Chou Wen-chung

Chou Wen-chung’s modal system: the Basics

Ancient Chinese believed that change is the true essence of being, and in particular they believed in the never-ending exchanges between the “Two Polarities,” i.e., the Yin and the Yang, or good and bad, white and black, day and night, etc., etc. Each and every phenomenon in this universe is understood as the result of a confluence of “currents” which are in a state of toggling between Yin and Yang, or constantly going from one end of the spectrum toward the other and back. This is considered the true law of Nature, the Tao, and this law is laid out in the ancient Oracle of the I Ching, hence the I Ching is also known as the Book of Change.

The I Ching is the Head of the Five Classics, the only book that escaped the book burning of Emperor Chin Shih Huang. In addition to enveloping Taoist thinking, the I Ching has prompted the likes of Confucius to write commentaries on its contents. Thus, the I Ching has emerged over the years as a fossil record of the two major indigenous school of thoughts in Chinese culture, namely Taoism and Confucianism.

Chou Wen-chung was no stranger to the I Ching, his father was such an adroit practitioner in the art of I Ching prognostication [sic] he was called “Chou the Iron Mouth.” More startling is Chou’s discovery in recent years that his family tree can actually be traced back to that of the great Song dynasty Confucius scholar Chou Tun-i, who re-invigorated Confucianism by injecting the concept of Yin/Yang and the Taichi diagram into its canon.

Nevertheless Chou never studied the I Ching from his father — he didn’t study the I Ching while he was in China. It was Chou’s teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music, Nicolas Slonimsky, who had initiated Chou on a journey of self-discovery and a course of re-examination of his own cultural roots.

Chou likes to tell stories of how he, for an extended period in the 1950s, practically lived in the basement of the Columbia University Library where the East Asian Collection was housed, reading every available primary source of Chinese culture (be it music, philosophy, cosmetology, etc.) he could lay his hands on — Chou had in fact learnt about the East in the West!

As a result of this extensive amount of research, Chou has, since the 1960s, been working with a system of variable (“pien”) modes based on his study of the modal systems in the world (e.g., the Indian Raga, etc.), the concept of the Chinese pien tone, and his interpretation of the I Ching and its Taoist principle of Yin/Yang exchange.

Chou has always maintained that the three characteristics of Chinese aesthetics are 1) affinity to Nature in conception, 2) allusiveness in expression, and 3) terseness in realization. The application of the I Ching in the derivation of a compositional system is perhaps the most vivid evidence of the “Chinese-ness” of Chou’s music: whether the “sound” is immediately close to nature is a subjective call, but the internal logic of the music is based on a simple premise of continuous minute changes not unlike that of the holistic working of an organic structure, or, Nature itself. After all, Tao is the working of Nature, or the universe. Chou’s compositions are perhaps manifestations of an “affinity to Nature in conception” on the most fundamental, structural level. In any case, how does one go about translating the abstract content of the I Ching into concrete idea of expression?

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