Interview of Jason Kao Hwang
by Sergio Piccirilli ,, November 30, 1999

SP: I think the best place to begin is with the Stories before within…It's very complex album there seems to be a tremendous collision of intercultural influences, and I don't just mean genre wise. You can hear a lot of musical voices from a lot of regions being together I was wondering if you could go into the genesis album a little?
JKH: The intercultural influences emerge from a constant flux between the unconscious and conscious. That is, instinctive gestures inherent to personal history interact with intellectual self-perceptions. This chemistry forms a delicate path.
This dynamic process is within each member of the quartet and flows into our collective dialogue. The compositions encourage each voice to be expressed without compromise.
Genesis of the CD…
The first choice for a composer of improvised music is the choice of musicians. I really love the playing of Andrew, Taylor and Ken. They are also composers with their own bands, so their knowledge and experiences contribute to my music.
The album was not conceived of as a suite. I created each composition, one at a time, each leading to the next. EDGE played this music in New York City clubs and in brief tours along the East Coast, before recording.
SP: The compositions on Stories before within involve colors and textures, rather than melody and changes. So, the music is more visual than aural. How do you accomplish the depictions?
JKH: Your perceptions are appreciated, thanks.
Melody, chord changes and grooves are elements of color and texture. Or you can consider them tools that motivate the development of color and texture. Music is like a multi-faceted crystal. With various tools, the composition turns. We see the same music, with animated reflections and refractions generated by changing lights.
For melodies, I strive to distill the "message" into a pure essence. An essential melody is saturated with potential energy. We want to hear it again and in different ways. We want to release that potential energy.
The interpretive development is usually more complex with more notes and counter-rhythms, which provides contrast to the simplicity of an essential melody.
SP: Edge is a really, really great group that's about as attuned to each other as a band can get without being too sensitive, too afraid to not follow. So I'll ask you about the players. How you brought these musicians together?
JKH: Thank you very much.
I'm blessed by both the artistry and friendship of these three good people. I met Andrew Drury at a rehearsal led by tenor saxophonist David Bindman and the late trombonist Jeff Hoyer. Later I invited Andrew to sub for my quartet of that time, the Far East Side Band (Joe Daley-tuba, Sang-Won Park - kayagum, ajeng). I thought of him right away when forming EDGE. Andrew is highly skilled and his unique exploration of the drum set contributes mightily to the musical imagery you heard. Ken Filiano introduced himself to me after a set I played with "The Gift," led by drummer William Hooker and with trumpeter Roy Campbell. I sometimes played "bass" in that band via my octave pedal. Of course, when Ken complimented my "bass" playing, my head zoomed into the clouds because I knew of his reputation! Ken is a bona fide virtuoso with an imaginative understanding for the feel of my music, and where it can travel. I first met Taylor in Anthony Braxton's opera projects in the mid-90's. We later played in a group led by Boston cellist Jeff Song. Taylor has a genuine voice on the cornet, his dynamic language and ensemble instincts make a powerful contribution to EDGE.
To play music as an ensemble, each individual has to know when to lead and initiate ideas, and when to follow to support. These are often split-second micro-decisions within improvisations. Over the past years, as we've gotten to know each other better, our collective language has developed.
Many of these ideas of how a band works and interacts is from a tradition that I learned from composer/reedman Will Connell, Jr., in the ensemble Commitment, starting in the late 70's. William Parker(bass) and Zen Matsuura(drums) were also in the band.
SP: I sense a very cinematographic feeling in your music. If you could call a movie director to put it into images what would you like to see?
Sometimes, as I compose, there are feelings from specific events in my life that will motivate the creative process.
And sometimes, I think of each instrument as a living character that experiences a transformation within the composition's narrative.
Often these initial images are transitory and I don't think of them anymore. The music doesn't have programmatic intent, even though the titles imply an image and images are created. The music has its own life and language.
SP: When you play jazz, its real force comes from the bringing together of ideas and concepts (the inspiration, so to speak) with the emotions and the musical images. I just want to check that out with you as musicians-does part of what you do involve crossing that divide between ideas and images, concepts and realization, thought and action?
JKH: Yes, certainly, those elements are at play.
I suppose musical improvisation is extraordinarily complex but musicians don't usually think that way. We simply strive for the right feeling as we play. We practice and study to access those feelings.
But I can relate to your description. Music as both linear expression and meditation does cross "that divide between ideas and images, concepts and realization, thought and action."
SP: How do you see the music you play in regards to how it affects your surroundings socially?
JKH: No matter the genre, when I hear good music by others I am inspired to strive towards my human potential as well. I am comforted when hearing affirmations of the soul. I hope EDGE offers this inspiration to others, to whatever degree we are able.
I hope EDGE will inspire listeners, musicians or not, to find their own voice and share their stories. I hope our music will inspire others to be musical in their lives, knowing how to listen, support and initiate with respect and passion.
As one who emerged from the Asian American Movement, I hope to inspire young Asian American artists to affirm their identities and works towards their potential.
SP: I was wondering about your relationship to your records. Do you consider them pieces, or documentation of pieces, or both?
JKH: I consider them documentations of pieces that are alive and continue to evolve.
The act of recording, though not definitive, does motivate me to move on to create new works.
SP: Let's try to focus now on the actual process of the act of creation, try to put a microscope on it. For example, What is your composing process? What kinds of things are you thinking about when you're composing?
JKH: I often compose from the violin or viola. To explore harmonic ideas, I'll go to the piano. Sometimes I find the vibration of the computer monitor irritating and I'll turn it off, writing with paper and pencil. Other times I'll entry notes directly into the notation software Finale. Because my piano skills are limited, I sometimes test the music through midi playback, via Finale or sequencing software, Digital Performer. My first drafts often need editing, during and after the first rehearsal. Sometimes I hear something that needs more work or should be cut. Sometimes a member of the band makes a great suggestion. With the hustle and bustle of life in NYC, most bands don't have more than two rehearsals before a gig. Usually just one. (Sometimes none!) With EDGE, I never feel restricted by this. Everyone in EDGE is very experienced, quickly gaining a feeling for where we're going with a new work. The rehearsal primes us for the performance.
SP: Talking about things that are subconscious or those things that are outside the music, as far as forms of inspiration. So I wanted to ask you a couple of qualities about other things that you do, that influence you. Outside of music, where do you seek your experience and inspiration?
JKH: When people sacrifice for others, I'm inspired. I'm inspired by acts of generosity. People who never quit, despite enduring failures inspire me. People who never cease in their efforts to become better at what they do, inspire me. People that always do their best, inspire me.
Little kids, with their innocence and joy, inspire me. For the same reason, nature is inspiring.
And of course, my beautiful wife Gennevieve has inspired me throughout our 23 years of marriage.
SP: How do you go from the initial inspiration to what is fleshed out in the performance?
JKH: From the initial inspiration to the performance, something has to change because the process is alive. The process will produce surprises because for compositions for improvisation, the composer is first among equals, not dictator. This is a not the hierarchical structure associated with Western European classical music in which the composer is on top. Each of us, the composer and musicians, surrender to the music. Change will be embraced and will lead to a higher evolution. The composition, with the tools we spoke of earlier, provides narrative structure, in which we play freely. One sound inspires the next. This is the nameless, unspoken flow - we hear, think and act spontaneously and simultaneously.
SP: How do people react to the Edge's music live?
JKH: We've gotten positive feedback from all kinds of people from different backgrounds. Recently we played a great gig at the Stone. I experimented with a different set list drawn from both CDs, plus a new composition.
In the fall, we'll tour upstate New York and also play Edgefest (no relation!) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My goal is to compose this summer and perform works for our third CD during the fall. In early 09, we'll record again.
We're starting to get more festival bookings We'll be in Vancouver and Montreal next June. We now have agent working on Europe.
SP: We are going to back up now. Tell about your background; was there music in your house growing up?
JKH: My parents came to U.S. from China during the civil war and Japanese invasion of World War II. My father arrived in 1945, via a Boxer Rebellion Scholarship for medicine, which he won through a national competition, at a time when U.S. Exclusion Laws limited Chinese immigration to only 105 per year. My mother arrived from China with the last American troop withdrawal in 1948. They didn't listen to music much. Occasionally my father would bring me to hear Chinese opera in Chicago. My mother would wake us up in the morning singing one of the Chinese patriotic songs from the war. They rarely played records, but would watch TV variety shows like Dean Martin, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore.
I consider Chinese language to be my main musical experience at home during my childhood. Though my parents tried to teach my older sisters Chinese, they stopped when their grade school teachers said they had English comprehension problems. During that time, the "melting pot" philosophy of assimilation, not multi-culturalism, was prevalent. So when I was born, they only spoke English to me. Of course my parents continued to speak Chinese to each other. I became accustomed to listening to the inflections, timbre, pitch and cadence of Chinese, without any literal understanding. I sought to glean emotional information from their encoded conversations.
SP: Was there a conflict at home between preserving your culture and trying to go out and assimilate?
JKH: We were one of two Chinese families in Waukegan, a city of about 75,000 located an hour north of Chicago. At 14, we moved to Highland Park, about 30 minutes closer to Chicago. Again, there were only two Chinese families in this suburb.
My parents attempted to take us to Chinese language school, but my sisters and I resisted. We didn't want to be different and being bilingual was different. Being Chinese was being different. There is a self-hatred imbued within the American minority experience. The Orientalism of Tin Pan Alley and recent U.S. wars against Japan and Korea influenced the racist incidents we experienced in the schoolyard.
I became aware of myself as an Asian American when I came to New York City. During college, I discovered Basement Workshop, a now legendary Asian American Arts organization. Here I met and learned about self-empowerment, Asian American history, pride and culture. I learned about the nature of racism from other Asian American writers, including Fay Chiang and Richard Oyama, and also poets like June Jordan and Amiri Baraka who gave readings at Basement. Here I also met reedman/composer Will Connell Jr., bassist Jay Oliver and Denis Charles at the weekly jam session. The four of us became the original quartet Commitment. Later the rhythm section changed to William Parker on bass and Takeshi Zen Matsuura on drums. We're in the process of re-releasing our 1981 LP along with live tracks from our 1983 concert in Moers, Germany. Will Connell taught me how to improvise and introduced me to all the musicians in the loft scene.
SP: There are inherent symbols and forms from our ancestry that are innately present in our unconscious and that when we tap into them, we become creative. Maybe you must think this is intellectual bullshit (laughter) anyway, what do you think about it?
JKH: I do think we have memories and "micro-learnings" that move from the unconscious to the conscious, informing both instinct and intellectual choice. We ponder our past. We wonder who we are. We have reflexes.
But this is different from the idea of cultural essentialism that suggests a set of characteristics inherent to a particular ethnic group. It is easy to imagine the existence of something special because of molecular ethnic cultural survivals that rise to consciousness expression, but it's not true. We're not born with inherent qualities. We learn these things.
Audiences often expect the performance of ethnicity and artists of color feel responsible or even pressured to produce this. I consider ethnicity as only one component of my identity. Perhaps the ethnic aspects of my imagination are learned, but feel instinctual. In addition to ethnicity, many other perspectives exist simultaneously and to exclude them would be a distortion. The music is a complex crystal.
I strive to draw from my life experiences naturally. Certain sounds I'm drawn to because I like them for whatever psychological reasons. Surprises occur during improvisations or composing that I attempt to build upon. Ideas from the environment or other music or even art forms, inspire new directions.
SP: Where does a musician learn more about technique, about the cultural heritage of the music, about politics and how to work together with others-on the road or at the conservatory?
JKH: I didn't attend the conservatory, so my background is unusual for these days. The conservatory is a fine place to study traditional technique. If you understand how the violin and body work together through this training, you can go in any musical direction you want. I've continue to study many technique books, like Galamian, Menuhin, Dounis, Gerle and Fischer.
It's important to remember, classical technique is designed to fulfill the ideals of the standard repertoire. The conservatory has the power via the grade to enforce a skill set that is actually a form of socialization. What sounds good is narrowly defined within this Western European "classical" subculture. Conformity to a static set of values is not creative. Conformity might ensure an "A."
Adherence to systemic thinking indoctrinates finger-memory deeply. For example, it's very hard for many classically trained violinists to alter their perception of vibrato, which is arguably derived from the 19th century operatic voice. To become a professional player, the fundamental aesthetic values held by this system must be deeply ingrained and totally dependable. To achieve excellence in this field requires complete dedication.
To cultivate one's individual voice outside the classical subculture also requires complete dedication and commitment. For your own music to develop deep roots, dig deep in one place, not many.
Any closed system will inhibit the development of individual voices. It's good to see that many conservatories are now offering great diversity in their programs, acknowledging the ideas of contemporary music.
Jazz education has also blossomed in the past ten years. I remember Dr. Makanda MacIntyre telling me of the struggles involved to establish jazz programs at the university level.
Multi-cultural programs are now common as well. Almost all major universities have African, Latino and Asian American courses.
Regarding working together. The practical process of creativity is learned by doing, whether in school or the real world.
SP: Talk a little about teaching. Do you hold many clinics, teach in schools etc.?
JKH: For three years I taught "Asian American Music," a course I created for New York University. The course examined the relationship between identity, ethnicity and expression in music by Asian Americans.
For my Meet the Composer/New Residencies grant, I created a program to teach improvisation and composition to grade school kids throughout New York City. I developed this program while in residency in a Harlem grade school with the support of Young Audiences/ NY. Because NYC public schools have no instrumental programs, I employed slide whistles, triangles, shakers and rhythm tracks. Unimpeded by technique, kids could express themselves on these instruments immediately. The kidsrapped and played music that expressed pride, self-empowerment and community.
I've also lectured at Brooklyn College and Westminster College. This coming Monday, July 14, I'll give my annual lecture/demonstration to the gifted high school summer program of Queens College.
SP: What was the concept behind your chamber opera The Floating Box, A Store in Chinatown? Are you planning on composing more in that direction?
JKH: This is a big question, so I'll try to answer succinctly. The opera was my response to a commission by Meet the Composer/New Residencies. This grant required a partnership between a composer and presenting, performing and social service organization, to create music for a specific community. My partnership to work in New York's Chinatown was Music From China(performing), the Museum of Chinese in the Americas(social service) and the Asia Society(presenter). The original libretto by Catherine Filloux, drew from oral histories of the community, including both my wife and I. My wife is originally from Hong Kong. Her family arrived in Chinatown when she was eleven. For the score, I created an ensemble that would embody the location of the story with a single note. Piccolo/flute/alto flute, Bb clarinet/bass clarinet, accordion, pipa, vibraphone, percussion, huqin(Chinese violins) and cello provided this palette. Both the accordion and erhu, because of their protean string/reed qualities, resonated the fulcrum of timbre. Sound and the historic/cultural associations of that sound, created a complex poetic image, expressive of the narrative. For the vocal writing, I often heard the score creating a light upon the singer's voice, casting a melismatic shadow. The melisma became what we could not see, revealing tremendous emotional information and expressions of cultural conflict.
After playing in Braxton's operas, Henry Threadgill's oratorio and Butch Morris's theater projects, and hearing the Phillip Glass and Anthony Davis operas, I was inspired to write an opera. From this idea, through the constant fundraising, the stage production, and the release of the CD, it took 8 years. I am proud of "The Floating Box," but the process, laced with petty politics you would not believe, was quite enervating. So afterwards, I had no interest to compose another opera.
But this past March I composed "Within Moments" for baritone singer Tom Buckner and the Quasar Saxophone Quartet, performed in Tim Brady's "Voyages" festival in Montreal. It went well. My interest is returning.
SP: Let's talk about the instrument. Violin isn't the most prominent instrument in jazz or improvised music, although there are plenty of great players doing it from Jenny Scheinman to Jessica Pavone to Mark Feldman to Billy Bang to you and so on. It's interesting to hear how violin is played in the context of this music-how much vibrato, how much pizzicato, etc. What's your philosophy of your instrument, if you have one?
JKH: The violin is my voice. All sounds can be expressive. Music is about giving.
SP: And who were your early violin influences?
JKH: In high school, Jean Luc Ponty, Papa John Creach and Michael Urbaniack were the first improvising violinists I heard. When I came to NYC, I met the late Leroy Jenkins, who was always encouraging and inspiring. We miss him. Billy Bang and I played together many times together in Butch Morris projects in the 80's. I also recorded with Billy on his "Outline #12." The spirited energy of Billy's violin is always inspirational. Pianist Borah Bergman introduced me to violinist Malcolm Goldstein. Malcolm's original and spiritual vision is always an inspiration.
SP: You play viola, also. What are the subtle nuances between the violin and viola?
JKH: I love the dark, thick timbre of the viola. The viola takes me to new places, a different emotional territory… The viola forges closer bond to the string bass.
SP: Just a couple of more questions. One that I ask often and which is of great interest to me and the readers is about spirituality. What is for you personally that's gives meaning to your life? Do you have a spiritual orientation or practice? Tell us about what gives you a sense of the whole and a sense of meaning…
JKH: Satchidananda's translation of the yoga sutras and the practice of yoga itself, has provided me with spiritual guidance. The purpose of life is to give to others. Music is what is best in us to give. The sutras help me see what is true and what is delusion, which is always a struggle.
SP: To conclude: Where would you like to see yourself in five or ten years?
JKH: I'll continue my growth as a composer and musician. EDGE will continue to perform and record. I'd like to cultivate a new string quartet with my violin, erhu, pipa and yanqin. We performed at Music From China's concert last year at Symphony Space. I'd like to compose for orchestra.
The future is soon. I've assembled "Spontaneous River," an orchestra of about 30 improvising strings, to perform at the Living Theater in a couple weeks in a series sponsored by RUCMA(Rise Up Creative Music and Arts).

-- Elintruso dot com, Sergio Piccirilli - November 30, 1999