Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

Keynote Speech, The ISCM-ACL World Music Days Festival

Excerpt from speech given at The ISCM-ACL World Music Days Festival, Hong Kong, 1988

It was exactly 30 years ago that another great international event, which has since proven to be a landmark in the history of music, took place in Europe. Namely, the premiere of Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique at the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair… Symbolically, it could be regarded as pivotal in the development of modern music, because conceptually it represented a true search for the musical future and a willingness to break beyond the limits of European traditions…

These international events of the mid-twentieth century and certainly the ISCM festivals of the past few decades amply demonstrated a period of intense ferment in contemporary music in Europe. This ferment already reached a stage of revolutionary proportion in compositional concepts and practices by the 1960’s.

The three decades beginning around 1950 could be said to be the peak of American music because of the great variety of esthetics and technical innovations. For example, around the year 1950, numerous compositions were written that are unique for their esthetic commitment or technical breakthrough.

Let us cite only a few by some of the best known composers working in the U.S.: Déserts (1949-54) by Varèse; Three Compositions for Piano (1947-48) by Milton Babbitt; First String Quartet (1951) by Elliott Carter; Music of Changes (1951) by John Cage; and Mass (1948) by Stravinsky. Schoenberg died in 1950 [sic], but not before he produced some works with new dimensions, such as Trio for Strings (1946).

These examples literally prescribed all of the major developments in the U.S. for the subsequent decades:

  1. Developing new sonorities and new concepts for organization;
  2. Expanding on serialism;
  3. Formulating mathematical and acoustic methodologies for composing, anticipating the computer age;
  4. Forsaking the mannerism and artificiality of neoclassicism for the objectivity of serialism;
  5. Evolving new contrapuntal and metric conceptions;
  6. Establishing electronic music as a major area of attention;
  7. Exploring microtonal possibilities;
  8. Reassessing the characteristics and value of American folk and popular traditions in music;
  9. Experimenting with aleatoric procedures and artistic values of choice and spontaniety;
  10. Assimilating theories and practices of Asian musical cultures.

So, where do we stand now in the late 1980’s, after such a dazzling display of trends and directions? Some of the above indeed represent new directions while others may well prove to be no more than merely thrashing about.

Some composers in the U.S, today still follow the tradition of the earlier decades, seeking to further expand the musical horizons; others try to consolidate ideas and practices evolved earlier. Still others are concerned with preserving the older European tradition. An emerging group is devoted to bridging serial and tonal concepts and procedures.

With all the divergence we have just noted there can be hardly any doubt that a common practice, such as was found in past European historical periods, has not emerged.

There are however two directions in the U.S. today, which continue to be pregnant with future possibilities for opening up new horizons. One is the advent of computer music.

The term, “world music,” has suddenly become popular… given time, we should expect more and more composers [to be] attracted to the rich and diverse resources all the musical cultures of the world can offer.

These two directions, namely technological progress and deepening cultural intercourse, make me believe a meaningful comparison could be made of the year 2000 with that of 1500 … a year signifying the beginning of modern European civilization, and of a large-scale cycle consisting of, in music, the periods of Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern.

Even though some foundations began to be laid much earlier, the year 1500 is conveniently regarded as the beginning of the rise of humanism, and thus modern Europe.

Do we find parallels between the above and today? Yes, indeed. Except for the following differences:

  1. There is more cooperation than exploitation in natural resources and trade;
  2. Instead of looking for new continents and colonies, we are truly expanding our horizons in the mind, nature and space;
  3. Technology and economic growth are being shared as more nations join the modernization process; and
  4. Cultural exchange has genuinely become a primary force in international relations rather than as a by-product of trade or colonization.

These differences presage a new world order.

What we should look forward to is another large-scale cycle with the participation of all the cultures of the world. We are on the verge of the beginning of a new world order in music, a world-wide renaissance that is not centered on the West or the East. A new mainstream in music to which the tributaries of Europe, Asia and other lands will converge.

This new order can only be achieved by the full partnership of all concerned, with each of us determined to contribute to the interaction of traditions, cultures, techniques and artistic speculations.

To me this is the only future.

The inspiration for all of us, I submit, lies in the cross-fertilization that led to European Renaissance, much of which actually took place outside of Europe. It also lies in the centuries of multi-cultural interaction along the Silk Road that led to the Tang culture, which in turn spread throughout East Asia.

By Chou Wen-chung

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