Chou Wen-chung

Chou Wen-chung’s modal system: the Basics


The universe, according to the I Ching and traditional Taoist teachings, originates in Wuchi (“nothingness”), from which Taichi (“somethingness” or more literally, “ultimate being”) is born — one can almost envision this as the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe as we know it. Taichi is then divided into “Two Polarities,” the Yin and the Yang. The Two Polarities then become the “Four Phenomena,” from which the “Eight Trigrams” of the I Ching are derived. In addition to this, Lao Tsu commented that “From One, Two is born; from Two Three is born; from Three the myriad of things” — from this derived the simple ratio of 1:2:3 which plays an important part in Chou’s musical thinking.

Chou has obviously made a conscious choice to root his modal system in the equal tempered 12-tone universe of Western music. Not that he was unaware of the pentatonic tradition in Chinese music—compositions from what critics say is Chou’s “first stylistic” period derive materials from the pentatonic. It seems that right at the point when Chou had to make decision concerning the Taichi — the basis or background for his system — he chose to espouse an all-encompassing attitude toward music, not limiting himself to any one stylistic influence. And he has been consistent about this — Chou calls himself the “Four No Old Man” — he considers himself neither East nor West, New nor Old, but closer examination suggests that Chou is and has always been East, West, New, Old, and more.

The basic unit of the I Ching is the trigram, and the trigram is made up of three yao — three lines that can either be Yin or Yang, broken or unbroken, as shown in Example. 1. In terms of the proper ordering of construction (or procedure for divination) for a trigram, the lowest line, the one representing Earth, is always decided upon first. Next comes the middle line representing Man and the last or top line is Heaven.

Example 1. An I Ching Trigram.

There are altogether eight possible trigrams — three lines each having two possible modalities (Yin or Yang): 2 × 2 × 2 = 8. The eight trigrams are 1) Chien <111> (“1” and “0” are used to denote Yang and Yin yao respectively, and the three yao inside the bracket are arranged in the correct order of Earth, Man, and Heaven), 2) Tui <110>, 3) Li <101>, 4) Zhan <100>, 5) Sun <011>, 6) Gan <010>, 7) Kan <001>, and 8) Kun <000>, as shown in Ex. 2.

Example 2. The Eight I Ching Trigrams

Translating this into musical terms, Chou began with the equal division of the octave (12 semitones) into three conjunct major 3rds, i.e., each major 3rd is built on the upper note of the previous, or lower major 3rd.

Example 3. Three conjunct major 3rds, ascending and descending.

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