Wen-Chung Chou

1923 - 2019

American

Summary

"One must search beyond the procedures of a musical practice, discern its original esthetic commitments, and trace how its tradition has evolved. If one is blessed with a cross-cultural heritage, one must then regard it as a privilege and obligation to commit oneself to the search in both practices." - Chou Wen-chung (from Sights And Sounds: Remembrances, 1990)

Biography

"One must search beyond the procedures of a musical practice, discern its original esthetic commitments, and trace how its tradition has evolved. If one is blessed with a cross-cultural heritage, one must then regard it as a privilege and obligation to commit oneself to the search in both practices." - Chou Wen-chung (from Sights And Sounds: Remembrances, 1990)

Chou's earliest work, Landscapes for orchestra (finished in 1949 and premiered by Leopold Stokowski with the San Francisco Symphony in 1953), is often cited as the first composition that is independent of either Western or Eastern musical grammar. Subsequently, his research for integration of musical concepts and practices led to his ever-evolving theory on his pien (variable) modes, influenced by concepts found in yin-yang and I Jing theories, Dao philosophy, brush calligraphy, and qin (Chinese zither) music, as well as early and modern European theories.

Chou was introduced to Edgard Varèse by Colin McPhee in 1949, and became Varèse's student and assistant during the years when Varèse was composing his last works, including Deserts (1949-1954), the manuscript of which is, in fact, in Chou's handwriting. His decades-long task of editing and correcting Varèse's scores began under Varèse's supervision, but was mostly undertaken after his death. Chou also completed two of Varèse's unfinished scores.

Chou did his graduate work at Columbia University under the tutelage of Otto Luening, 1952-1954, and served as his assistant and Vladimir Ussachevsky's at the predecessor of the historic Electronic Music Center. Among Chou's other teachers were Nicholas Slonimsky, Bohuslav Martinu, and the musicologist Paul Henry Lang at Columbia University.

Deeply affected by Yang Yin-liu's epochal writings on Chinese music in the late 1940's, Chou cultivated association with Asian composers and scholars, beginning in the 1950's with Jose Maceda, Toshiro Mayuzumi, and Lee Hye-ku, the Korean musicologist; and following in the 1960's with Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, and Joji Yuasa, among many others.

He taught composition to an increasingly international student body at Columbia University from 1964 to 1991. He was Chairman of its doctoral program in composition for twenty years, and was also in charge of academic affairs at Columbia University's School of the Arts, during which time he discovered many young Chinese talents and brought them to the United States to study in the program. He also began teaching a graduate course on Chinese music in 1969, and designed the innovative Asian Humanities in Music course in 1982.

As the first Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition, Chou established the Fritz Reiner Center for Contemporary Music at Columbia University in 1984, to foster new music and encourage young composers. He revitalized Columbia University's Electronic Music Center by transforming it into the present Computer Music Center. He has worked continuously on behalf of many cultural institutions, most notably as President of Composers Recordings, Inc. from 1970 to 1975, making those years the most successful in CRI's history. Chou also organized many concert events in honor of such composers as Varese and Takemitsu, as well as introducing young composers from the Asian Pacific region. In 1977 he chose an ancient Chinese composition, Liu Shui, to be sent into space along with works by Bach and Beethoven on the space probe Voyager 2.

To undertake crucially needed cultural projects throughout East and Southeast Asia, where he has been visiting since 1966, Chou established the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange in 1978 at Columbia University, which has since conducted many sustained projects in diverse cultural fields, involving thousands of professionals at a time. Some examples of the Center's projects are the Pacific Music Festival and the Pacific Composers Conference in Sapporo, Japan, in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony Orchestra, 1990; the decade-long arts education program in China, begun in 1980, funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and the ongoing comprehensive program on conservation and development of indigenous cultures of Yunnan, China, begun in 1990, funded by the Ford Foundation. Chou and the Center also collaborated with Isaac Stern on his first visit to China and the filming of "From Mao to Mozart" in 1979; and with Arthur Miller on the historic Asian premiere of "Death of a Salesman", in Beijing, 1983.

Chou Wen-chung was born in Yantai, China in 1923, and came to the United States in 1946. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and of the Asian Composers League. He was honored in 2001 by the French government with the order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. He passed away on 25 October 2019 at the age of 96.

News

Performances

21st March 2024

PERFORMERS
Continuum
CONDUCTOR
Joel Sachs
LOCATION
Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, NY, United States of America

Photos