Half a century ago, as I was searching for a way to merge the Modern West and Ancient China in my music, I was overwhelmed by these poetic lines of Chen Ziang, who lived at a time when Chinese culture had just emerged out of chaos:
“I see no one before me,
I see no one after me;
All alone, overwhelmed by the thought of
the eternity of heaven and earth,
My tears fall.”
The apprehension I shared with this poet of one and half millennia ago remains as disturbing today as ever. While there is evidence that the Asian world remains rich with exceptional men and women as in ancient times, serious questions must be raised: To which society do their works contribute? Do their works contribute to the world? What are their roots, and is the question of roots even relevant, or is it superfluous to the production of art and music today? Answers to these questions will provide clues to indicate whether we are indeed at the dawn of a new era in Asia.
For me, suffering leads to faith and faith leads to the search for roots. I began to research Chinese culture and music shortly after my arrival in the United States in 1946, when I was challenged by the legendary musicologist-conductor-composer Nicolas Slonimsky to reveal the heritage from which my music emanated. Then, in the 1950’s, when pursuing advanced studies of the early history and theory of European music at Columbia University, I began a lengthy period of studying the music of Asia. What piqued my interest was the question, why I should exclude my own heritage from my development as a composer?
I was concerned whether Asians had to rely on American or European educational institutions for the development of their own cultures, and if so, why.
My continuing commitment to studying, editing and completing the compositions of Edgard Varèse, my mentor, keeps me in contact with his roots — those of Europe. He was profoundly knowledgeable in traditional European music and, as a young man, was deeply impressed by the innovative ideas of his mentors, Debussy, Busoni, and Strauss. However, he was determined to disengage himself from the past and the present, in order to reach out to the future — a future that is illuminated by his own music and ideas. Reviled and all but ignored in his lifetime, he is now a source of inspiration for young Europeans.