Truly a Wenren—Remembering Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019)
Chou Wen-chung is a music giant who mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever.
Some reflections by Chen Yi
We still don’t want to believe that Professor Chou has passed away. Tears are not enough to express our profound sadness and grief over this tremendous loss. He is a music giant who brought us to and taught us at Columbia University, and mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever. Our heavy hearts brought us back to countless memories of his vivid voice and energetic gestures.
Remembering when I studied composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing in the early 80s, once in a lecture given at the library, to introduce newly imported music recordings, I surprisingly heard a recording of Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet and wind ensemble. I just jumped up! Even though it wasn’t in Chinese folk-music style, it struck me as so Chinese! I was deeply impressed by the Chinese spirits hidden behind the striking sonorities. At that time, most Chinese compositions used pentatonic scales in melodic writing while using Western harmony and formal designs, but this piece was not based on pure pentatonic scales. I ran and got the LP recording and I saw his photograph. I realized then that he must have been born in China, and I was very excited by this Chinese-American composer’s music. This is the first time I heard the name — Chou Wen-chung! I discovered that Prof. Chou was involved as a US delegate to China in the late 1970s. He donated many scores, recordings, books, and other materials to Chinese conservatories. After the librarians had catalogued all of these materials, they were made available to students for study from a series of new imported record broadcasting sessions. It was at that point we were introduced to Chou Wen-chung’s music.
I was also lucky enough to have attended his lecture when he visited the Central Conservatory. His public lecture was hosted by the Musicology Department, and attended by many professors and some students in the Musicology and Composition Departments. Besides introducing contemporary American composers and their music, Prof. Chou also answered many questions about music education in American universities. We then learned that he taught at Columbia University in New York City.
It was my privilege to have the opportunity to join my husband Zhou Long to study with Prof. Chou at Columbia in 1986. After graduating with our Bachelor’s degrees in 1983, Zhou Long became the resident composer of the China National Broadcasting Symphony, and I became a graduate student at the Central Conservatory. I needed another three years of study to obtain my Master’s degree, so I came to New York one year later. When I got to know Prof. Chou more closely for the first time in 1986, which was several years after we had attended his lecture at the Central Conservatory and right before I came to the US, it was during the First Contemporary Chinese Composers Festival held in Hong Kong. Prof. Chou took all of our young composers from Mainland China to a delicious Chinese banquet at which we talked about Chinese culture, Chinese music, and its future. This also became a regular event after I arrived at Columbia. Every month, Prof. Chou would host a meeting at the US-China Arts Exchange to discuss Chinese music tradition and heritage, and our responsibility and effort in carrying it on in our culture and society. After each meeting, Prof. Chou took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant on Broadway. We all greatly looked forward to this gathering every month. However, when Zhou Long and I graduated from Columbia in 1993, Prof. Chou and his wife Yi-An treated us to a fancy dinner at a great French restaurant in Greenwich Village. We will never forget the taste and the beautiful mood of that evening. Prof. Chou became our great mentor and we had a close relationship throughout the years since then.
The most important impact of Prof. Chou’s influence on me was not only to use basic composition techniques to write music, but the in-depth study of both Chinese and Western cultures, which would provide inspiration for getting creative concepts and methods for controlling and developing musical elements. The outcome would be unique, in our own language. Prof. Chou inspired me a lot with compositional concepts that unite Eastern and Western styles and techniques. In our early years at Columbia, I also translated many program notes of Prof. Chou’s compositions into Chinese, when his works were being played in Mainland China and Taiwan. I enjoyed doing that because Prof. Chou’s notes are so poetic and beautifully written in English that you have to concentrate hard to find how to say these things correctly in Chinese, in a way that will keep their beautiful literary character and not make them just a frank, straight reciting of facts.
Zhou Long and I also produced a series of programs for Shanghai Dong Fang Radio to introduce 20th-century music. We had one and a half hours in three half-hour segments devoted to the music of Prof. Chou. I compiled all of the materials about his music, wrote the texts for the programs, and discussed his creations in various periods and styles: The first was about the early works of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, like Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954), which are important orchestral pieces that have been played by many of the major orchestras. Then in the second program came the more abstract style of writing heard in Cursive (1963) and even more so in a very complex score like Yun (1969), which is extremely sophisticated. The third program was devoted to his later works. These three radio programs were widely heard in China and musicians continue to talk about them.
These experiences opened up my view and helped me to break boundaries and find my own voice – as, for example, writing in the style of Chinese musical storytelling, and the reciting tunes in Beijing Opera. I consider this my turning point in terms of new compositional language, concept, and technique. In the technical aspects of composition, Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”
He also showed us paintings and calligraphy, and he would tell us how he thought of these as counterpoint. He would look at brush strokes on the page and he would see the space between the inner and outer edges of the stroke and the way that it changed as a sort of counterpoint. My pipa solo piece The Points uses an idea like this. In calligraphy, every stroke begins with a point. After you set down the first dot, you turn the brush to make the different strokes that you want; so, the point, the beginning of each stroke, is very important in drawing Chinese calligraphy. Prof. Chou asked me and inspired me to write this piece, which was premiered at the New Music Consort’s season concert devoted to Chinese composers’ music, as part of the NEWworksOCTOBER concert series at Columbia University in 1991, and it won me a reputation because it has been widely performed. In China, it has been the subject of a thesis and it is now a required piece for musicians who study pipa performance at the conservatory as well as in many competitions.
When I was a DMA student at Columbia, Prof. Chou recommended me to become a part of an ISCM film production called Sound and Silence (which was co-produced by Polish National Television and French Adamov Films) and this series introduced my new chamber works to international audiences through European TV networks in 1989. This is a ten-film series dedicated to contemporary music, featuring 20 composers from 19 countries (including 2 from China: I was the one from the Mainland, and the other one was from Hong Kong). Each composer had a half-hour program with his/her music performed, with the composer as one of the performers; there was also an interview by the host, Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, then the president of ISCM. I played the violin in my own sextet, Near Distance, and sang in my own trio, As in a Dream for soprano, violin and cello. My Woodwind Quintet was also presented in the program. The other half-hour segment along with my program in the hour was Luciano Berio representing Italy. I played two movements in his violin duet collections. Before I left for Poland, Prof. Chou’s wife, Yi-An gave me a lot of clothes – many dresses! “This one could be suitable… That one… Here, try this one…” She took me into her walk-in closet, and looked through all dresses in shelves up to the celling… You could see the dress in the film.
I also sat in on my classmate David Tsang’s private lessons, invited by Prof. Chou. Prof. Chou analyzed his own concerto for cello and orchestra and other works for us, showing us how he designed his pieces with charts. There are different colors assigned to particular aspects or music elements in the structure. One color would represent pitch material, another dynamics, some others would control tension and density, part distribution, timbre, sonority, orchestration, and so on. It was very inspiring to me because I used to write music without a detailed plan covering many aspects. This is a very different and practical method in composition experience. He encouraged us to study Western contemporary music in-depth and gave me his former teaching syllabus in new music analysis, and introduced analysis of music by Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, and others. You can’t compose in a unique style until you really learn all cultures well and then can create your own work as a hybrid and speak in your own language.
I studied with Prof. Chou for three years, and one of those years overlapped with my work with Prof. Mario Davidovsky for electronic music composition. When Prof. Chou retired, I worked with Mario for five years until I finished the DMA program, as he supervised my dissertation work. Zhou Long’s dissertation was supervised by Prof. George Edwards, after years of study with Prof. Chou and Prof. Davidovsky. We remained very close to our professors from Columbia University. During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City, including my octet Sparkle and mixed quartet Qi performed by New Music Consort, my China West Suite for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2007, my string quartet At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert by the Ying Quartet, and my Si Ji (Four Seasons) performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall in 2005. My Si Ji was dedicated to Professor Chou and was selected as one of the Pulitzer Prize Finalists in 2006. Prof. Chou called me to send his congratulations when he learned the good news.
During the time I studied at Columbia University, I also worked as an administrative assistant at his Center for US-China Arts Exchange for three years, and closely witnessed his hard work, which made a huge contribution to the US-China music education and arts exchange. He was busy teaching at Columbia, but he had to raise money, write many reports for the Center and take care of administrative work. Prof. Chou never used the Center’s facilities or equipment for himself. He was very clear that every cent raised should go directly to the projects that the Center was working on. When I was working there, people would come and ask for a sample of his music. I asked him, “Can I just make one copy here?” but he said, “No. Make a copy outside and give me the receipt.” He never even made a copy of his own music with the Center’s copy machine.
During my work at the Center, we participated in two important composers’ conferences organized by the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and led by Prof. Chou. One was the Conference on Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music held in New York in 1988. It’s the first time since 1949 that distinguished composers from Mainland China and Taiwan, separated by the sea, each had ten representatives who sat down together at Columbia University to have artistic discussions and a cultural exchange. They found so much in common in tradition and creation! The other was the Pacific Composers’ Conference, part of the Pacific Music Festival held in Sapporo, Japan in 1990, which gathered established composers and dozens of excellent young composers from many countries and areas in the Pacific Rim. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. The festival included concerts, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions for cultural exchange. He enthusiastically supported many young artists around the world.
When I first came to the States, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra from China premiered my Duo Ye No. 2 at Lincoln Center in 1987, but Prof. Chou had to attend another concert with his own work premiered in New Jersey. Nevertheless, he arranged for a huge bunch of beautiful flowers made by his wife Yi-An to be given to me on stage! He also invited us to enjoy Thanksgiving holiday and learn American culture in his country house. Years later, when he visited UMKC Conservatory where we teach, he brought me a meaningful and beautiful gift: a fancy, richly illustrated volume (12” x 10”, 4 lbs), The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng, and published in Beijing by Morning Glory Publishers in 1988. He said, “I think that you would love it and need it especially for your teaching in English.” I was deeply touched when he handed the book to me. Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one. He wanted to be a person who gave as much as possible to the whole world. He is my role model and has encouraged me to keep working harder in music creation and teaching for our society.
Additional reflections by Zhou Long
In the late 1970s, Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there. His music immediately attracted me, such as his Yu Ko and other orchestral works. His aesthetic concept is based on the philosophy of the intellectuals from older times who played the qin, and on the ancient poetry of China. I composed Song of the Ch’in for string quartet and Su for flute and qin (ch’in) before I came to study overseas, both of which were very strongly influenced by Prof. Chou’s introduction of Chinese scholarly music to us.
After graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, I was assigned as the Composer-in-Residence for the China National Broadcasting Corporation. In 1985, I became the first composition student from Beijing admitted to Columbia University in New York City to study with Prof. Chou through the introduction of Mr. Li Ling, a family friend who was the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association. On one of Prof. Chou’s visits to China, Mr. Li passed along some of my compositions including my first recordings of my orchestral works and Chinese instrumental compositions along with a broadcasting concert recording to Prof. Chou, who took them back to the composition admission committee at Columbia. There, the professors on the committee included Prof. Chou as the head, along with Profs. Mario Davidovsky, and Jack Beeson. They reviewed my scores and awarded me a full scholarship.
I had a cultural shock when I first arrived New York, and I encountered many ideas that were new to me. For two years, from 1985 until 1987, I didn’t compose anything. While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student of Prof. Wu Zuqiang, who was the president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and a close friend of Prof. Chou’s, who helped leading the US-China arts exchange activities in China. Chen Yi arrived in New York in 1986. Prof. Chou then guided me to learn not only from traditional Chinese music, but also to explore wider traditions such as East Asian cultures, including music from Japan and Korea. He also gave me concert tickets to attend the opera Einstein on the Beach and the Netherland’s ballet with Bolero during the first two years of my study in the US. He encouraged me to study with his colleagues, Professors George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. In 1987, I started to compose again, with Wu Ji for piano and electronic sound, and a mixed quintet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The score of Dhyana is dedicated to Prof. Chou since he gave me so much inspiration and input when I composed the piece, from the concept and the philosophy, to textures and structures. After eight years at Columbia, I received my Doctoral of Musical Arts degree in 1993. When I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for my first opera Madame White Snake in 2011, Prof. Chou called me on the phone to congratulate me warmly. I feel deeply grateful for his mentorship and support.
I think the most important aspect of my work with Prof. Chou involved his theories of composition and creation. Prof. Chou’s educational philosophy is culturally oriented. Today people can accept a wider range of styles, but that’s not the issue. You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out. Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s vision and effort established the international status of our generation of Chinese composers.
[Ed. Note: Back in January 2013, we recorded an extensive interview with Chou Wen-chung for NewMusicBox. His “vivid voice,” as Chen Yi so aptly described in, comes across in the video presentation from that talk. You can read a transcript of that entire conversation elsewhere on this site.—FJO]