Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

East and West, Old and New

Excerpt of keynote speech given at UNESCO International Music Symposium, Manila, Philippines 1966

It is my conviction that we have now reached the stage where the very beginning of a re-merger of Eastern and Western musical concepts and practices is actually taking place. By re-merger I naturally mean that I personally believe the traditions of Eastern and Western music once shared the same sources and that, after a thousand years of divergence, they are now merging to form the mainstream of a new musical tradition.

It is generally acknowledged now that the West, in its preoccupation with polyphonic writing, has more or less ignored these particular aspects in music which the East has remained master: variable tunings, melodic types and modes, rhythmic modes and patterns, the self-sufficiency of melodies rich with organic ornamentation, the independence enjoyed by individual tones and their timbres, the improvisatory freedom accorded performers, the state of mind associated with the execution of details. All these aspects and more have survived in that music of the East but have been sacrificed in the West for the sake of its achievements in polyphony.

Today… the more adventurous younger composers have already begun to exploring the immense resources in musical expression afforded by the application of inflections in pitch, timbre, duration, articulation, and intensity — precisely the same elements that have always been of primary concern to Eastern musicians.

Take Chinese music as an example: the Confucian philosophy of music clearly states that tones are the image (i.e., the substance) of music, and melody and rhythm the ornament (i.e., the appearance) of tones… In other words, music is sound, and sound, living matter. This is particularly manifest in Chinese ch’in music.

But the same philosophy with its attendant symbolism may be found almost everywhere in the East. It is at the root of the means of musical expression in the East which now find striking parallels in the new music of the West. A few examples come to mind: in Indian music, the art of gamaka, the expressions of srutis in a raga, the living interplay between independent yet coordinated rhythms in a tala; in Korean Ah Ahk, the registral and timbral antiphony; in Japanese Gagaku, the stratification of instrumental groups; in Indonesian gamelan and other Southeast Asian ensemble music, the simultaneous variations in pitch, register, timbre, and duration.

[In ch’in music] Over one hundred symbols (chien tzu) are used in ch’in’s finger notation for achieving the essential yet elusive qualities of this music: subtle inflections in the production and control of its tones as a means of expression. They indicate the articulation and timbre of either a single tone or a series of tones. They specify the occurrence of variable microtones between fixed scale tones. And, they control the rhythmic and dynamic organization within each tonal aggregate. In fact, they even evoke a certain state of mind to the performer for the execution of each detail. Such a system naturally makes possible to its music a wealth of resources that has been beyond the realm of pre-electronic Western music.

…The old days of indulging in so-called “exotic” scales and melodies are gone. The new order of the day is a serious interest in compositional concepts and techniques. …There has been growing interest in certain Eastern philosophies, such as Zen, Tao and I Ching. Zen and Tao as applied to music would seem to be carrying the fundamental idea of “sound as a living matter” even deeper, as they have for a long time influenced the music of East Asia. I personally feel that I Ching, with its concept of continual transformation and superimposition of trilinear arrangements of two polar opposites, its concept of the transitory and changing within a continuum of the timeless and unchanging, and its system of binary arithmetic, could be developed into a much more sophisticated serialism as we now know it.

There is always the danger, unfortunately quite prevalent today, of superficially acquiring new concepts and techniques purely as a matter of extrinsic procedure and calculation. The greatness of Eastern music is indeed in its wisdom of “using things as things” and in its avoidance of any kind of extraneousness… the purely materialistic adoption of Eastern practices will only bring forth more “Turkish marches,” twentieth-century style.

By Chou Wen-chung

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