In Memoriam: Chou Wen-chung

Chou wen-chung smiling and gesturing with his hands
Sumin Chou and his father Chou Wen-chung
Chou Wen-chung with son Sumin Chou. Photo by Fadi Kheir.

NEC joins the world in mourning the loss of composer, teacher, and cultural ambassador Chou Wen-chung, who passed away Friday morning at age 96. His sons Luyen and Sumin Chou made the following statement:

“We feel incredibly lucky not only to have been at his side to the end, but to have been there for part of his incredible journey across 96 years. As all of you know, Dad committed his life to the advancement of Eastern and Western cultures, and more specifically to the creation of new musical idioms and languages that synthesized the best of both traditions. His thinking and theory were deeply informed by the many interactions and discussions he had with his close friends and colleagues, and so, in a very real way, his spirit and his passion live on in each of us.”

President Andrea Kalyn also remarked on Chou's lasting legacy:

"An alumnus of NEC, Chou Wen-chung represents a true 21st-century global musician, synthesizing his home culture and Western education into a unique and distinctive style. His impact on both the creation and teaching of music was far-reaching, and certainly his legacy will be felt for generations to come.” 

President Kalyn and faculty member Donald Palma were very pleased present Chou with an honorary doctorate in February 2019, in person at his New York home. Palma commended Chou's exceptional accomplishments both as a musician and as a person:

Chou wen-chung and Andrea Kalyn sharing tea
Chou Wen-chung and Andrea Kalyn. Photo by Fadi Kheir.

"Chou Wen-chung has been a friend and colleague for decades. Having discovered his subtly beautiful compositions years ago, I was privileged, over time, to perform and record some of his masterpieces.  In the process, I had the opportunity to know personally this generous and deeply cultured man. His music is a synthesis of the most progressive Western compositional idioms, with a traditional heritage of Asian approaches, not only from music, but also from calligraphy, painting, poetry and his own interactions with the dramatic landscape of China.

Chou studied at NEC for three years with Nicholas Slonimsky and later became a student and protégé of Edgard Varese in New York, editing his works, supervising recordings and maintaining the Varèse archives. Through his founding of the U.S-China Arts Exchange and his teaching at Columbia University, Chou, almost single-handedly, changed our contemporary musical landscape by bringing many talented young voices from China. Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, Tan Dun, Chen Yi and numerous others were all students in his composition studio at Columbia.

Donald Palma and Chou wen-chung laughing and smiling over tea
Chou Wen-chung with Donald Palma. Photo by Fadi Kheir.

I am very pleased to be honoring this important and influential artist."

Chou mentored a generation of composers, including Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, and Lei Liang ’96, ’98 MM, who remembers his mentor in a New York Times obituary as a calligrapher of sound:

“[Calligraphy] 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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