Chou Wen-Chung


In the Mode of Shang

Year 1956
Duration 7:00
Published By C.F. Peters

This composition results from an artistic project that had begun in 1953, when the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship awarded Chou Wen-chung a fellowship for research into ancient Chinese music. That grant led him to write three exquisite orchestral pieces collectively known as “musical brushworks” — All in the Spring Wind (1953), And the Fallen Petals (1954), and In the Mode of Shang (1956). They explore “spatial pitch distribution,” a concept in which melodic themes are intricately interwoven into musical entities that intersect and engage with one another, setting in motion a process of continual transformation and growth. He had already developed that idea in Landscape (1949), written before Chou studied with Edgard Varèse, who, with his scientific background, had long ago worked with a similar idea – musical ideas colliding in space and reshaping one another.

Chou, however, gave the process a uniquely Chinese character. While dispersing these melodic figurations into the dimensions of time and space, he adorned them with additional “tonal brushwork” (analogous to the brushwork of Chinese art) that extends across the entire orchestral spectrum. A gifted calligrapher, Chou ardently loved infusing his music with the philosophy that governed Chinese artists — “Affinity to nature in conception, allusiveness in expression, and terseness in realization.” As he eloquently stated in the prefaces to his previous compositions, And the Fallen Petals, “I have tried to convey through sound the emotional qualities of Chinese landscape painting and to achieve this end with the same economy of means. These recurring rhythmic figurations act as motifs, imparting a sense of stability to the compositions…”, and to Landscapes (1949), “The characteristic successions of transparent intervals used in Chinese music are freely embroidered with opulent dissonances serving as the palette from which the composer paints in orchestral sonority, timbre, texture, and dynamics.”

Chou’s music shows that he always avoided repeating the same idea. In essence, he concentrated on refining a single concept, allowing it to mature, while concurrently experimenting with a new idea. The new idea then becomes a central theme for his next composition. In In the Mode of Shang, his approach had double significance. It displays his ingenious application of a classical Chinese modal mixture, known as Fan-diao, to reinvigorate traditional Chinese modes, in this case an ancient mode called “shang.”

At the same time, he pursued the Western idea of “conservation of material,” introducing a sonority early in the piece that serves as the basic framework for the spatial distribution within this composition. In the Mode of Shang is therefore a testament to Chou’s ability to unite classical Chinese traditions and Western contemporary music. His consistent application of spatial pitch distribution, the infusion of a Chinese modal mixture, and his consistent use of certain pitch relationships to generate ideas, demonstrate his ability to combine harmoniously innovation and tradition. Already in this early piece, Chou’s “musical brushwork” creates intricate soundscapes that pay homage to ancient Chinese aesthetics while pushing the boundaries of contemporary orchestral music.

The world premiere, with a reduced instrumentation, was conducted by Carlos Surinach at New York’s Composers’ Forum in 1957. Then the piece was withheld from publication and performance for personal reasons. In the Mode of Shang in its full instrumentation was finally heard on November 3, 2023, played by the Xinghai Conservatory Chamber Ensemble conducted by Bing Chen, in Guangzhou, China, in a festival celebrating Chou Wen-chung’s centennial.

Edited and condensed by Joel Sachs from an essay by Shyhji Pan.

Site Credits

Spiralis Music Trust

Design — Concentric, Development — Igicom

Kimberly M. Wang, Eardog Productions, the Spiralis Music Trust and public domain.