Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project.

SEARCH: Introduction: Chou Wen-chung

by Roger Reynolds

Copyright © 2001 Roger Reynolds and the Composition Area, Department of Music
the University of California, San Diego
Published by Permission

Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.

SEARCH EVENT III, 21 April 2001, University of California, San Diego

The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: to facilitate this.].

Balance must be sought. It rarely occurs accidentally, for it implies a considered and deliberated approach to the opportunities and dilemmas that fate contrives to drop into some lives. And not every remarkable individual thinks to seek an ideal equipoise between alternatives, nor, indeed, would everyone approve the value of such an end: the preference of choice over chance. For it must be granted that the unreasonable course is not necessarily an unconsidered one.

Chou Wen-chung – and I note the rare circumstance that he is universally addressed family name first, as the tradition of his cultural origins dictate – Chou is one of those whose life has set before him an uncommon, even unreasonable, range of possible engagements. Any one of them (Think about this list.) – composition, cultural mediation, administration, mentoring, international relations, writing, integral governance, literary/musical executor – any one of these could have been more than sufficient to absorb the aggregate energies of any gifted woman or man. What astonishes is the fact that Chou has charted his course, balanced his engagements so as not only to address each of these (and probably others that I have neglected) but to manage in each a formidable, an influential, level of accomplishment.

Each time I encounter him, a question enters and will not exit my mind: How has Chou Wen-chung managed to accomplish all of this – to be all that he evidently is – without an apparent trace of imperiousness, close-mindedness, or hardening? As a human being, he remains what he was when I first met him (he recently reminded me) almost forty years ago in the offices of our shared publisher: the C.F. Peters Corporation. There is, not an innocence, but, a receptivity and elasticity of mind (compassion too) that is an ideal complement to, a buffer around his articulated spine of knowledge and conviction which might otherwise shadow one's interactions with him.

Long before cultural fusion had become a recognized and widely applauded endeavor, Chou hazarded for himself the position that a composer could forge a music that carried within it compatible elements of both the traditions of China and of the West. He conceived, and then realized as early as 1949 (in Landscape for orchestra), the possibility of a confluence of musical aims and means which would not devolve into a catalog of uneasy references and awkward coexistences. He saw, I believe, the formative implications of thinking calligraphically with sound: attending to the weight of events – dynamically, registrally, timbrically. And weight, placement, and directionality inscribed upon time are signature features of what I hear in his music. In any case, the prospect of an art which draws on – but somehow manages to balance – the competing force of several independently evolved cultural resources has endured as a strong current in the ebb and flow of his musical life. It is, perhaps, most memorably manifested in his most recent work, the 1996 String Quartet "Clouds", which is a radiantly lyrical succession of linked episodes – visions, perhaps – that must be counted a stirring achievement against any imagined standard.

But this conviction – that, if you will, "a larger picture" not only can be taken but also can become a guide to transformative action – this conviction continues to underlie much that Chou accomplishes. His mentorship of a gaggle of Asian composers (with their various but undeniable successes), attests to the validity of his recognition that grafting one stock unto or into another can elicit a vital fruition. But the recent prominence of these relocated energies is, he has suggested, only a beginning, with the promise of a deeper confluence still to be realized.

Chou's creation, at Columbia University, of The Center for United States-China Arts Exchange (in 1978), brought about – as a result of his prescient and energetic stewardship – imaginative actions which no compromised and lumbering governmental program would have undertaken. And, in the past decade, the Arts Exchange has become the launching pad for a massive initiative in the service of integrated planning for China's Yunnan province, a visionary scheme to bring under one considered authority, cultural and nature conservancy along with economic and social development. Could there be in our world, as it is now, a higher aim?


But, now, on a totally different plane – one, however, that I can imagine having its own major significance – let me point at the fact that one of the most original and prophetic figures in the history of music as it is known – Edgard Varèse – welcomed Chou Wen-chung into his life, eventually bequeathing him his life's work. This was not – surely – an accidental circumstance; think of the significance of such personal trust. And Chou accepted this gift with its heavy responsibilities, coming to see, over time, the possible larger significance of Varèse's work – what lay beyond its immediate musical values. He has spoken of Varèse as the exemplar of an ideal creator who perceives, embraces, and then transcends the history out of which he arose. Varèse established in a circumscribed but undeniable fashion, the possibility of an art which embraces traditions, extrapolates from non-musical models of order, embodies physical passion, posits the outline of that which is as yet unfulfilled. Chou has grasped how this instance can speak to our current (and inescapable) dilemma, the dilemma of how similarly powerful and apparently incommensurable forces can be brought into balance.

Chou Wen-chung has encountered and then engaged with cultures, musics, traditions, geographic domains, education, maverick genius. He does this without losing his own essential center, continuing to produce music which rises out of and then speaks out above it all. What a life this man leads with his vital partner and companion Yi-an. How fortunate we are that he is sharing it all with us – both for what it has already meant – and also, more importantly, for what it yet will mean. And that, of course, is our responsibility.