Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Varèse: Who Is He?”

Published in Grand Street 63, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1998.

I had brought with me, to his brownstone on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, the first movement of my orchestral work, Landscapes, in which, trying to allow an old Chinese melody to express its color and mood without relying on Western structural principles, I had kept a transparent sonority, rather than drenching it with contemporary compositional frosting.

After what seemed like an eternity, he said, “This is beautiful.” As I thanked him and prepared to leave, he said, “I’ll see you next Tuesday at 6:30.“ He had just accepted me as his student. Again I was anxious. I was very, very poor. I fumbled for the words, “But I don’t know your fee, sir.rdquo;

Varèse turned on me. Red in the face, his eyebrows moving up and down, he barked, “Who’s talking about money? I benefited from Debussy, Romain Rolland, Strauss, Busoni. I never paid a sou. All I ask is that you carry on the tradition.” Later, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “Perhaps some day you will give me a Chinese gong?”

But my greatest lesson came in 1950. I had just discovered some early Webern scores: Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9, and Five Pieces for orchestra, Op. 10. They overwhelmed me because I thought they showed an amazing affinity to some very refined types of Chinese zither (ch’in or qin) music, so I spent a lot of time experimenting with integrating the material. Varèse, never very patient, could usually smell something foul in music pretty quickly. This time he was patient and allowed my experiment to continue. Perhaps he thought I was genuinely groping toward something. Finally one day, with both of us at the piano, he turned to me ferociously and said, “Wen-chung, you want to be a composer? Then you have to have courage. Sometimes you have to burn your music! Sometimes you have to piss on it!” And he stood up, pointing to my score, saying, “Piss now!” and walked out.

Stunned, I crawled home. For days I didn’t know what to do. I was, at that time, also composing another piece, but was afraid to show it to Varèse. With no choice left, I brought it in the following week. Too scared to show it, I put the score on the piano lid and excused myself with the words, “Pardon, I have to go piss.” When I returned, he was hunched over the piano. Hearing me enter, he whirled around, saying, “This is you, Wen-chung.” The piece, Seven Poems of the T’ang Dynasty, was published in 1952 and, in memory of that extraordinary lesson, I dedicated it to Varèse's wife, Louise, though it was meant for them both.

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