CHOU WEN-CHUNG – An Oriental Mixture

Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung [born 1923] wrote two string quartets. These named quartets are Clouds from 1996 and Streams from 2003. Both late works, they form an interesting contrast. The former is filled with Oriental textures and string sound effects whereas the latter is remarkably Western – it also purports to be a homage to Bach and his fugal influence. I am going to discuss the Second Quartet, Streams, which is in four named movements.

1. Introduction and Fugue (Contrapunctus Variabilis I)

The work opens with a frantic solo violin which tears into its work. A pause leads to a very modern sounding, sombre violin duet. The violins continue their random musings and it is only now that I recognise the elements of a fugue unfolding – it’s not like any fugue that I have heard before, it is just so sparse. Now the cello and viola enter, together with a sense of animation. This sound evokes a more moderate Babbit or Carter, although the end is quite confronting, with two strong dissonant chordal flourishes.

2. Zhaohun (Contrapunctus Variabilis II)

This movement starts almost inaudibly, with no tempo and several serious glissandi, which dominate this passage. The violins range widely through their registers, the shrill sounds contrasting with the resonant cello. The texture has a smeared quality, such is the prevalence of glissandi. It finishes and I have no idea where I have been for the last four minutes.

3. Canonic Perpetual Motion (Contrapunctus Variabilis III)

This briefest of movements has a lilting atonal feeling, before breaking into a more intense section. Violins scurry and I suspect there is a fugue somewhere in this rapid cacophony. The end is unexpectedly tonal.

4. Episodes and Coda (Contrapunctus Variabilis IV)

The final, and easily the longest movement begins as two violins wander tonally in a very sparse manner. Their slightly bleak harmonies display deep feeling. The cello and viola are almost barely-noticed as they join the violins. A single staccato violin stroke introduces further smeared textures. A pause reveals an unfolding of a serenity, which is soon broken by a brief dual violin flurry. The staccato stroke is again heard before a wavering harmonised violin passage moves into a melancholy mood. The work concludes with several violent flourishes.

This is so far removed from Clouds that it sounds like a different composer. Also, if there was any fugal development there, I failed to notice it, possibly because of the inherent atonal, abstruse nature of the work.

I should also like to mention the third work on the CD, titled Twilight Colors (2007) for double trio of woodwinds and strings. This is a wonderful piece of chamber music, filled with a mysterious sense of beauty.

The review CD, Chou Wen Chung: Clouds, by the Brentano Quartet on the Mode label is available on Amazon US and UK.

The CD is on Spotify with some pieces on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: All three works are worthwhile.


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