Concert Retraces Paths Of Chou Wen-chung, Composer As Patriarch

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Joel Sachs led Continuum Contemporary Music in a program dedicated to the late Chou Wen-chung at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. (Photo by Caleb Jaster)


NEW YORK — The landscape of Chinese composers is an ever-widening, impressively heterogeneous mosaic — much like the hundreds of spoken dialects that live in the country itself. Among the Hollywood-influenced Zhao Jiping, the conceptually ambitious Tan Dun, and the ingeniously intuitive Du Yun, Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019) is credited as the father of them all and remains one of the most authentic Chinese compositional voices heard in the West. The Chou Wen-chung Centennial Concert March 21 at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University revealed a composer who was trained and resided in the U.S. but bypassed Western form and symmetry with flowing, ever-unfolding musical calligraphy whose abstraction treats the listener with colors of expression that shift with every hearing.

The program by Continuum Contemporary Music under the direction of Joel Sachs of small-ensemble pieces (one to eight players) encompassed a wider chronology than the 2014 Composer Portraits concert dedicated to Chou, also at the Miller Theatre, that focused on the more-evolved later works that will no doubt be the basis of his reputation. But early works presented by Continuum broadened one’s understanding of where the composer was going in a long compositional journey that began in 1946 when he came to the U.S., turned down a Yale scholarship to study architecture, and devoted himself to composition at the New England Conservatory and later in New York with composers Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martinů. He then became a longtime fixture on the Columbia University faculty.

Chou Wen-chung

The 1956 In the Mode of Shang, a pre-Varèse piece, was nearly forgotten after its premiere and now comes off as a manifesto of sorts. It rejects the exposition/recapitulation framing devices of Western sonata form, concentrating on incidental solos that recall the angularity of 1950s modernism with occasional descriptive textures suggesting Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale. The point is that the piece goes from one musical region to the next and ends simply with its own sense of conclusion.

The 1965 Yü Ko, based on an ancient Chinese fisherman’s song, shows the composer re-rooted in his own culture before moving on to something more personal and original.

Quite the opposite, though, is The Willows Are New (1957) for solo piano, which has the same three-note motif (or some close variations on it) repeated, very uncharacteristically, approximately 50 times over six-and-a-half minutes. A dark, ominous piece, it was positioned on the program immediately prior to the 2009 Korean-influenced Ode to Eternal Pine, whose keyboard writing wasn’t oriented toward repetition but had similarly arresting personality, if only because the piano’s percussive qualities contrasted so well with the linear instrumental writing around it.

Thus, Chou’s musical language was built before your very ears, with Eternal Pine and the 2007 Twilight Colors, both for wind and percussion-based chamber ensembles, showing the ultimate point of arrival. Chou favored dark-hued sound palettes often built around bass clarinet that made the occasional incursion of treble sounds — flute , harp, etc. — piquant, even thrilling. Contemplative silences assured that there were no usual notions of continuity. In Chou’s mature style, a note is not just a single entity or building block that can be considered on its own but part of a glissando, a sliding gesture that’s not a peripheral effect but something essential to the piece. Sound isn’t just an external outer garment but something fashioned meticulously in ways that leave you guessing what you’re hearing. An alto or bass flute? An English horn? Rare-bird sounds, indeed.

A panel at the Miller Theatre featured Kathryn Knight, Shyhji Pan, Lei Liang, Sumin Chou, and Luyen Chou. (Photo by Caleb Jaster)

Extended solos and instrumental interactions that might normally be described as conversational were nothing so conventional. Each of the instruments seems to be on a similar journey though not with a Western plot or narrative — or typical beginning, middle, or end. Only near the end of Twilight was there a musical dialogue among the solo winds, instead of an accidental synergy most often heard in Chou. Was tonal planning an underlying organizing factor in his music? Not having studied his scores, I leave that question to scholars.

Any music this attractive would seem to have a place in the larger musical mainstream, though Chou’s music is best heard in concentrated doses (one needs time to acclimatize) and in performances by specialty ensembles such as Continuum, which Sachs led with a great sense of where accents needed to be in order to make a phrase fall into place according to its own logic. So Chou’s output may not go beyond special-occasion status, though one hopes such occasions will occur regularly.