Chou Wen-chung

A Brief Explanation of Variable Modes, in Chou Wen-chung’s own words

Sketch showing modal progressions, early 1960s.The Variable Mode concept was developed through a gradual process of integrating ideas that I was always interested in and had studied purposefully since the end of the 1940s. My studies in the classical Chinese modal system used in yayue and the later modal systems for secular music suyue of the Tang Dynasty led me to the Indian raga practice. It happened in the early 1950s at the time when I was also studying medieval theory at Columbia University and Greek theory on my own. This was followed by research in all of the better known tuning and modal systems proposed in the long history of Chinese music theory. Naturally, I was also influenced by various modern theories and practice. In the end, I concluded that it makes sense to synthesize some of the concepts that were either universal, Eastern or Western. Furthermore, I felt it was necessary to also incorporate such ideas as different descending and ascending orders, as in raga, and flexibility in the interval contents of the modes, as in qin music, as well as incorporating ideas that were so essential to the Chinese esthetics, particularly visual, into such a system. By the late 1950s, my interest in I Ching [Yijing] led me to synthesize the yin/yang principle and the concept of continual change with the modal theory and practice I was in the process of evolving.

Sketch showing progressions of variable modes, early 1960s.My studies in Chinese esthetics, as found in brush calligraphy and ink painting, subsequently in the early 1960s, helped me shape my Variable Mode theory by influencing me in structuring intrinsically in the modal system flexibility in interval contents and density in pitch contents. Such studies also helped me eventually to evolve principles for modal progressions and simultaneous modal interactions…