Composer Chou Wen-chung (credit: Kimberly Wang)

Celebrating composer Chou Wen-chung: Continuum performs centennial tribute at Columbia University’s Miller Theater

Chou Wen-chung Centennial Concert
March 21, 2024
Miller Theatre at Columbia University
New York, NY – USA
Continuum Ensemble, Joel Sachs, conductor/piano; Levi Boylan, trombone; Ben Cornavaca, percussion; Emily Duncan, flutes; Stephanie Griffin, viola; Renée Jolles, violin; Joseph Jordan, English horn; Roi Karni, clarinets; Moran Katz, bass clarinet; Greg LaRosa, percussion; Zach Neikens, bass trombone; Pablo O’Connell, oboe/English horn; Benjamin Pawlak, piano; Kristina Reiko Cooper, cello; Alex Shiozaki, violin; Mei Stone, alto flute.
CHOU Wen-chung: In the Mode of Shang for chamber orchestra (1956) (American premiere)
CHOU Wen-chung: The Willows are New (1957)
CHOU Wen-chung: Yü Ko (1965)
CHOU Wen-chung: Twilight Colors (2007)
CHOU Wen-chung: Ode to Eternal Pine (2009)

Ben Gambuzza | 26 MAR 2024

One hundred and five people were allowed to emigrate from China to the United States in 1946. Composer Chou Wen-chung (pronounced Joe Wen-joong) was one of them.

In December 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law had limited Chinese immigration to the professional classes and prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. It also resulted in the horrors of Angel Island, which is the subject of a recent opera by Huang Ruo that had its New York premiere at the Prototype Festival in January. Sixty-one years later, The Magnuson Act replaced it. It undid most of the exclusion but imposed a quota. When Chou came to New York at the age of 23, knowing he was a member of this exclusive group must have given him a sense of mission. He had a chance; he should do something with it.

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At first, he was going to do architecture. A scholarship from Yale was what brought him here, after all. Chou was fond of music from an early age but thought he should do something more practical. Inspired by John Ruskin’s statement that architecture is “frozen music,” it seemed a sensible decision. Until he walked into the dean’s office and told him he had changed his mind on the boat over. He would study music instead. The dean was incensed. But Chou’s father, usually domineering, approved. He went to the New England Conservatory, studied for free with Edgard Varèse in New York City, lived in his house after he died, and became his literary executor.

Chou’s did a lot before his passing in 2019. At Columbia, where he taught from 1964 to 1991, he helped create the Ph.D. in music composition. There, he pioneered the serious study of Chinese music and was one of the first teachers at the University’s Electronic Music Center. Through his Center for US-China Arts Exchange – created following Nixon’s visit in 1972 – he attracted dozens of budding composers from China and sent just as many American cultural figures overseas, Susan Sontag and Isaac Stern among them.

Composer Chou Wen-chung (credit: Kimberly Wang)

Composer Chou Wen-chung (credit: Kimberly Wang)

In his own compositions, Chou blended the elasticity of Chinese musical forms with the structure of the European tradition. But East and West aren’t the only things that converge in his music. Perhaps spurned by Ruskin’s interdisciplinary metaphor, Chou’s music is indebted to calligraphy. Both convergences were on full, if uneven, display Thursday evening at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, where members of the Continuum Ensemble, conducted by Joel Sachs, played an all-Chou program to celebrate his centennial.

The concert included one American premiere: In the Mode of Shang (1956), an ebullient, roughly seven-minute piece for small orchestra. Shang sounds Shostakovian. Maybe that’s due to the wide separation between low percussion and high flutes. Or maybe because of Chou’s fixation on minor 9ths, which Shyhji Pan (who studied with him) highlighted in a mid-concert panel, and which frequently occur in Shostakovich’s symphonies. But in a distinctly Chou way, Shang switches between repeated rhythms (one got stuck in my head) and lush swells, walking the line between pentatonic and diatonic. Hints of Varèse’s wailing sirens (see Ionisation) also pop up in the frequent string portamenti.


These swells are where calligraphy comes in. Chou once said in an interview, “I’ve probably used more crescendos and diminuendos than Debussy ever did.” Indeed, when you glance at his scores, you see alligator mouths everywhere. He attributed this tendency to, on the one hand, the harmonium, whose air-pumping pedals he loved to fiddle with as a kid. On the other hand, he saw music as calligraphy in sound. In Shang, instruments react to each other like lines of ink converging on canvas, swirling up, looping around, and screeching to a halt. It is an absolutely unique effect. And as meandering as these swells and discursive melodies get, they always stop short of monotony.

In the Mode of Shang began and ended the program; the ensemble played it twice. Both times, it sounded under-rehearsed, especially amongst the strings. By the second go-around, the strings were struggling to stay together. As one of the musicians told me after, in the subway, the ensemble’s second performance was, indeed, “different.”

Memebers of continuum perform Chou Wen-chung's "Ode to Eternal Pine" at the Miller Theater.(credit: Caleb Jaster)

Memebers of continuum perform Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine at the Miller Theater.(credit: Caleb Jaster)

There was hesitancy in their performance of Yü Ko (1965), a tranquil “fisherman’s song” derived from an ancient Chinese chi’in (like a zither) melody. But it almost didn’t matter because the composition was just so wonderful. Made up of fragments traded seemingly at random between the players (like John Cage, Chou was inspired by the I Ching), the composer treats the ensemble like an Aeolian harp as he invites some mystical wind to gently blow around the stage. The breeze merely grazes the instruments. It sends soft gusts to the trombones, whose intermittent glissandi remind the listener of the undeniable humor in much of Chou’s music. That is the one I would have liked to hear twice.

With The Willows Are New (1957), Twilight Colors (2007), and, especially, Ode to Eternal Pine (2009), it became apparent that Chou had an early period and a late period. What would have been the middle period was taken up by administrative duties and teaching and very little composing. In Willows – a solo piano piece that Sachs played with sober dedication – you can sniff Schoenberg and Ives. But Chou balances modernist severity with his trademark serenity.

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On the flip side, Twilight Colors – inspired by the skies over the Hudson River, written for small orchestra – is a tapestry of something like layered recitatives. Talk about calligraphy: the contours of notation in the score are themselves a pleasure to look at. In Ode to Eternal Pine, composed in the style of traditional Korean chong ak (ensemble or sophisticated vocal music for the ruling class), Chou lets the music breathe. Continuum took full advantage of its airiness, playing misterioso.

In January, history lessons overshadowed the musical potential of Ruo’s Angel Island. In February, virtuosity and pentatonic scales got the better of Du Yun’s Ears of the Book, which premiered at Zankel Hall. Thursday evening, the panelists and program notes at Miller Theater ignored history almost entirely. I was disappointed that their discussion and their whole framing of Chou’s legacy completely ignored his experience as an immigrant. One who, no less, came to a country that let him in just as part of an effort to maintain allyship with China. What was that like for him? How did it inform his music? Certainly, the maestro didn’t exist in a vacuum – as insular as Columbia is – right? There is a greater story here.

But this is, hopefully, just the beginning. Chou Wen-chung’s music is excellent. It’s moving, interesting, surprising, lulling, funny, serious, and distinct. If there is still such a thing as a canon, he should be in it. If not, well, I’ll settle for another birthday concert.


About the author:
Ben Gambuzza is a writer, pianist, book editor, and researcher living in Brooklyn, New York. He is also the host of The Best Is Noise, a live classical music show on Radio Free Brooklyn.

Read more by Ben Gambuzza.
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