- Chou Wen-Chung on VarèseAn Interview
How did you have the good fortune to meet Edgard Varèse?
Well, the process of meeting him took quite some time. Long before I met him or knew anything about him, I had already heard his music and was shocked. That was in 1946, only a year after the Second World War, when I first came to this country and enrolled at the New England Conservatory, having decided to give up the study of architecture at Yale University.
Towards the end of the first semester, the teacher Warren Storey Smith, a longtime critic for the Boston Herald and author of a music history book, decided to amuse the class with what he considered some unusual music. So one morning he suddenly put on a record, and I could see that he had a funny expression on his face with a little smile, watching us intently to see how we would react. And all I heard was [End Page 441] what I would describe as something very close to noise. That was my first introduction to Varèse!
But it must have fascinated you, touched something in your past?
Well growing up in China, where to hear pigs and chickens being slaughtered in the morning was a fairly common thing, the first thing that came to my mind was: "This sounds like a hog being slaughtered." As I left the classroom, I just kept asking myself, "Why should a composer want to do that?" Yet I knew that the reason I was fascinated by those sounds and yet puzzled about why a composer would want to use them, was that I was attracted to the piece. About that time I was in fact studying on my own Paul Hindemith's famous Craft of Musical Composition and was aware of certain trends in contemporary music, but I'd never heard anything nearly like Varèse.
Can you tell us more about the period shortly before you came to the U.S.?
I guess my understanding of music was at that time conventional, but not totally without information. During the war, to escape bombing by Japanese planes, we would often hide out in caves. One place that was full of these mountain caves was the city of Guilin, a very beautiful city, in the southwest of China not far from Vietnam and with many indigenous minority peoples. Close to the university campus was an American Christian outpost, a primitive kind of YMCA, hugging the mountainside, providing service to students and possessing a lot of recordings, including quite a number of recordings of modern pieces. Presumably, to be cynical, nobody back in the States wanted to hear that kind of stuff, so they got shipped to China! I was introduced to many modern works, and not all those pieces were by famous composers like Stravinsky. But still, I never heard anything by Varèse.
But he continued to obsess you at the New England Conservatory?
I was still haunted by that question "Why?" not because I disliked the music, but I just wondered why and how come a composer would write in such a manner. Shortly after my encounter with Varèse's music, I was present at the premiere of Schoenberg's String Trio in Cambridge among a very small audience on a snowy night. I went simply because I was really in a hurry to learn about all kinds of modern music, and had never heard Schoenberg other than in school recordings. I didn't realize I had walked into a very important event. I really love and respect that piece, and it interested me greatly. I knew immediately its special characteristics, important ideas, while realizing that he had probably learned something from his student Webern or was perhaps somewhat influenced by Webern's approach.
So if you compare Schoenberg's String Trio with Varèse's Octandre, what is the difference between the two works that made me able to respond specifically to one, but on the other hand, to respond in bewilderment [End Page 442] to the other? Obviously I...