Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Asian Aesthetics and World Music”

Speech given at the Asian Composers Conference and Festival in Hong Kong, March 6, 1981.

…In speaking of the musical traditions of the East, we must recognize it as a living tradition. Thus, in speaking of Asian esthetics in its relationship to the future mainstream of music, we must not think of it as quiescent water in a self-contained lake, whose immobile beauty inspires memories of the past and admiration for what has been created. No, let us see in Asian esthetics a flowing stream, which pushes forward irreversibly in constant response to an ever-changing environment and in eternal search for the future, and in which the past lives in the present.

…Let me cite briefly ten preliminary assumptions which might lead to some general esthetic principles, or would at least point to fertile territory for future pursuit of an Asian esthetic theory for music.

  1. Assimilation of foreign musical cultures
  2. Interpretation of music for the people and for the elite
  3. Timbre as complement to pitch
  4. Language as progenitor of esthetics
  5. The triad of poetry, painting, and music
  6. Allusiveness in expression
  7. Terseness in structure
  8. Harmony with the universe
  9. Beyond imitation of nature
  10. Emphasis on spiritual cultivation

We may, however, raise a question as to why, at a time when we look forward to a universal music in the future, we should want to re-examine such long-forgotten esthetic pronouncements, which appear to have ceased to be realities in the music one hears nowadays in Asia. The answer is that, without a thorough knowledge of the traditions on both sides of the Pacific and of the Pamirs, there is very little that is worthwhile for us to look forward to in the so-called “world music.”

I do not believe Asian composers can afford to indulge in the game of ancestor worship. By the same token, I do not expect anyone to neglect his own heritage. I hope that any infatuation with Western fashion will be momentary. I trust that admiration for Western accomplishment will be the result of true knowledge.

If the Chinese succeeded in assimilating so many musical cultures of divergent origins during the years between the Han and T’ang Dynasties, I believe we can succeed now in ushering in a new era of world music. Spiritual cultivation and material analysis do not have to belong to two different worlds — because we have only one world to share!