Chou Wen–chung [pronounced tso wen–tsoong] grew up in China and has been in the United States since early adulthood, so his ideas and output perhaps reflect a duo–status better than almost anyone else. His pivot–point came at the time when the old China was about to dissolve and his upbringing had absorbed the ways and feelings of an ancient civilization.
A more detailed biography is placed at the end of this conversation, but much of what he has to say needs little — if any — introduction. He is a musician of the world with vast experience that comes from a duality that made up his life. A composer and teacher as well as cultural ambassador, his views are steeped in traditions from both East and West.
When this interview took place in 1995, I had already visited China once as a guest–traveler with the Classical Symphony Orchestra [a youth group made up of Chicago–area musicians who played and toured in several cities), and was destined to go yet again three more times. As I have often said, Walking on the Great Wall changes your life and to see how the Chinese were making strides toward modernization was fascinating to watch, though, I must say, regrettable in that so many of the historical details were being lost to the blazing neon we take for granted in America and Western Europe. As I type this in early 2007, China is hurtling toward its goal of hosting the 2008 Olympics, and the world will see both their progress and their preservation.
No matter what happens in Beijing and Shanghai, Chou Wen–chung has left his special imprint on the musical world in both his native land and his adopted home. It was a privilege for me to spend some time with him on the telephone, and here is what was said that afternoon …
You have been in academics for much of your career. Does that leave you enough time to compose?
Well, that’s a tough question. It has always been difficult to find time for my own work. In addition to teaching, I have been carrying out a lot of projects. On the other hand, I really treasure what I have done with my students. Actually, teaching has been most stimulating in many ways, so I wouldn’t complain too much about that.
Do you feel that your teaching is especially important because you’re bringing something that is, perhaps, more exotic to the American student?
Yes. As you know, most of the time I was actually teaching modern composition in Western tradition, so basically, in my seminars, we’re involved with contemporary composition as such, developing concepts and techniques. However, in talking about a composition, naturally I would, from time to time, bring in my own personal views and my own knowledge of Asian music. Certainly, in some cases, that has had an impact on my students. But in general, as has been said, I do bring in another dimension in the education for composers.
I wouldn’t think you’d be able to help but bring your insights and your basic philosophies into your teaching.
That’s quite correct. That’s inevitable. And I should say also that when I was studying with Varèse, for example, actually subsequently I found that his way of teaching in a way conformed to Asian traditions in teaching. So what I’m saying is simply that when it comes to teaching, it’s a kind of experience on a one–on–one basis. You talk to the students about your beliefs, how you look at their music and all that, and I think, in a sense, the experience has been universal, you might say.
From your unique vantage point, what are the basic similarities and perhaps the basic differences between the Eastern and the Western cultures?
I think basically we are dealing with sound, we are dealing with human emotion, we are dealing with psychology and means of expression. What’s different is a matter of preference in the matter of emphasis. I think that communication is a key issue involved here in terms of what one does want to communicate and how does one formulate one’s own attitude towards creativity in music.
But the everyday life of the Chinese people and the everyday life of American people is so very radically different, or am I making a wrong assumption?
[Laughter] I think it is indeed. There’s no gainsay about that. On the other hand, if you dip deeper, if one is concerned about a person’s response to one’s environment, I think basically we are talking about our response to our world, and in that sense, I think the response fundamentally is the same. The impulse is the same. It’s just a means of expression, as I said earlier, and also the emphasis, the focus of our interests. In fact, I often would talk about that aspect. I would look out of the window of our seminar room, ask them, "What do you see in New York? Concrete and steel. What you hear in the street are sirens and all sorts of noise of pneumatic drills and so on, whereas in the past, whether east or west, composers would be looking at quite different objects and would be listening to very different sounds". However, all we can do is to deal with the reality, the environment around us. And so, fundamentally, the desire to communicate through music, the desire to express one’s feelings through music, I think, is universal. It’s the attitude that changes. But above all, it’s a question of aesthetics. That indeed is different, because aesthetics in different cultures has been developed over centuries of time, and naturally it would vary from one society to another, and that, I think, is what composers should pay attention to.
Do you mean, then, that in the human being, if we dig deep enough, we are all part of the same lineage and we are all really very much the same inside?
That’s true. That has been my thesis since the early sixties. I’ve been talking about different cultural expressions, of artistic response on the part of a human being. I think now the time is right for us to bring different concerns, different aesthetics together and to learn from each other, to share one’s centuries–old experience.
So, then, if any composer living anywhere on the Earth digs deep enough, all of those composers would be walking around in the same kind of garden.
[Laughter] We hope so. But, though maybe not now, it may very well be the future. I think there’s no doubt we all started out by walking around in the same garden. Gradually the gardens take on different shapes. The sense of beauty has changed by convention but not in reality.
In the music that is coming out of the pens of the composers yesterday and today, how much is the influence of the garden and how much is the influence of that particular person?
I think to a large degree it’s both because we cannot express what we have learned from the garden without our personality being involved. Consequently, what we see in the garden has to be expressed through actual personal experience and means of expression, particularly in terms of preference. Therefore, I think the question is fundamentally what kind of experience each of us has had, and what kind of convention we have grown up in.
When you’re writing a piece of music, do you take into account that the listeners will have the same basic garden at their core and yet all these different experiences growing out from it?
It’s hard for me to fathom what’s the mind of the listener since they may be from very different backgrounds. I often say that an artist fundamentally is inspired by one’s desire to express himself, to express one’s response to the environment, and once that expression is taken care of, it really is up to the listener to try to understand. In a sense, no matter how individualistic a composer may be, an artist may be, I think we cannot separate ourselves from our time. I often say that an artist is no more than a grain of sand on the beach. If the sun reflects through that grain of sand, that light is reflected and is eventually perceived by someone, some people, and it may be regarded as beauty. I think that’s all one can hope for.
When you’re writing a piece of music, are you discovering the music or are you actually creating the music?
I’m doing both. [Laughter] If I cannot discover it, I cannot create it. If I haven’t discovered anything, how can I create anything out of nowhere, out of nothing?
You grew up in China before the Communist Revolution in 1949, and you came to America before that was an accomplished fact. Is this right?
That’s correct. I came to this country in 1946.
Does that mean that basically your thoughts and ideas go back into all of the dynasties without the major change that happened to the Chinese people then in the early fifties?
That’s correct, yes.
Does it please you to know that your ideas and thoughts have been untarnished through the centuries that way?
It does. I’m pleased that I had the privilege of being able to work on my music in this country, having escaped from that particular experience in the 1950s and sixties. My concern really is not so much a matter of a political issue but rather the loss of the true Chinese cultural tradition.
When you go back to China periodically these days, do you find that they are recapturing and rediscovering the old traditions?
They’re attempting to rediscover. I don’t know if anyone can say today that one has recaptured the old aesthetics, artistic feelings, the enormous accomplishment in the past. I think one has to be aware of the fact that the Chinese civilization has been on a downward plunge for four hundred years now, since roughly the beginning of the seventeenth century.
To a large degree, it’s due to political reasons. The Ming Dynasty, which was terminated in 1644, representing history, the last two regimes that has maintained the Chinese tradition, not only maintained but at the beginning of the dynasty was able to revive it, to revitalize it. But after that, there has been no upward swing in terms of the Chinese culture, Chinese artistic traditions, because of particularly the decline of the Chinese government since that time.
Is there any parallel in the West with the Age of Conquest and then the Industrial Revolution?
I would go back to the Romans. I think once the Roman Empire was established, it represented, to me, the beginning of the downfall of the Roman civilization, and that lasted for a few hundred years, to put it mildly. I think right now we ought to look at the current situation of the European tradition in the arts, to see where it stands in terms of its historical position.
Is there any hope?
[Laughter] Absolutely, absolutely. I believe in the future, but I think in the future it will not be the same. I think we have been at a point when Western and non–Western traditions have to come together. I’m not really talking about synthesis and all that kind of thing, but I’m simply saying that we are all over the world rediscovering older traditions, older cultural accomplishments, and we have to know them, and once we know them, inevitably we’ll become influenced. We’ll find it worthwhile for artists to examine different roots and try to bring them together. For me, there’s no cultural boundaries. I learn from the West, from Europe, from Asia, from China. Without all of these roots, I wouldn’t be where I stand.
Do you like where you are standing these days?
Very much so. [Laughter] I think it’s a privilege to be living today and especially with the kind of background I have. I think it offers me a lot of opportunities. That’s why I regard it as a privilege. I have to be very clear–minded about that.
You’re trying to bring together the Asian tradition and the Western tradition. Do you want these two traditions to come together and become like a stew, where everything is melted together, or would you rather it be more be a salad, where each individual piece is more identifiable?
You know, people talk about the melting pot in this country, and some say rather it’s a tossed salad. I think it’s something in between. What I mean is that in the future, artists will have the true luxury of freely selecting the ingredients they believe in, that they feel they can learn something from, to develop their own artistic expressions. There’s no reason why, since I’m born a Chinese and I’m a Chinese by heritage, I must stick only to Chinese tradition, or, that since I’m living in this country, I must express my music purely through Western means.
When you’re writing a piece of music, do you have the performers in mind, or do you just write for those instruments, whoever will perform them?
Sometimes I do have specific performers in mind, but most of the time I’m more concerned about what, practically, the performers can do with my music.
When you get the notation all written down, do you expect them, then, to put their own interpretation into it?
That is, of course, very difficult. That’s a question of whether there is a common practice, whether performers can decipher your written music easily, according to the way they are brought up. This, of course, is a major problem with contemporary Western music right now. I have to face it, especially in my case, if my music does carry with it conventions or ideas that are not familiar to Western musicians, then I have to be very concerned about those things.
Might there ever be a case where you write something that is so specifically Chinese that you would ask that only Chinese–heritage people perform it?
No. Actually, I’ve never done that, for a lot of reasons, one of which is that I do not borrow practices from the past, from Asia, from Europe, and therefore I do not need musicians who have been trained in the past practices. Another reason is that I don’t think there are many Chinese musicians, whether they play Chinese instruments or Western instruments, who are that much aware of the old aesthetics in Chinese music. In other words, I cannot take it for granted that a Chinese musician would understand what I want in my music better than anyone else.
Has your music been played in China?
A lot, but mostly by musicians who have been trained on Western instruments. But it’s interesting that I’ve written a couple of works, particularly a piece for nine players that’s based on a traditional musical form in China. The music is derived from old compositions for this Chinese instrument called a zheng, a Chinese zither. I was told at a national conference of traditional Chinese musicians that they refer to this piece and consider it as truly having caught the spirit of the kind of music they are familiar with. But that is only by listening to it, because the piece is written for nine Western instruments. So what I’m saying is I only aim at the spirit, the philosophy, rather than how it is played. In terms of playing, basically, of course, I employ Western instruments and therefore Western techniques, but conceptually there are many issues. Indeed, I have a problem at rehearsals. I don’t mind saying that. I think everything improves with time. I still am often frustrated at rehearsals, but in more recent years, more and more I find the younger musicians can play my music very well and can indeed understand what I want in the music without the kind of difficulties I used to run into in the past.
Is this better technically or musically?
I think it’s conceptually. I think people are, by now, more aware of non–Western musical aesthetics or requirements, and they have a better understanding of it.
Is there a place in this world of music for someone, or a number of people, who would keep a pure tradition rather than try to meld the traditions as you are doing?
Absolutely. I always maintain that we must be able to truly preserve our tradition before we can experiment, before we can evolve and develop our own approaches today, so I think that preserving the tradition is essential. It’s the beginning of everything. But, of course, that is not to say that we should preserve it and stay with it without moving from there. I think the music of the past is music of the past. There may be great pieces that we still want to hear, that we want to learn, certainly, but for a composer living today, there is no reason to merely repeat what has been done in the past.
A question I like to ask composers: Is your music, the music that you write, for everyone? Of course, this takes on a special significance for you.
[Laughter] Well, it depends on who is "everyone". As I said earlier, I believe that if I’m true to myself, if I understand who I am, what I am, and I’m sincere and honest with my ideas and I look for the best means of expressing myself, then I’ve done my job, and I think it should be understood by everyone eventually, certainly not at this time.
In the music that you have written over the years, is there a balance, or where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?
Again, here I think in our time there has been a lot of confusion as to the definition of the word, "art" or "entertainment". To me, there is no such thing as art, as art alone, pure art. Therefore, art inevitably brings about pleasure, and that’s entertainment. But if something is written purely for the purpose of entertainment, then one would have to define what that means. Entertainment for some people might not be the same for others. I do not take the position that I don’t need the listeners, nor do I take the position I must please the listeners. I think, if you do either, you might not be true to yourself, which is the most important reason why one wants to compose.
I assume that you get a number of commissions.
When a commission comes your way, how do you decide if you will accept it and spend the time on it, or turn it aside?
I decide on whether I really want to write that piece or not, although sometimes a commission may come requesting you to do something that you never thought of before. But then you may decide it’s a challenge, it’s just the thing you want to do. Then I would accept that. But basically I have my own ideas as to what I want to go on to compose next.
So you look for a commission that will let you do that.
Absolutely. [Laughter] I look for a commission that really would encourage me to go on to that piece, indeed.
Do you use both traditional Chinese instruments in your pieces as well as the regular Western instruments?
No, actually I never use a Chinese instrument. I learned from Chinese instruments or, for that matter, Asian instruments, all kinds of non–Western instruments. I have learned from those instruments to find ways for structure in my music, but I really do not feel the need of using Chinese instruments. Decades ago, I did think of using Chinese instruments, but that would obviously limit the potentials of my pieces.
So if someone came to you with a commission for the zheng that you mentioned, you would turn it down?
No. [Laughter] I wouldn’t mind writing a piece for that. In fact, commission or not, sooner or later I think it’s likely for me to write it. It would be a challenge, because the instrument has a tremendous tradition. Wonderful, absolutely delightful compositions have been written for it over the centuries. I think it’s a challenge for any modern composer to write for such an instrument. It’s an instrument that has enormous capabilities. It has a range as big as the piano almost, and its coloristic possibilities are enormous. But indeed, if you do write such a piece, there will be very few people who can play it.
Is there any way of reproducing the sound of the zheng, perhaps on a synthesized instrument that would be able to played here?
Certainly it’s possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hasn’t even been tried, but that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is to learn from the instrument the possibilities of the meaning of its sound. For example, that’s an instrument that has enormous implications in terms of what it suggests through its music, the implications of its potential, I think. It should be of particular interest to modern composers. For example, its notation is really most advanced. It’s a tablature notation, but every symbol indicates all kinds of things that nowadays composers tend to talk about: types of articulation, timbre, change of color, different types of vibrations and so on. So it has all those possibilities. But I’m less interested in what the instrument can do than what I can learn from what it can do, and what I can learn from the intentions behind it, why the composers for this instrument in the past would do certain things. I wouldn’t mind saying that a great deal of my musical theory, my own theory, my own technique, has been evolved out of my studies of this instrument and its music, of course.
Have you basically been pleased with the performances that you’ve heard of your music over the years?
There are always good performances, but as I indicated before, it has been difficult. In most cases, I used to be very much disappointed. I recall, and this is a common saying, that after the concert I would talk to the musicians who would then tell me, "Now we are ready to rehearse it". [Laughter] But I have to say, in more recent years, and also in the past, I have received some wonderful performances.
I assume that you, as the composer, and the performers all strive toward a perfect performance.
Is there such a thing? Is it achievable to make a perfect performance?
No, even though we often use that term, saying, "Ah, this is perfect". But obviously not. Also in my music, I do not hear in my own ear a particular perfect version. I know what I want, I know what the written music can sound and should sound, but there’s always a range of flexibility, and I don’t mind being surprised by certain expressions some musicians bring out of the piece. But it has to be within the range of my own views, my own goals.
There have been a number of recordings of your music, and those recordings get a little more universal distribution. Have you been pleased with those?
Yes, that’s true. I think the most recent Albany record/CD has some wonderful performances in there. I had an older recording by CRI, which will be a CD, but it was recorded quite some time ago. I think the performances were excellent by Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wuorinen and a number of other performers.
Did they bring something special because they are also composers, themselves?
Yes. And also, above all, hours and hours of rehearsals. That really is the fundamental point, the key issue, the willingness, the desire to understand the music, to play it right, and that certainly is the case with the current CD.
Have there ever been times when the performers would actually discover something that you had written that you didn’t know you had hidden there?
Not really, but there would be discovery of questions about the score, issues that I did not, perhaps, pay enough attention to and so on. I think most of the other discoveries have taken place during my composing. I recall there were occasions when the performers were getting ready to play the piece and asked me questions, which in turn stimulated me to find the right answers for them.
Is there only one right way to play a piece?
What I mean is to indicate to the performers what you want because the notation system we have, at best is just a vague way of deciphering what’s in the music. Therefore the composer has to have the right approach in getting the musicians to decipher what they can get out of the music.
When you’re writing a piece of music and you’re putting all the little notes and squiggles on the page, you come to the end and you go back and tinker with it a bit. How do you know it is finished and ready to be launched?
[Laughter] That’s a tough question. I think, somehow, as long as you feel not satisfied, it’s not ready, and when you’re happy with it, I think it finds some way of telling you that, and you just stop. It’s a difficult issue, yes. And that, of course, also brings the question as to whether composers go back to revise some parts of the score.
Do you do that?
Yes, I do, but not to a large extent. Usually it’s minor adjustments, and very often it’s a question of dynamics or particularly meter or rhythm. Very often I find that there’s the need to clarify how you communicate to the musicians.
So it’s not really changing it, it is clarification.
That’s right, not changing the music itself.
One last question: Is composing fun?
Wonderful. It’s a unique experience. It’s both fun and a pain. It’s an enormous struggle, and when you get it, when you finish it, there’s nothing comparable to it, and I wouldn’t miss it.
Good, good. I wish you lots of continued success, especially with the Center for U.S.–China Arts Exchange. Has that been a great help in understanding, from both ways?
Yes, very much so. We really are concerned mainly on what is needed and what should be done, both in terms of mutual understanding and in terms of helping each side to achieve something. And in that sense, I think we have carried out some most important projects. For example, right now we have done five years’ work in the southernmost part of China, which really is in the middle of a lot of Southeast Asian countries. We have been working on the cultures of minority villages where some of the people share the same cultural roots with other countries in Southeast Asia. Our job is to help them to better preserve their own traditions and to develop their culture. It has been most exciting. But earlier I was referring to the fact that in doing this work, which is now for eighteen years, I personally have learned as much as everyone else who has been involved in that. I think my experience in doing this kind of work has certainly stimulated me enormously as a composer. And while I say this, I want to point out that our work is not strictly limited to events between China and this country. As we define it, it means any culture between China and this country, and for that reason, I have traveled quite widely in Asia, talking to people and getting to know the different cultural traditions, and it has been most exciting. In fact, I would urge all composers, all artists to do the same thing because that’s the best way to open up one’s mind. That’s why I want to point out that in doing this, I have learned more, I have taken more from having offered to other people.
Of course, of course. I’m glad that you have been able to expand your own mind and your own creation and then share all of that with us.
Well, I’m glad that I’m in a position to do that. As I said earlier, I feel privileged to be living at this time, and I really care about understanding of different cultures. "Understanding" may be an understatement. What I mean is by learning about other cultures, we sharpen our own minds, we open up our own horizon, and that’s where our future is.