Chou Wen-Chung: The Life and Work of a Contemporary Chinese-Born American Composer

By Everett, Yayoi Uno | Notes, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Chou Wen-Chung: The Life and Work of a Contemporary Chinese-Born American Composer


Everett, Yayoi Uno, Notes


TWENTIETH-CENTURY STUDIES Chou Wen-Chung: The Life and Work of a Contemporary Chinese-Born American Composer. By Peter M. Chang. (Composers of North America, No. 25.) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006. [241 p. ISBN 0-8108-5296-9. $65.] Music examples, illustrations, index.

A monograph on the life and work of Chou Wen-Chung, a prominent Chinese American composer who has contributed much to the development of postwar contemporary music in North America and abroad, is long overdue. In this book, Peter M. Chang offers a detailed chronological survey and analysis of Chou's music spanning over five decades. The book is organized into eight chapters: an overview of Chou's compositional style (chap. 1), extensive biography (chap. 2), chronological survey and analysis of works (chaps. 3-5), reception of Chou's music (chap. 6), Chinese approaches to musical synthesis (chap. 7), and epilogue (chap. 8). The appendices contain a list of Chou's complete works, instrumentation, and the date of premiere for each composition as well as a complete discography to date. The book is aimed at a wide range of readers, specialists and non-specialists alike, who seek an accessible introduction to Chou's musical language. And for a reader not acquainted with traditional Chinese philosophy and aesthetics of art, this book provides a useful introduction to Chinese poetry, the system of I Ching (Yijing), and other aesthetic concepts that have shaped Chou's distinctive approach to musical composition.

Anyone who has met Chou Wen-Chung in person is amazed by the excitement and passion he brings to sharing his ideas, visions, and stories about his life experiences. While preserving Chou's style of storytelling in the biographical sketch, Chang supplies historical facts and evidence to contextualize critical facets of Chou's transcultural experiences. Chang begins by tracing Chou's familial roots in the Jiangsu province and describes the formative musical training Chou received within the rich cultural landscape of Shanghai, prior to his enrollment in Guangxi University and the National Chungqing University (p. 22). Following his exile during World War II, Chou developed his career as composer in the United States through his encounter with pivotal figures such as Nicholas Slonimsky and Edgard Varèse, who steered Chou to embrace his own cultural traditions in developing his compositional voice. After completing his studies at the New England Conservatory and Columbia University, Chou engaged in an extensive study of Chinese traditional art, music, and drama, including calligraphy and qin (Chinese zither), through a Rockefeller grant (1955-57). In addition to his role as educator and administrator at Columbia University and other institutions, Chou vigorously promoted cultural exchange by founding the United States-China Exchange at Columbia University and conserving the cultural heritage of the Yunnan province in China. Last, but not least, Chou kept Varèse's legacy alive by editing and finishing scores as well as handling recordings and publications of scores by his mentor. This chapter bears witness to Chou's multifaceted role as composer, educator, and humanitarian.

A recurring thread one finds in Chang's writing about Chou's music is the profound ways in which Varèse influenced the composer's conception of sound and compositional approach based on musical synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions. In his chronological survey and analysis of Chou's works, Chang focuses on Varèse's influences vis-à-vis aesthetics of Chinese poetry and art forms that inspired Chou's music. Works from the 1940s and 1950s (chap. 3), such as Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954) feature thematic recycling of materials derived from modal scales of Chinese origin. An analysis of Willows are New (1957) is accompanied by commentary on traditional Chinese use of qin; Chang also offers a detailed discussion of the important qin composers throughout the dynasties and elaborates on the four types of sounds used in the playing style of qin and illustrates how these gestures are translated in Chou's works (p.

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