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.

7 thoughts on “Chou Wen-chung: Living With History

  1. Damián

    An enjoyable and insightful interview. I’m glad you took the time to interview Chou Wen-chung – his music is very fascinating, and I really liked how he pointed out that one can’t forget their own past and how it will be one’s foundation with how they approach anything, especially music.

  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    I’ve been very curious about Mr.Chou’s music for a long long time. Not only ’cause I’m a Varese freak, but because I’ve read several times about the quality of his music.

    This is a useful introduction to the mand and his work, and a wonderful tribute. Another good move by FJO.

  3. David Froom

    Thank you Frank (and Alex) for this fabulous interview. I had the great privilege of studying with Wen-chung at Columbia, and it was so great again to hear him talk about music. He was transformational as a teacher, always asking the most penetrating of questions, getting me to reach into myself, urging me to embrace all of my past and interests, gently pointing out to me where I had failed to meet the standards I was trying to set for myself — and then generous and supportive, not only while I was studying with him, but for years and years afterwards.

    His music is due for a major revival. It is easy to find (C.F. Peters publishes most of it, and you can hear many of the major works on Spotify.

  4. Eleanor Cory

    I, too, was a student of Chou Wen-Chung’s at Columbia. I remember his careful attention to detail which often took the form of eliminating music that either didn’t “belong” or was cluttering the direct communication of what I was trying to say. His depth of knowledge of percussion instruments and his ability to use them deftly to etch distinct colors was very important for me. Thank you for this beautiful interview.

  5. Conrad Cummings

    Bravo Frank, bravo Alex, and above all bravo Wen-Chung. There’s so much here I didn’t know. You couldn’t wish for a more supportive, thoughtful, and wise teacher. Exactly as he says, he didn’t impose himself on us. But he was so there for us, even so. I was too shy at the time, and too wet behind the ears, to ask the wonderful questions you pose, Frank. The recent music is gorgeous. Bravo again.

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  7. Pingback: Chou Wen-chung: Living With History | New Music USA

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