Chou Wen-chung’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. It began with two works for wind orchestra, Metaphors (1959) and Riding the Wind (1964), but evolved steadily through such works as Pien (1966) for chamber ensemble, Echoes from the Gorge (1989) for percussion quartet, the Cello Concerto (1992), and most recently, the two string quartets, Clouds (1996) and Streams (2003).
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 Déserts (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, including both versions of Amériques. [sic] Chou has also completed two of Varèse’s unfinished scores.
Chou did his graduate work at Columbia University under 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.
Chou taught composition to an increasingly international student body at Columbia University from 1964 to 1991. He succeeded Luening in 1969 and developed the composition program into an internationally renowned institution. He was responsible for the design and coordination of the curriculum for doctoral candidates in music composition. He designed the one-year course “Twentieth-century Styles and Techniques” as a basic required course for doctoral and master candidates in musical composition (1965) and the graduate course “Chinese Music” (1969); and designed the course content on East and Southeast Asian music for the course “Asian Humanities in Music” as well as coordinating the overall design of the course, including the music of South and West Asia (1982). Concurrently, he was also in charge of academic affairs at Columbia’s School of the Arts. He supervised curricular planning and the revision for the Master of Fine Arts programs in film, theater, visual arts and writing (1975 to 1987). In the 1980s, he discovered many young Chinese talents and brought them to the United States to study at Columbia.