Chou Wen-chung

An Introduction to Chou Wen-chung’s Water Image Symmetry

Chou Wen-chung, in the classic tradition of Chinese Wenreni, has worked throughout his career to preserve and advance civilization. In his case, however, the task is more challenging, since he strives to distill in his music the essence of both Chinese and Western cultures. In Chou’s estimation, this is feasible largely because “the tradition of Eastern and Western music once shared the same sources, and… after a thousand years of divergence, they are now merging to form the mainstream of a new musical tradition.”ii Chou refers to this phenomenon as “re-merger.” His synthesis of Eastern and Western musical concepts and practices exhibits certain parallels to Béla Bartók’s efforts to bring central European and eastern Mediterranean musical cultures to the West. In both the Chinese and Western traditions, symmetry, in its various manifestations, has played an important role in shaping musical compositions. The process of re-merging can be seen clearly in Chou’s application of the philosophical concept of symmetry according to the ancient Chinese oracle of the I-Ching (Book of Changes) along with certain devices commonly encountered in contemporary Western music.iii Since 1959, Chou has developed his variable modes based on the principles of the I-Ching. According to traditional Chinese philosophy, the yin-yang polarity forms the indispensable unit from which different structures of symmetries derived. The concept of change and transformation is best understood by its representation in the different structures of the hexagrams of the I-Ching.iv

Chou’s synthesis of Eastern and Western musical concepts and practices is closer to Bartók’s effort in bringing the non-Western cultures to the West. His re-merger re-merging [sic] of the philosophical concept of symmetry in the ancient Chinese oracle of I-Ching and certain Western contemporary music is a device to establish a possible confluence in shaping the “mainstream of a new musical tradition.” Chou’s concept of symmetry is based on “water-image” where the objects remain unchanged; however, images reflected in water are distorted as a result of the refraction of light. Chou’s understanding of symmetry accords with the balanced dynamic forces apparent in many Chinese art forms, including calligraphy, landscape painting, music for the qin, and poetry. It is precisely this characteristically flexible approach to symmetry (i.e., “water-image” symmetry as opposed to “mirror-image“ symmetry, also called reflective, geometric, or mathematical symmetryv) that reveals the divergence and re-merging of traditional Eastern music and contemporary Western music.

In music mirror-image symmetry behaves very much like a mirror that duplicates an object precisely but backwards. This kind of symmetry has found extensive application in serial music organized according to the principles established in 1923 by Arnold Schoenberg in his method of composition with twelve tones. The transformations of the Prime form (P) of the tone row into Retrograde, Inversion, and Retrograde Inversion (R, I, RI) result from an exact sequential reordering of the intervals of the original form, P. The internal logic of Chou’s music, however, which is deeply rooted in the I-Ching, is based upon a fundamental premise of continuous, subtle changes and movements of recurrent and non-recurrent polarities of the yin-yang. The process of changes in accordance with the yin-yang polarities is apparent both at the micro- and macro-levels of organization in Chou’s music.

As an example of mirror-image symmetry, the pitch structure of Webern’s Symphonie, op. 21, can be contrasted to the water-image symmetry of Chou’s String Quartet No. 2, Streams (2003), to illustrate the differences in their melodic structures (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Anton Webern, Symphonie, op.21 (1927–28). First P/I related pitch class set.

P9 9 6 7 8 4 5 11 10 2 1 0 3 (mm. 1-9)
I9 9 0 11 10 2 1 7 8 4 5 6 3 (mm. 3-12)
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