Chou Wen-chung ; surname Chou; born June 29, 1923 in Yantai (sometimes incorrectly called Chefoo), Shandong, China) is a Chinese American composer of contemporary classical music. He emigrated in 1946 to the United States where he lives.
Chou grew up in China and developed an early love for music. ("Sights and Sounds" an essay by Chou on early influences on his music.) Qin music, in particular, has proved fertile for his future exploration. During the Second World War, he was persuaded to study civil engineering to help modernize China. In 1946, he turned down a scholarship in architecture at Yale University in order to pursue music, studying with Nicholas Slonimsky at the New England Conservatory and with Edgard Varése and Otto Luening in New York.
In 1954, he became the first technical assistant at Columbia's Electronic Music Laboratory and was concurrently appointed director of a research Project on Chinese music and drama. This research reinforced his own aesthetic convictions and led him to synthesize theories of calligraphy, qin, single tones and I Ching, all of which represent new ground in his compositional thinking. As chairman of the Music Division at Columbia University, he was instrumental in providing its composition program with a clear sense of artistic vision. Chou also distinguished himself as vice-dean of the School of the Arts and director of the Fritz Reiner Center for Contemporary Music at Columbia University. His notable students include Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Tan Dun, Chinary Ung, Ge Gan-ru, Bright Sheng, James Tenney, Jing Jing Luo, Michael Rosenzweig, Faye-Ellen Silverman, and Jacques-Louis Monod.
He is a protégé of the composer and visionary, Edgard Varése. Chou has sought in his music not simply to propagate Varésian concepts, but to move beyond his teacher's shadow. From Varése's purely Western tradition, Chou's music evolves from cross-cultural pollination, integrating the East and the West, with the requisite understanding of both cultures. He can be regarded as the founder of the contemporary Chinese musical idiom, one whose music sets the standard and an example for succeeding generations to emulate.
Chou's revolutionary insights brought about a broader and more integrated perception of Chinese music by scholars and laymen East and West. He recognizes the intrinsic contribution of qin music and the singletone concept to Chinese music, and more importantly, he recognizes their value to composers. ("The Twain Meet" by Leighton Kerner.) Also important to his music is the refinement of individual pitches. He believes the West has mastered formal structures, whereas the East remains unexcelled in controlling subtle inflections of tones. By emulating Western achievement in formal design, he employs these nuances not as mere decoration, but as a clear structural element. The art of calligraphy, in its various levels of meaning, serves constantly as the music's philosophical underpinning. A controlled spontaneity and quiet intensity derived from an intimate knowledge of his art and his culture, together with a growth process as organic and inevitable as that of nature, remain requisite stylistic elements. Ultimately, he seeks not so much to amalgamate the divergent Eastern and Western traditions as to internalize and transcend contemporary idioms and techniques to create an intimately personal style that reflects a genuine, modern sensibility. ("Chou Wen-chung" by Nicolas Slonimsky)
Chou has written for a variety of media. His works have been performed by the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo. He has received grants from the Rockefeller, Guggenheim and Koussevitsky Foundations, from the National Institute of the Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts. He is the Fritz Reiner Professor Emeritus of Musical Composition at Columbia University (where he is also Director of the Center for US-China Arts Exchange), and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
He was composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, Bennington and the University of Illinois. His posts in music organizations included the presidency of CRI and the chair of the Editorial Board of Asian Music. He is also an honorary life member of Asian Composers League. Other contemporary music organizations with which he is affiliated include League ISCM, the Yaddo Corporation, the American Composers Alliance, the American Music Center, and the American Society of University Composers.