurred: Suzanne Farrin, head of composition at Purchase, has left to be head of music at Hunter College and Laura Kaminsky, who founded the composition program years ago at Purchase, is back from a sabbatical and is acting interim chair. I’m concerned because Suzanne had met me on a very collegial level; she had invited me to mentor the other students, promised they would not “waste my time” with unnecessary classes or requirements, and urged me to come directly to her with any concerns. When I meet Laura on day one, though I register her puzzlement, she is welcoming. The one concern I sense, behind her polite querying, is whether I am only there for the piece of paper; she wants to be sure I will be a fully participating, exploring, contributing member of the group. I am impressed by this. She laughs off my complete belly flop over online registration—I had to call the office more than once for technical help—and I am confident we’re going to get along just fine.

Although I live these next four months in linear fashion, it doesn’t really tell that way. It breaks down, for the telling, into Thing One and Thing Two. Thing One is my weekly lesson with Huang Ruo and the music that I write. Thing Two is everything else. Let’s start with Thing One.

At my first lesson, though Huang Ruo and I have met before over coffee, we begin to get to know each other by talking about the contemporary music scene. Then we discuss what I’m looking for from him: he completely understands and wants to provide the kind of leading and pushing I seek. In a generous nod to my unique status, he has offered to do an independent study in analysis with me instead of my taking the regular graduate course with all the young musicians, and the administration has accepted this proposal. We will study what I want and need to study as it comes to us. I now have someone to personally lead my learning in the directions I want to go, which is the whole point. And we laugh a lot together. I am thrilled.

At that first meeting, I am given my composing assignment for the course called Purchase New Music, the core of the composition program. There are three instrumental groupings available this semester in the course. Composers, with their teacher’s guidance, are to choose to write for some or all of the instruments in the group of their choice. Two groups are sextets of more or less normal instrumentation; however, Huang Ruo chooses for me the wackadoodle group of bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. He tells me I am to compose eight minutes of music for the whole group. Okay: as Du Yun said, I’m here to play in the sandbox of composition, and this ensemble definitely counts as a sandbox!

One adjustment I have to make right out of the gate is to digest the idea that I am expected to bring fresh music in every week. I have spent more than twenty years writing to deadlines and I am proud to say I’ve never missed one, but this feels different. I don’t know why. For each lesson, I bring in music. Huang Ruo sits at his desk, peruses the score, asks me why this or that. No one has ever asked me why. He laughs heartily when I anthropomorphize the instruments—e.g. “the trombone is an outlier” or “the bassoon ignores them”but at the same time urges me to stop thinking in terms of dramatic action and to get more into abstraction. (All my music is choreographed in my head, and this is something I want to move beyond.) He is quick to identify both habits and missed opportunities. At no time does he suggest anything that will specifically make my music sound like his music. It is all about making my conceptual process more expansive. All the comments are small, but over time they begin to lead me to more abstract, hopefully more interesting articulations, movement by movement, week by week. I come out of every lesson terrifically energized.

Over the course of eight weeks, I write eight movements for this off-brand group and title it A Few Things I Failed to Mention. Huang Ruo acknowledges that I am making progress. I can spot my own habits now and have identified patience within the music as a primary value I want to pursue. I worry, having never written with students as end users before, that it is too hard. The players range from freshman to grad students. Huang Ruo insists I not worry about that. I throw out two junk movements—I love throwing out bad music!—and reorder the remaining six. Doing this, I notice a potential through line that will help draw the piece into a whole; a little massaging here, a little cadenza there, and I wrap it up. Now, Thing Two.

Aside from my lessons, I am with the kids. I register for the Contemporary Ensembles course in which we will prepare and perform Terry Riley’s In C, because if I’m going to be a member of this conservatory I’m going to do it all the way. Dominic Donato, head of percussion and new music, runs the rehearsals with skill and savvy, and every week we step up the music. I come to understand why this piece is such an iconic work. When we perform it one evening in late November, I am surprised and gratified that the audience members outnumber the performers. I see this again and again at Purchase. Students show up for each other.

But my fellow composers are my pod within the conservatory. Whereas last year there was one lone female student, this year—big news—there are four. We almost hit 33%. All together we are thirteen composers. It is not too hard to keep the mother in me in the background. These are my peers, not my children. That they are all, well, adorable, is lovely, but mostly it is their energy and their thinking that I respond to.

In fact, at the beginning, that is all I have to go on because I have no idea what anyone’s music sounds like. The tone of discourse in Composition Seminar is set at constructive and positive. That’s fine, but I am continually gratified by how observant and articulate this bunch is. They listen. More than that, they grasp what the student composer is trying to do and offer specific ideas towards achieving it. I notice that students who are beyond freshman year have a great deal of faith in this process. No one shrinks from presenting; rather, several welcome it as a way to push past a bump in the road. They trust their fellow composers, seeking feedback from them as much as from the teachers who, in fact, are conservative and strategic with their comments. I sense zero competitiveness. Having heard last year’s one and only graduate student’s new complexity work, I am expecting more of it, but as the students present their pieces I discover a smorgasbord of styles, approaches, and philosophical inquiry. Some music works or will eventually work, I think; some not so much. Some is esoteric, some theatrical. Some makes use of machinery I don‘t understand. (That’s next year.) I figure the permission and encouragement to explore this broad a range of music and sound art must come from the top. There is simply no stylistic line to tow: that much is clear and it makes me very happy.

When I make my own presentation, there is a balancing act to be aware of: I am part of the professional world—there’s no hiding it—but I want to assure them that I am a seeker as well. I play parts of a duo, an aria, and an orchestra piece. They are very complimentary but also insightful; I am intrigued by the things they focus on. In addition, I feel a change: I am no longer an unknown quantity. I feel more like one of the gang. We’ve all had to stand up and reveal our desires.

Back to Thing One: after eight weeks writing music, we move to the next stage, handing it to the musicians.

Still B.A. After All These Years

A large clock displaying the time 5:32 in front of a building.

It’s never too late. (A clock on the campus of Purchase College, photo via Wiki Commons.)

I’m staggering to the end of my first semester in graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in composition, but I am thrilled to report that my comrades in the department are just as worn out as I am. This counts as a win because I am 58, and they are younger than my own children.

A flashback, for perspective… 1976: I am a freshman at Harvard, declaring music as my major. For reasons having something to do with being swept away by The Ballad of Baby Doe, which I have seen in Kansas City at the Lyric Opera, and its composer Douglas Moore, on whose knee I have perched as an eight year old, I propose to my adviser double majoring in English and music with a thesis on American opera. There is dubious scowling in the music department, and I am sent to run this up the English department flagpole. I present myself to the Head Tutor, an academic martinet—I remember his rotundity and his Brylcreem—who listens to my wobbly proposal and bursts forth with a viscerally condescending guffaw: “Opera in English is an excrescence, with the sole possible exception of Oedipus Rex.” I have not forgotten his vitriol these forty years. I did not do the double major; I did not explore American opera; I did develop an enduring antipathy for academia.

Now, suddenly, after 40 years of committed avoidance—and a rewarding career as a composer of necessarily American operas, chamber music, music of all kinds—fall 2015 finds me schlepping to the State University of New York at Purchase three days a week for classes, lessons, rehearsals, seminars, and my young colleagues’ recitals. I am studying both composition and analysis with composer Huang Ruo who, along with Du Yun and Department Chair Laura Kaminsky, make up the unusually diverse faculty. I will come back, in another column, to life at Purchase, but will just say here that so far, I’m getting what I came for and much more besides. The first question, however, is why?

The truth is, when I decided to do this, I couldn’t even imagine what a composition lesson looked like. I had never engaged in a formal discussion of how a piece is written, mine or anyone else’s. Though I had participated in or observed lessons like this in the fields of literature, art, and architecture, I had never done it with music. My reconnaissance visit to the school a year ago gave me my first experience of a composition seminar. Sitting in a windowless room with ten students in their teens and early twenties, I listened to a graduate student present his Feldman-esque chamber piece in preparation for his upcoming interviews for Ph.D. programs. That day, I was surprised by so many things: the young man’s compositional style and his passion for it; the other students’ respect and incisive observation about his piece and his work in general. I could see there was considerable knowledge floating around this group and felt that the extraordinarily positive yet thinking atmosphere in the room was clearly driven by the faculty. Most of all, I was floored by the general articulateness of the kids. Every one contributed something to the discussion with clarity of thought and precision of language. And no one gave me the fish eye.

I can do this thing, is what I thought that day. And I can do it here, if they’ll have me. But how and why did I come to this? Why did it suddenly come to me that I needed to blow up my comfortable, autonomous Upper West Side existence and formally study the thing I’ve been pretty successfully doing for so much of my life?

A little more history.

Music is my second career. My first was in theater, writing plays. I did okay—regional stuff, Off-Broadway stuff, a TV show—but in 1993 I decided I was not the fighter I needed to be in a theatrical world that was still enormously hostile to women writers. Ask any woman over 50. Or 40. Or 30. Or… There were a couple of children born. The lever of my switch to music, in fact, was writing an opera for their public elementary school to do. There was a strings program and a band program, but no choral program. So I volunteered to fill that void, writing a 40-minute opera (on a one-and-a-half octave yellow plastic Playskool piano, but that’s another story) and discovered I had returned to something that felt like home.

But with two kids and a more or less instant take-off with commissions, first for more youth operas and then branching out into all kinds of music, I never considered graduate school. I simply set out to a) relearn everything I had forgotten since majoring in music and b) investigate all the new stuff. And the fact is, you can get pretty far doing that all by yourself using New York City as your classroom.

With each new commission, I gave myself new things to explore, new challenges. It’s been a continuous exercise in autodidactics: using music libraries at Columbia University and Lincoln Center; attending concerts at Juilliard New Music, Bang on a Can, and Composer Portraits at Columbia University’s Miller Theater; and encountering an increasing number of 20th- and 21st-century operas in big and little productions. This town’s happy/infuriating tumult of new music, along with its not-new music, is a damn good classroom.

My most recent commissions allowed me to push my music further than I’ve ever taken it, in very different directions. My 90-minute chamber opera The Giver (2012), for which I did adaptation and libretto from the seminal dystopian novel by Lois Lowry, commissioned by Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, has a pit ensemble of ten players and many orchestral interludes. Hermestänze (2013), a 30-minute cycle for violin and piano commissioned by Jacob Ashworth, artistic director of Cantata Profana (also my son) allowed me to explore those two instruments more fully—both alone and together—than ever before. After these two large and intense projects, however, I found myself wondering if I had exhausted my learning curve. The thought crept in: maybe it’s time to find someone else to lead my learning, my discovery, for a while and to experiment further from my comfort zone. Music having revolutionized and exploded itself so many times in the last 40 years, there is so much of it I don’t understand just on a technical level. And in the span of a few seconds, the idea of graduate school became the obvious next step.

I did not cast a wide net, but I did talk to composition professors to try to gauge whether this was at all a viable idea. All of them were encouraging and no one made me feel weird. I wanted a degree program that emphasized composing rather than history or theory, with performances of student work built in to the curriculum, not catch as catch can.

Purchase satisfies those requirements and has a faculty of extraordinarily happening composers besides. When I went on audition day, I was welcomed by the students who remembered me from last spring. I specifically asked the one and only girl in the program, let’s call her Woodstock, to give me a tour of the music school. Her energy alone could run a railroad, and her enthusiasm for the school, the department, the faculty, the other students, and the making of music itself is inexhaustible. In fact, one of the most striking things about the little group of composers, who were all turned out to welcome prospective students and answer questions, was their love of their own school and respect for each other. They had all been there long enough to have a realistic view of the place, but what came across was this shared love. As the parent of a violinist, I have been inside many a conservatory and stood among many groups of young musicians, but this vibe was unusual and very real—it is the sort of thing that comes directly from the top.

When I interviewed—nervous!—that day, Suzanne Farrin had been department chair for ten years. She and Du Yun and Huang Ruo sat across from me, listened together to some music of mine and asked me to explain why I wanted to do this. I am giving them my spiel when suddenly Du Yun pops up, expostulating: “Oh I get it: you want to play in the sandbox!”

Yes! Exactly! And they voted me in to the sandbox.

Susan Jander

New York-based composer Susan Kander has been commissioned by a wide range of performers, ensembles, symphony orchestras, and opera companies. She is nationally recognized as a leading composer in the field of youth opera. Her most-produced work, One False Move, “an anatomization of girl bullying,” has been done by opera companies, conservatories, schools, colleges, and choruses all over this country and in South Africa and China. Kander’s current project is the libretto and score for The News from Poems, a three-act opera about New Jersey poet/doctor William Carlos Williams.


It’s education week here at NewMusicBox, and since I’ve recently written a few posts aimed at students, I thought this would be an opportune time to share some thoughts directed toward teachers themselves. Having had some great and less-than-great teachers (as well as some great and not-so-great teaching moments of my own), I’d like to step back for a moment and identify some inherent problems in teaching, especially teaching creative skills like music composition.
Foggy River
A large part of teaching has to do with explication—working through new concepts and techniques with the student and rendering clear what was previously shrouded in mystery. And without a doubt, this is an essential part of the teacher’s role: turning the unfamiliar into the familiar, into something which can be understood and manipulated.

But the best teachers don’t stop there; they know that their truer calling is to engage aspects of musical experience that have become familiar and render them unfamiliar again. We need to unteach, as well as teach.

In my experience as both student and teacher, I’ve realized how it’s only too easy to resort to explanation rather than confronting the mysterious, and to privilege those concepts—and those musical works—which are easy to teach over ones less yielding to analysis. Helping students work through problems is certainly part of the point—but so, too, is making students aware of problems they never considered. A great teacher must both illuminate the world for his or her students and, at the same time, return parts of the illuminated world to a certain amount of mystery and confusion.

Although I still have very much to learn about being a teacher, it occurs to me that the first part of the equation—explication—is fairly obvious, while the second part—challenging precisely those areas of thought that seem pat and already clearly understood—is much more difficult to understand, much less apply in practice. Teachers—as well they should—often derive much satisfaction in helping students achieve clarity or a particular goal, like completing a composition; but perhaps (myself included) teachers at times require greater sensitivity to the fact that revealing unnoticed complexities that shake up a student’s world view (and—gasp!—deleting measures rather than producing more) are also a kind of progress; both modes of teaching must come into play for any student to develop critical thinking skills and develop as a budding artist.

Many young composers have already had significant experience teaching, both in and outside of academia and often while they are still students themselves. The next generation of teachers are our best hope for a better musical future; here’s hoping they did better than my teachers did, and better than I am able to do now. But if that is to be the case, I strongly suspect that such an improvement won’t be the result of better expository techniques, but the result of a deeper understanding that some mysteries need to remain unexplained, and some useful models called into question. After all, the students of the future need to find new and better models; they need learn from silence as well as explanation, from the rests as well as the notes.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

As a beginning teacher, I was always quick to fill the blackboard with squiggles—clear evidence that teaching has occurred!—and I never asked questions to which I didn’t already know the answer. It was only gradually that I came to see the value in occasionally leaving a few questions open and few loose ends dangling unattended, just begging for some curious student to grapple with; and only after many misgivings that I came to see how inducing a certain kind of cultivated confusion could be just as helpful as explaining certain confusions away.

If I have one specific hope for the next generation of teachers, it’s that they come to redress this inherent imbalance in teaching better than my own generation and the generation who taught me. To paraphrase Aldous Huxley: “Let them be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging their ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”

Have Some Fun

Every fall since I began teaching at SUNY Fredonia, I’ve been asked to come speak to the School of Music’s Freshman Seminar class in order to let them know about our composition program. In addition to the real advantage of connecting with students who are interested in composition but either did not make it into the program or hadn’t considered studying it full-time, it also allows me to speak to the many performance and music education majors. Not only do I encourage these students to collaborate with composition majors as instrumentalists, singers, and conductors, but I always take the opportunity to encourage them to try composing themselves, especially if they’ve never done it before. “One does not need to be a poet in order to enjoy writing poetry,” is something I always tell them.

These yearly talks I have with 18-year-old students propelled me to take the opportunity to speak in a similar manner to professional music educators, first at the NYSSMA Winter Conference (New York State’s “all-state” convention) and now at regional and national conferences like the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME) Eastern Division Conference. The main gist of my presentation has been to encourage music teachers to begin to compose, something most of them have never tried outside of an occasional theory homework assignment. I explain that there are many reasons why composing can be helpful to educators, from giving them a much stronger context through which they can interpret the works of others to improving their skills in sight-reading and rhythmic comprehension. And with such a foundation, they can better work with their own students who want to try their hand at writing music.

But I also tell them that they should do it because it’s fun.

Having fun, or composing simply for the intrinsic enjoyment of creation, isn’t something that’s discussed much in education or composition circles, but I think it should be. Teachers tend to think that composing is something that is a mystery, an alchemical process in which they are, by default, not worthy to participate. Composers tend not to think in quite such esoteric terms, but I would wager that most would subscribe to the notion that there are too many aspiring composers out there already and they might question the notion of encouraging a large population of professional educators to dive into the composing pool.

To consider it another way, most of us look at professional composers in the same way that the sports world looks at specialists such as fencers: we can understand the basic concept of the sport (once it’s explained to us every four years during the Olympics), but very few of us ever get the chance to try such an activity. Most of us don’t meet fencers at parties or in the grocery store, and while there are fencing clubs around the country, the sport does not have the popularity of golf or tennis or even chess. I suppose what I am doing is asking why composing can’t be more like golf or chess. Very few will ever hope to reach the level of true masters, but the activity itself is still seen as an enjoyable pastime.

I guess the question at the heart of the matter is what is more important: the act of musical creation or the final product. For those of us whose livelihoods are intertwined with the success of our creative work, then the final product is, of course, a very high priority. But one might suggest that allowing and encouraging others to partake in the act of creation–whether or not the final product is performed publicly, used as an exercise in a classroom, or simply listened to in private–is both worthwhile and important for the future of our art.

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.