Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Asian Concepts and Twentieth Century Composers”


A likely example of conscious reference to some Asian technique is the opening of Les Noces; here the use of grace notes with intervals larger than a second produces a sliding attack that is typical of certain Asian singing styles.

With Bartók, of course, there is no ambiguity as to his involvement in serious studies of musical cultures of non-Western origin. In him we have a unique example of how successfully ethnomusicological inquiries by a composer can influence his own aesthetics and techniques. Even more significant than his assimilation of the materials he studies is his attitude toward such inquiries: in studying non-Western music, one must consider the character and tradition of its culture as well as all the inherent qualities of the material itself, not all of which are perceptible or definable according to established Western concepts.

Two other composers of the same generation, Webern and Varèse, came from an emphatically Western tradition and were not exposed as young men to any notable Eastern influences. Yet the style of each echoes certain Eastern concepts to such an extent that serious thoughts on the meaning of such parallel are intriguingly aroused. In short, Webern’s concern with all the definable physical characteristics of individual tones is conceptually and aesthetically in sympathy with important categories of Asian music.

Varèse’s concept of music as “organized sound” and of sound as “living matter,” which in itself is of historic consequence, is, again, a modern Western parallel of a pervasive Chinese concept: that each single tone is a musical entity in itself, that musical meaning lies intrinsically in the tones themselves, and that one must investigate sound to know tones and investigate tones to know music. This concept, often shrouded in poetic and mystic metaphors, is fundamental to many Asian musical cultures. It is manifest in the great emphasis placed on the production and control of tones, which often involves an elaborate vocabulary of articulations, modifications in timbre, inflections in pitch, fluctuations in intensity, vibratos and tremolos (as, for example, in the ch’in music cited above). Such concentration on the values of a single tone is the anti-thesis of traditional Western polyphonic concepts, in which the primacy of multilinearity and the acceptance of equal temperament make the application of such values limited and subordinate.

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