Sunday, September 11, 2011
One streak of dying light
Landscapes, finished in 1949 and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 1953, is the earliest work for orchestra by Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung. It uses three traditional Chinese melodies to create three different 'landscapes': 'Under the Cliff in the Bay,' 'The Sorrow of Parting,' and 'One Streak of Dying Light.' The titles come from poems by Cheng Hsieh (1693-1765), Ting P’eng (c. 1661) and Liu Chi (1311-75). You can read the full poems and see the score on the composer's excellent website. The third one, for example, reads: 'Green, green the grass west of the pavilion,/ The clouds low, the cries of the wild geese faint,/ Two lines of sparse willows, /One streak of dying light, /Hundreds of homing ravens dotting the sky.'
In the years following Landscapes Chou worked as student and assistant to Edgard Varèse (the manuscript for Déserts was written out by him). He also continued to compose his own landscape-inspired music; in 1956 for example came And the Fallen Petals, based on a poem by Meng Hao-jan (689-740). He says 'in this work I have tried to convey through sound the emotional qualities of Chinese landscape painting and to achieve this end with the same economy of means ... In this as well as in my other works to date, I am influenced by the philosophy that governs every Chinese artist, whether he be poet or painter; namely, affinity to nature in conception, allusiveness in expression, and terseness in realization.' The music is in three sections: 'Part 1: Against a quiet and mysterious landscape, budding blossoms dance the praise of life in the Spring wind', 'Part 2: A storm breaks and the furious wind drives the dazed petals far and wide,' 'Part 3: Against a quiet and mysterious landscape, the fallen petals are being swept away and fresh blossoms on the branches dance in the Spring wind.'
Chou's long career continues and his most recent piece is from 2009, Ode to Eternal Pine, dedicated to Elliott Carter (who is still going strong in his second century). He says of this that 'in East Asian cultures, the pine, often seen on mountain peaks, is a symbol of longevity and the eternity of nature. “Meditating on Eternity” is a reflection on the fundamental esthetic principle of East Asia, as expressed in the Chinese terms tian di ren, heaven, earth and humanity. It suggests human emotion within the timelessness of the universe and the physical constraints on earth, the two axes symbolized by the subsequent movements, “Lofty Peaks” and “Profound Gorges.”' I was reminded of these two axes while reading an interesting interview with Chou, where he says that back in 1977 he had been responsible for selecting a traditional Chinese zither piece called 'Flowing water' for inclusion on the Voyager golden records - music that has now left behind the physical constraints of earth on its journey out into the universe.