Chou Wen-Chung

Writings by Chou

Towards a Re-Merger in Music

Excerpts from an interview on WBAI radio, New York, 1965. Published in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967

Like the Chinese calligrapher and painter, I have always regarded the technique of a composer as a spontaneous manifestation of his gradually crystallizing esthetic concepts. This is perhaps in agreement with the Confucian concept: Music is “born of emotion”; tones are the “substance of music;” melody and rhythm are the “appearance of tones.” Greatness of music lies not in “perfection of artistry” but in attainment of “spiritual power inherent in nature.”

I was influenced by the same philosophy that guides every Chinese artist, be he poet, painter or musician; affinity to nature in conception, allusiveness in expression, and terseness in realization.

Consequently, in the late fifties, I became more and more interested in the principles that are best demonstrated by the art of Chinese calligraphy, in which the controlled flow of ink — through the interaction of movement and energy, the modulation of line and texture — creates a continuum of motion and tension in a spatial equilibrium.

The conception of this work [Metaphors] is influenced by the philosophy of I Ching or the Book of Changes, the foundation of which is a system of eight symbolic images (kua). Each of these images is a trilinear arrangement of the two polar opposites, the yin and the yang, represented by a broken (–) and unbroken (—) line, respectively. These images represent the continually transforming forces that germinate all in the universe. The images interact with each other in a state of perpetual transformation and superimposition. The interplay of the images at any specific moment signifies a unique but predictable situation in the constancy of nature — the changing microcosm in the unchanging macrocosm. The meaning of these composite images is interpreted through metaphors, hence the title of my composition.

Eight pien, or mutable modes, each constantly mutating within itself, are constructed according to the concept of the eight images. These modes, as more fully developed in subsequent works, are based upon three disjunct segments of the octave that are either unbroken (a minor third) or broken (a major and a minor second, i.e., the minor third interpolated with a pien-tone). These segments are reciprocally mutable according to whether the movement is ascending or descending: the order of the two seconds also depends on the direction of movement. In other words, each segment in the ascending order is reflected in mutation in the descending order — the intervals being mutually exclusive. These modes, with similar coordination in duration and register, are woven into a fabric of the transitory and changing within a continuum of the timeless and unchanging — like the shifting patterns in a steadily flowing current, for example. This means that the contour of the work is the summation of modal interaction in space and time — a process of constant transmutation and superimposition. In principle, this process follows that of binary arithmetic, upon which the concept of change I Ching is founded.

It [the ch’in] is also the most characteristic of Chinese music. Over one hundred symbols (chien tzu) are used in its 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.

To make this clear, let us examine a short characteristic phrase in Yü Ko by Mao Min-chung (c. 1280). In the score, this phrase is indicated by a single chien tzu, which, in this case, denotes only one excitation of the string. Consequently, the changes in pitch and timbre are achieved during the decay. The finger technique involved may be described briefly as follows: as the right middle finger pulls the string inward, the left ring finger glides up quickly from the whole tone below the given note. At first, it glides very lightly, barely touching the string; then, when the finger is just less than a semitone below, it glides more firmly, pressing down on the string. This is referred to as “hiding the head (of the tone)” and is described as “a flying seagull touching down.” Once the finger reaches the given note, it pauses to ring out the tone, which should be “as pure as a pond in autumn, as bright as the clear moon, as resonant as waterfalls, as remote as echoes in a valley.” Then the finger again quickly glides up to the whole tone above and back “like a gust of wind.” It then glides down to the whole tone below and executes there a broad and accentuated vibrato, which is described as “the cry of a monkey climbing down a tree” and is expected to sound as crisply as “pearls rolling in a bowl.” Afterwards, the finger glides back to the given note once again, when the decay as well as this transitory musical expression of a “single tone” is completed.

Early in 1965, I adapted this composition. In this adaptation, I have magnified as closely to the original as possible, these inflections in pitch, articulation, timbre, dynamics, and rhythm to a more perceptible level, by expanding the articulations and timbres possible on each instrument used and by controlling the microtonal modifications in pitch according to the nature of each instrument.

These ideas and those in Metaphors are combined in Cursive (1963), for flute and piano. “Cursive” refers to the type of script in which the joined strokes and rounded angles result in expressive and contrasting curves and loops. The cursive script represents the ultimate in the art of Chinese calligraphy, as its power of expression depends solely upon the spontaneous manifestation of the power inherent in the controlled flow of ink. In this score, the cursive concept has influenced the use of specified but indefinite pitches and durations, and the use of regulated but variable tempo and intensity. Throughout the score, the piano is treated as a combination of keyboard, string and percussion instrument, while the flute is required to use controlled microtonal modifications in pitch. An attempt is made to treat the individual sound as a “living matter” through inflections in its production and control.

Now in conclusion, let me add the following: if I seem to have dwelt on certain Chinese philosophical ideas, it is because of my conviction that we have reached the stage where a true re-merger of Oriental and Occidental musical concepts and practices — which at one time shared a common foundation — can and should take place. It seems to me that the music of China, India, Varèse, the Balinese gamelan music, the Japanese gagaku, the Korean ah ak, and even our new electronic music all have much in common, sharing the same family traits.

By Chou Wen-chung

Site Credits

Spiralis Music Trust

Design — Concentric, Development — Igicom

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