Chou Wen-chung, Composer and Calligrapher in Sound, Dies at 96


Chou Wen-chung, a composer, teacher and cultural diplomat who taught a coterie of celebrated and award-winning Chinese composers and who tended to the legacy of Edgard Varèse, the linchpin of American modernism, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.

His son Sumin Chou confirmed the death.

Mr. Chou left a relatively small body of compositions, but his fastidious and elegant works are filled with emotional eddies. He wrote mostly for Western instruments, but made them bend single notes to accommodate the microtonal flexibility of Chinese music.

In “Yu Ko” (1965), for mixed ensemble, he drew lilting sounds from brass instruments that create a sense of haunting melancholy. In the Larghetto of his String Quartet No. 1 (“Clouds”), a keening cello solo evokes the sounds of the Chinese bowed erhu, woven into a modernist score that is both wistful and severe.

The percussionist and conductor Steven Schick said in a phone interview that Mr. Chou blended disparate influences into a musical language that was fully his. “It’s really hard to pick apart what came from where because it is so organically fused,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like hyphenated music.”

For much of Mr. Chou’s career, composition took a back seat to other responsibilities. He worked as an assistant to Varèse and edited his compositions; he also created new channels of cultural diplomacy. He did that chiefly through the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange, which he founded in 1978 and which helped bring stars of Western classical music like Luciano Pavarotti and Isaac Stern to China.

And Mr. Chou taught composition to a cohort of students at Columbia University, many of whom had grown up in China in the scorched artistic landscape of the Cultural Revolution and would go on to invigorate the new-music scene in both China and America. Among them are Tan Dun, who won an Oscar for his score to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; Bright Sheng, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called genius grant); and Zhou Long, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

“He is the godfather of Chinese contemporary music,” Mr. Tan said in an interview. He recalled his first lesson with Mr. Chou, in 1986. It lasted five hours, he said, and covered the thought of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse, the qualities of yin and yang in sound, and ways to bridge the divide between scholarly music and folk traditions.

At the time, Mr. Tan said, “He was the only one who could share a very deep knowledge of the traditions of China, but also bring us into a completely new world. He was the one who built a dream for us.”

To his Chinese students, Mr. Chou represented the ideal of the “wenren” — a scholar-artist — and he urged them to delve into classical poetry and calligraphy.

Mr. Chou, the third of seven children, was born on July 28, 1923, into a cultured family in Yantai, in the northeast of China. His father, Chou Zhongjie, was an administrative official in transportation; his mother, Fu Shou-hsien, was a homemaker.

Wen-chung was home-schooled until age 11 because of a heart condition. He supplemented his education from tutors and his father — who instructed him in poetry and calligraphy — with surreptitious visits to the family’s library, which was stocked with translations of Western literature and off limits to him.

The family moved several times, eventually settling in Shanghai. At age 15, when the Japanese occupation had driven his family to seek refuge in the city’s French Concession, Wen-chung took up violin studies at the Shanghai Music School.

Nevertheless, he enrolled in St. John’s University in Shanghai to study architecture. He later explained that he had feared wartime authorities would enlist musicians for political propaganda.

When the Japanese Army entered Shanghai in 1941, his family urged him to flee to unoccupied China in order to avoid conscription.

Mr. Chou spent four years on the move. He finally settled in Chongqing, where he completed a degree in civil engineering. He would later recount the traumatic wartime sights he had witnessed: bodies floating on rivers; a dismembered corpse falling out of a burned bus; the desperate faces of civilians clinging to a train.

“In some ways,” his son Sumin said, “he was driven to use music to heal himself.”

In 1946, Mr. Chou arrived in the United States with a scholarship to study architecture at Yale University. He dropped out within weeks, determined to switch to music, and enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music, where his principal composition teacher was Nicholas Slonimsky.

In New York, beginning in 1949, Mr. Chou fell under the mentorship of Varèse, and their relationship evolved into one of mutual support. The manuscript of Varèse’s seminal “Déserts” is in Mr. Chou’s handwriting.

But it was a stormy relationship. The famously temperamental Varèse once lost patience with Mr. Chou’s torturously slow work process and ordered him to urinate on his own score.

Just as devastating was the reaction of the Czech symphonist Bohuslav Martinu, whose comment on a fugue Mr. Chou had built on Chinese pentatonic material was a single icy “Why?”

But Mr. Chou’s luscious “Landscapes” won over Leopold Stokowski, who conducted its premiere in San Francisco in 1953.

In 1954 Mr. Chou obtained a master’s degree at Columbia, and in 1964 he returned there to teach, later introducing ethnomusicology into the curriculum.

In 1962 he married Chang Yi-An, a pianist. She died in 2016. In addition to his son Sumin, he is survived by another son, Luyen; his brother, Zhou Wen-zheng; his sister, Belle Chow; and three grandchildren.

Until the end of his life he lived in the townhouse that had belonged to Varèse, with a portrait of the composer scowling down from a wall. But the house also filled up with antiques, musical instruments from around the world and framed samples of his own calligraphy.

That art form was the key to his own compositions. The composer Lei Liang, who edited a Chinese edition of Mr. Chou’s writings, recalled a question Mr. Chou loved to lob at students: When is a line not a line?

“If you think of a line that is drawn with a pencil or a pen, it is almost an absurd question,” Mr. Liang said. “But if the line is drawn with a brush, it’s of course not just a line: It’s emotion, it’s expression, it encompasses dimensions, even counterpoint. And he essentially made himself into a calligrapher with sound.”

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