Chou Wen-Chung in memoriam

It feels like the end of an era for me because my two mentors at Columbia University have both died within a few months of each other. First Mario Davidovsky passed in late August, and now Chou Wen-Chung has died at the age of 96. The New York Times obituary is here. Wen-Chung was not as important a figure in my life as was Mario, but I did have a year of lessons with him, and there are things he said that I ponder to this day. One of them – “This will sound well, but I am concerned about the structure…” – I resented at the time, feeling that not everyone can make music that sounds well. But I have come to realize that there are too many composers who simply make the music “sound well”, and it is the combination of both appealing sonic surface and deep patterning that make for music that you want to live with.

Here are some samples of his work. first, the early Landscapes from 1949:

Yü Ko, uncanny in its emulation of the sounds of Chinese music by Western instruments:

And a late work for percussion ensemble:

Finally, here is a documentary detailing Wen-Chung’s extraordinary life:



Chou Wen-chung at 90

There was a celebration at the Century Club in New York City last night for Chou Wen-chung in honor of his 90th birthday. After the Brentano Quartet offered two brief, beautifully played samples of his work, Wen-chung spoke, sounding and looking remarkably well.

Here’s the guest of honor with the Brentano members, who are holding Chinese clay figures presented to them by Wen-chung as a thank-you gift for their advocacy of his work:


I was there because Wen-chung was one of my teachers at Columbia in the 1980s, and a number of my fellow students also attended. Here’s a line-up:IMG_3586

Starting on the left, that’s Anne LeBaron, Rick Baitz, Gary Philo, Bright Sheng, Eric Chasalow, Paul Kozel, myself, and Mark Gustavson.

Here are Eric and Paul again, this time with clarinet master Allen Blustine:

IMG_3584Among Wen-chung’s Columbia faculty colleagues who were present, Mario Davidovsky was there, seen here on the right, chatting with Roger Reynolds on the left:

IMG_3583You should visit Wen-chung’s website to find out more about this remarkable pioneer of East-West musical interaction. An earlier post in connection with a visit by Wen-chung to Philadelphia here.

Snowy Miscellany

It seems Easter is early and spring is late. It may be Monday in Holy Week, but yes, it is snowing in Philadelphia. Here are a few items of interest amid the large wet flakes:

– I had a a fine Skype session with Judith Gordon last night in which she played for me the five pieces that make up Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, the new piano piece of mine that she will premiere next week. A video call is a less than ideal way to assess subtle points of musical nuance, but if you can hear through the mesh that Skype places between your ears and the music, there is a lot that gets conveyed. Judy is doing a great job, and, to my surprise, there were hardly any places that needed adjustment in terms of composing – one spot where I was vague about dynamics, but not much else. We talked more about expressive character, some adjustments of timing, and about a few spots being pretty tricky to play, though Judy had them under control. It’s going to be a great performance – Tuesday, April 2, Smith College, 12:30 pm, Sage Hall.

– two of my Columbia mentors currently on the web: an interview with Chou Wen-Chung on New Music Box, and a chat with Mario Davidovsky at the Yellow Barn site.

– two links, the first serious, the other absurd – piano pieces by Dutilleux, and a remarkable excerpt from Pierrot (yes, that is Glenn Gould conducting.)

Trade Winds from China at Network for New Music

Strong pieces, strong performances at Network for New Music’s “Trade Winds from China” concert tonight. Here I am with some of the participants:

L to R: Linda Reichert, Artistic Director of Network for New Music; Shih-Hui Chen, whose commissioned work, “Our Names” on a text by an aboriginal Taiwanese poet was premiered at tonight’s concert; Chou Wen-Chung – at 87, the old master of East-West musical interaction – his “Ode to Eternal Pine” was played. I am standing between Wen-Chung and his wife. More on Wen-Chung here.

Ode to Eternal Pine

Network for New Music’s season-long Asian theme continues with a program of music by Chinese composers on Sunday, February 13 at 7:30. The concert will be at the Settlement Music School, 416 Queen St. in Philadelphia. I will be involved, leading a pre-concert chat with composers Shih-Hui Chen and Chou Wen-Chung at 6:30, and recording a podcast discussion with Wen-Chung earlier in the day.

The program features a nice multi-generational mix – Wen-Chung, one of my teachers from my Columbia University doctoral studies, is the elder statesman of the group at 87, while the youngest is Huang Ruo, born in 1976, and Shih-Hui Chen and Bright Cheng are from a middle generation. Wen-Chung is a particularly intriguing figure. The kind of cross-cultural mix where Asian and Euro-American practices mingle that we associate with composers like Bright Cheng, Tan Dun and Chen Yi was actually pioneered by Wen-Chung. In fact, it was he who brought those younger Chinese composers to the United States to study at Columbia through his work with the US-China Arts Exchange. (If you know the film “From Mao to Mozart“, you know something about Wen-Chung’s efforts.) In addition to his work for cultural exchange, Wen-Chung is especially well known as the student, assistant, and musical executor of Edgard Varèse. In fact, the Varese connection has sometimes overshadowed Wen-Chung’s own compositional work, so it is nice to see his music getting some attention. Ode to Eternal Pine, the piece by Wen-Chung that Network will play, was commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble, and is based on an earlier work, Eternal Pine,  that was composed for  an ensemble of Korean instruments. Ode to Eternal Pine is scored for Western instruments, but the playing style and technique is thoroughly influenced by East Asia musical sensibility, with an emphasis on fluidly shaped gestures with respect to pitch and rhythm. You can find score and recording excerpts of the piece at Wen-Chung’s exceptionally rich website.

I’ll be interested to get to know the music of Shih-Hui Chen. The piece she has composed for this concert is inspired by the aboriginal people of Taiwan. It is intriguing to read what she writes in her program note, that the aboriginals of Taiwan “encountered Dutch Christian missionaries in the early 17th century before the arrival of the Han people from China.”  Who would have thought that Christianity would occupy, as she writes, “a more prominent place [for the aboriginals] than traditional mythologies.” Her new piece is called Our Names and sets a text by a blind aboriginal poet, a plea for justice and respect for aboriginal people and their culture.

Four young musicians from the Philadelphia Sinfonia, directed by Gary White, will perform Fantasia, the first movement of Shih-Hui Chen’s string quartet Mei-Hua at 7:15 before the Network concert performance begins at 7:30 PM. Go here for video about this project.

(photo above: Chou Wen-Chung)

Remembering and forgetting Varèse

The Lincoln Center Varèse concerts are this week; Alex Ross has various links and video of Varèse as a silent film actor. (I’m afraid I found the ICE theatrical trailer pretty dopey.)

These concerts remind me of being a student at Columbia at the time of the Varese centennial, and, as we were all Chou Wen-Chung students, being roped into working on an all-Varese concert. There was a panel discussion earlier in the day – all these elderly folks, I think Otto Luening and Meyer Schapiro among them – reminiscing about Varèse. Or, actually, talking about all kinds of things except Varèse. (The panel was called “Remembering Varèse”, but fellow student Paul Moravec referred to it as ‘Forgetting Varèse”.) The climax of the panel was when it was time for Varèse’s widow Louise to speak. Finally, we thought, this will be the real thing, the profound insight, the key to understanding the man and the artist. Louise leaned toward the microphone and said:
“There was never a dull moment.”
And that was all she said.
I notice that the Lincoln Center programs omit one very rare piece. Varèse actually composed three electronic works – everybody knows the Poéme and Deserts, but he also did some electronic music for a film by Thomas Bouchard called Around and About Joan Miro. The music was for a portion of the film called Procession at Verges. I only know about this because we projected the relevant portion of the film at that all-Varese concert at Columbia, along with some home movies of Varèse talking with Carl Ruggles. Ruggles sounded like Jimmy Cagney playing a gangster (“I thought Walt Whitman was the greatest American poet, see?”) while Varèse sounded like, well, like somebody doing an imitation of a cosmopolitan boulevardier.
(The image above is of Calder’s wire sculpture of Varese)