Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

Asian Concepts and Twentieth Century Composers

Excerpt from article published in The Musical Quarterly, April 1971

Though many threads lead from the music and musical theory of the ancient high cultures of Asia to the music of the West, they are not visible to the Western musician unless he is a scholar trained in this particular aspect of musicology. …Suffice it to say that during the last few centuries, in fact, until the decline of Romanticism, Asian music played an insignificant role in the musical world of the West, providing at best decorative features in the days of Turkish marches and Scheherazade. But as we approach the last quarter of our century, more and more on-going events and new perspectives on things past point to the thesis that Asian music has now re-emerged as an influence of growing significance on the development of Western music. The turning point took place almost a century ago. At the moment when Debussy became disillusioned with Wagner and was drawn toward symbolism and impressionism, his exposure to an Indonesian gamelan at the 1889 International Exhibition in Paris was catalytic in evolving his new concepts, Debussy’s awareness of the values in Asian music was phenomenal, particularly in view of the fact that Asian instruments were still being caricatured as “instruments of torture.”

A gamelan composition is based on the principle that a nuclear theme is to be played simultaneously with several layers of elaboration on the theme in different registers and at different paces. Instruments with characteristic timbres are assigned to specific registers for particular types of elaboration. Similarly, the sonority that is largely the admixture of a melodic, rhythmic, registral and timbral variants of a single linear movement is a prominent characteristic of the Debussian orchestra.

The gamelan principle is not unique to Southeast Asia; for instance, the Korean Hyang ak (court music for an orchestra consisting of winds, strings, and percussion) employs a similar principle of simultaneous elaboration. Another common characteristic of Asian music is the subtle use of percussion that has no precise pitch. And Debussy was perhaps also the first Western composer to recognize the lyrical qualities and possibilities of the percussion instruments.

Two other composers of this generation who were also attracted to Eastern philosophy and theosophy were the Englishmen Gustave Holst and Cyril Scott. However, despite their interest in Asian scalar material, harmony, and rhythm, the Eastern influence in their music produced no more than a superficial exoticism.

Two major composers who began their career at the turn of the century had no contacts with Eastern music and were at first primarily known for their assimilation of folk and “exotic” elements: Stravinsky and Bartók.

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.

In wishing to “liberate sound” from “mechanical restrictions,” and to replace the “interplay of melodies” with a “melodic totality,” Varèse was referring to sound in the Confucianist sense — that which one must investigate as the first step toward music — a perception of music that is fundamentally non-Western but which, since Varèse, has come to be accepted as characteristically twentieth-century. While Varèse was more concerned with complex aggregates of sounds than individual ones, with the growth potential of the interval components of nuclear ideas than a continual melodic movement, his music suggests a strong affinity with Asian music.

The influence of the tala concept on Olivier Messiaen’s rhythmic concept, evolved in the 1930’s, will be noted later. However, Milton Babbitt’s application of the set operations to rhythmic organization since the late 1940’s represents an independent Western development that is conceptually unrelated to the tala.

[Cowell] advocated a “world music,” firmly believing in a synthesis of East and West; indeed, his early use of tone clusters and his exploration of tone qualities to be obtained inside the piano may have been the result of his early exposure to Asian music. In his works, however, while achieving a level of sophistication unmatched by his predecessors, his assimilation of Asian concepts and practices failed to rise above the simplism that characterized American music of the 1930’s and ’40’s.

[Cage’s] most important work for prepared piano, Sonatas and Preludes (1946-48), is “an attempt to express in music the ‘permanent emotions’ of Indian tradition.” Here Cage is apparently referring to the sthayi bhava, the primary states of mind. In art the bhavas are the seeds that bring about the rasa, the aesthetic response aroused by emotions that are supra-sensuous. In Indian theory each of the twenty-two srutis has its own emotive value, and the rasa of a raga is determined by the sruti content of its scale tones as well as by the emphasis given to certain tones and motives — that is, the question of emotion is a structural matter that functions at various levels in a composition… Cage later turned his attention to I Ching and Zen and evolved the chance operations that he first used in 1951 in Music of Changes and Imaginary Landscapes No. 4.

But Cage’s application of I Ching did not take the text into consideration; he merely translated each hexagram into a pre-assigned musical value.

In regard to performance practices called for in aleatory music, varying from the controlled open form of Boulez to the decontrolled indeterminacy of Cage, it should be noted that the improvisation involved is very different from that employed in Eastern music. First of all, not many types of Eastern music actually employ improvisation. Secondly, in some types the only improvisatory aspect is in an “elastic” as opposed to a “plastic” realization of the composed work. Finally, in the performance of a raga, where the art of improvisation is the kernel of the music, the performer must have been trained in the centuries-old tradition of the music and be thoroughly immersed in the material at hand: the tonal structure of the raga, the expressive values of the constituent strutis, the meaning of the motivic fragments, the gamakas to be applied on certain tones, the manner in which the tala is to be elaborated, how the various forms of augmentation and diminution are permutated, when variants of the tala may be used, which other talas it can be combined with, and above all how these interacting factors are coordinated and musical events evolved according to the character and the structure of the raga and the tala and according to certain formal schemes. Clearly, then, this Indian art is highly disciplined, far from being “uncontrolled” or “unconscious” or “nonrational,” as is commonly assumed when it is cited as precedent in support of current aleatory practice. The Asian concept of improvisation, which could doubtless enrich contemporary music, is yet to be fully understood and seriously studied by Western composers.

Even more intriguing is Messiaen’s penchant for verbal imagery in prescribing the character of his rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and timbral ideas. This not only echoes the Indian concept of rasa, but also finds a distant precedent in the Chinese ch’in music, in which each finger technique and tone quality has a specific poetic and pictorial reference that defines the state of mind needed to express the meaning of the musical event. Some of Messiaen’s images find close counterparts in ch’in imagery: “bee in the flower” / “butterfly over flowers, distant carillon” / “fading reverberations of a temple bell,” “a gust of wind” / “like the sound of wind.” In view of his great influence on European music, Messiaen’s thinking and teaching must be regarded as another major step forward in the integration of Western and non-Western musical concepts and techniques.

Perhaps he [Mahler] closed the door on musical regionalism — unobserved and not quite intentionally. Perhaps, too, Messiaen, Bartók, and others, each faithful to his own tradition and yet in quest of new pastures, have opened the gate for the confluence of musical currents, Western and non-Western — not quite unobserved and certainly not unintentionally.

By Chou Wen-chung

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