In May of 1995, Taiwan lost a cultural trailblazer. Teresa Teng, then 42 and already a legend in her time, died while on vacation in Thailand. Known for bringing romantic pop songs into Chinese culture in the seventies, Teng’s music, most notably “The Moon Represents My Heart,” can still be heard all over the globe.
Around this time, a young Stephanie Chou is starting to explore saxophone in addition to piano. Raised by a Chinese-American father and a Taiwan-born Chinese mother in Westchester County, NY, Chou considers the idea of a career in mathematics or music. Halfway through college at Columbia, she sets her sights on a career in saxophone
After I had the luxury of speaking with Chou over the phone, I found that her music has much more depth than its perfunctory history. There’s a cultural component to Teng’s music, and Chou has taken note. Communist China was just beginning to open its doors to the rest of the world in the late ‘70s, and Teng’s songs reflected the influx of previously banned foreign music. It’s not that Chou intends to parallel her career with Teng’s, it’s that she wants her music to be emblematic of her culture as Teng’s was. After all, the amount of jazz saxophone players in Manhattan is anything if not well-saturated. As it were, many of Chou’s peers and mentors were quick to encourage her to embrace her roots: “As I explored this idea more, I enjoyed that the audience connected to my blending of Chinese culture into my music.”
This wasn’t a quick decision to make, though it was a gratifying process. Once again taking inspiration from mathematics, Chou wrote and recorded her debut album Prime Knot in 2011. The music here is clear and immediate. As the arrangements seek to represent the intricacies of the Jasmine Flower (another inspiration) and the beauty Chou finds in mathematical knots, the world received a safe, yet compelling introduction to Chou’s vocal and saxophone performances. After Prime Knot and the success of her collaboration with former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Susan Jaffe, the lilting C for G, Chou wanted to make something that came from her heart and nowhere else.
The process of incorporating traditional Chinese sounds into a world of jazz and pop appears effortless on Chou’s current record, last year’s Asymptote (another reference to, you guessed it, math). She’s able to flow from genre to genre with ease. Between the pop triplet of tracks 3-5 to the instrumental “Fragment” and back to the mission statement of opener “Kangding Love Song,” the wellspring of ideas comes at an even pour instead of the firehose rush that such a diverse project suggests. There’s a marriage of ideas as opposed to a rigid cohabitation of them. “I hoped the project would stand on its own,” says Chou after I can’t refrain myself from gushing about Asymptote’s grace: “It was very important to me that the Chinese parts sounded natural. There’s other records that try to force Chinese themes into the music in a heavy-handed way, and you can see right through them.”
It’s not just a stellar list of styles that’s present on the record, it’s also a showcase of Chou’s multi-instrumentalism. Around 2011, she switched her focus from saxophone to voice. In her own words: “I came to terms with my own strengths and weaknesses. I decided not to pursue being an improviser, and voice was just a natural progression.”
Listening to songs like “Eating Grapes,” you wouldn’t guess that Chou was anything other than a lifelong vocalist. Based off a Chinese tongue-twister, the song melds arrhythmic playfulness with jazz smarts. Sung in Chinese, it’s a refreshing way to celebrate her heritage and get her vocal ya-yas out in under three minutes. There’s percussion sounds at play that I had assumed were also native to China. I asked where the sounds came from, but it turns out that that’s mainly the work of her collaborator Kenny Wollesen: “If it sounds idiosyncratic, that’s Kenny. He’s an instrument maker and amazing drummer.” My assumption is further proof of Chou’s ability to not only meld musical forms herself, but also of her ability to choose the proper collaborators, right down to the erhu stylings of Andy Lin.
Chou composes from a humble perspective. Blessed with a Manhattan apartment that houses an upright piano, she’s able to construct the bones of her pieces on the piano before arranging and designing the melodic structures. It’s an airtight process. As the piano melds with the bass on “Kangding Love Song,” the vocals and erhu follow suit. As the lead track on Asymptote, it makes most sense after you’ve already given the record a full listen. If there were any inconsistencies to be found with the tracklisting, the melting pot of influences, or the pool of instruments used, they’re fully reconciled with this one powerful song.
The only thing richer than Chou’s current discography is the way in which it is growing. Her current work-in-progress, Comfort Girl, will focus on the unsettling history of Chinese “comfort women” during World War II. In Chou’s own words: “The show will be a musical exploration—in song and story—of the lives of Chinese ‘comfort women’ who were abducted into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII. The work will be a tribute to these young women’s incandescent courage and indomitable spirit, not only while in captivity during the War, but also—in a cruel irony—when they returned home to their families, who didn’t always welcome them back with open arms.” A bold task. But, given Chou’s uncanny ability to meld artistic styles, who could be better suited? The piece will premiere next year at the China Institute in America, in downtown New York. Teresa Teng would not only be proud, she’d likely get a little jealous.
“I did more side man stuff before, and I don’t really do so much anymore,” explains Chou. “I have gravitated towards doing my own thing.” Thankfully, her “own thing” has garnered the amount of attention it deserves. Before our conversation, I was a little anxious about talking with an artist of her stature, but she was hardly pompous about her endeavors. For example, when I asked her about my interest in how she connects math to music, I couldn’t help but ask the follow-up question: “Do you get tired of people asking you about that?” “No, not at all! I give lectures on that kind of thing!” Most composers get sick of hearing repeat questions and extrapolations about their work, but Chou was one of the more eager composers I’ve chatted with no matter the question on the table. She’s not bogged down by the depth of her work, but is rather genuinely curious about how things might end up sounding.