Interview with Jason Kao Hwang
This interview with Jason Hwang is one of two interviews conducted by ImprovisAsians!, (the other with Jeff Song) and published here by In Motion Magazine with permission. ImprovisAsians! is the newsletter of Asian Improv Records, an independent label dedicated to new directions in music for Asian Americans. These interviews are part of an ongoing series by ImprovisAsians! which explore the contributions of Asian Americans to contemporary improvisation. For further information on musicians email asiaimprov at aol dot com, to order Asian Improv CDs email kenyamada at aol dot com. Asian Improv and ImprovisAsians can be reached at 1422 Grant St., Berkeley, CA 94703-1109, USA.
Where are you from?
My father, as a Boxer Rebellion scholar, was able to emigrate to America despite the Exclusion Laws. My mother came to America in 1950, on the last American troop transport ship leaving China. I grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, an industrial city of about 75,000 located an hour north of Chicago. Not too many Asians around at that time.
How did you get involved in music?
First I joined the poetry workshop at Basement Workshop in Chinatown with Fay Chiang, Richard Oyama, Teru Kanazawa, Helen Wong and others. Basement Workshop introduced me to the ideas emerging from Asian America. Basement Workshop also had a jam session where I met musicians like Will Connell Jr., Jay Oliver and Dennis Charles. We formed the first edition of the band 'Commitment'. 'Commitment' eventually became Will Connell Jr. (alto sax/flute), Takeshi Zen Matsuura (drums), William Parker (bass) and myself. We self-produced an album, hit the loft scene with a passion, played a few Kool Jazz Fests, and eventually went to Europe. At that time, I also started playing with Butch Morris, Billy Bang, Ken MacIntyre, Sirone, Jerome Cooper and others.
How did The Far East Side Band begin?
Yukio Tsuji and I played a number of concerts as a duo around 1983. Later on, we were part of the original cast of "M Butterfly", performing music we co-arranged. In the mid-80's I helped Cobi Narita of the Universal Jazz Coalition produce the Asian American Jazz Festival. We invited Sang-Won Park to perform a solo concert. Later on Sang-Won performed on my score to J.T. Takagi's film "Korea: Homes Apart". After my first trip to Asia, to Korea with Sin Cha Hong where we performed with Samul Nori in 1993, I was inspired to begin The Far East Side Band with these two unique musicians, Yukio and Sang-Won. Our first CD, "Caverns" (New World Records) was released in 1994. I invited tuba player Joe Daley to join us the following year. I met Joe at MOBI(Musicians of Brooklyn Initiative) and some other projects years before. Joe is heard on our latest CD, "Urban Archaeology", recently released on Victo Records.
How would you describe the music of The Far East Side Band?
The Far East Side Band has sought to develop an American musical language that emerges from both our native cultures and experiences in America. Through compositions which interweave traditional notation, graphic structures and improvisation, an intuitively cross-cultural music emerges.
Our music is within the deep jazz tradition of individualism and emotional truth. Our music is a recognition of spiritual survival and evolution. As Richard Oyama wrote in the liner notes to our CD, "Caverns": ...it is the music, rather than the body politic, which has fulfilled the promise of the democratic "American experiment" in its boundless capacity to absorb new cultural forms and sounds, and in that way to continually reinvent and revitalize the textures of American music."
What else have you been doing?
I've been practicing a lot and doing a mixture of performance and film work. This past January I scored "Born Under the Red Flag" by Sue Williams, a documentary feature about China after Mao. The national PBS premiere will be in July, check your local schedules. I toured Russia last October with the Vladamir Tarasov Trio, performed in Anthony Braxton's opera, completed a work for mixed choir, commissioned by the Nai Ni Chen Dance company, recorded with the Dominic Duval Quartet, and performed with cellist Diedre Murray and poet Cornelius Eady at the Manhattan Theater Club. The Far East Side Band played in Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, but has otherwise been resting. I'll be performing in Diedre's score for a theater work by Cornelius Eady at the Vineyard theater for five weeks, starting in May. Also in May, I'll record with cellist/composer Michelle Kinney's "Mississippi Peace". Percussionist Yukio Tsuji and I will perform a duo at the du Murier Festival in Vancouver in June and I'll go to Finland with the Reggie Workman ensemble in July. In August I perform with Reggie again in the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Fest . I'm also collaborating with choreographer Risa Jaroslow and director Arthur Strimling for "Encounters at the Border", a dance/theater/music work also appearing in the Lincoln Center fest.
By the way, when I was in Russia, several people asked me about Asian Improv Records. I gave 'em your e-mails. After the ten plus years of putting out your sound as a community, your vision is definitely out there!
I would like to produce another run of my operatic poem, "Immigrant of the Womb", in New York or on the West Coast. "Immigrant of the Womb" features soprano and bass baritone singers with pipa, zheng, violin, viola, cello, bass clarinet/soprano sax/flute, string harp, vibraphone, tuba and percussion, premiered at Dance Theater Workshop last spring. The characters live through the Boxer Rebellion, America during the 50's and the sinking of the Golden Venture. Though New World Records will release the recording of the NYC run, I would also like to revise/develop sections of the score and record in the studio. It should be available at Tower out on the West Coast.
The Far East Side Band will be performing in the Beijing International Jazz Festival. In Beijing I will also perform with Vladamir Tarasov's new group, the Ensemble for New Improvised Music. It is an international group featuring Vladamir, Mark Dresser, Malcolm Goldstein, Peter Veale, Dieter Glawischnig and myself.
I wish to continue composing works for other ensembles. It was exhilarating to hear Yue Yue's twenty voice choir sing my score for the Nai Ni Chen Dance company. My commission from Music for Homemade Instruments was also inspiring. This ensemble, playing an array of micro tonal instruments constructed from "trash", recorded my composition "Flight of Whispers" last year.
I suppose this all sounds busy and it is and I'm glad to be doing it, but let there be no pretense, the music scene is in trouble. As a community, lets deal with the facts openly. Arts institutions in America has been eviscerated or eliminated because of the past ten years of funding cuts. Here in the Apple, Dance Theater Workshop, PS 122 and the Alternative Museum have had to cancel their entire music series. Composer's Forum folded several years ago, and Roulette can only present half the concerts it used to do. At least seventy funded concerts of creative music in New York are no longer with us. Grants which I received for "Immigrant of the Womb", including the NEA, NYSCA and NJSCA, no longer exist. And this condition is paralleled in Europe.
For example, Germany, Europe's largest supporter of new music, is financially crippled, big time, from their re-unification process. Funds for the arts have been slashed or eliminated. In response, Germany and many European countries have protected their own artists by installing high tariffs (20 - 40%) on foreign musicians. This makes it far too costly for most European promoters to bring over Americans. Those of us that gig over there, do so for diminished wages. A music which once flourished on the margins, is being pushed off the page. This creates greater overt and covert commercial pressures upon artists. Thus in the jazz field, we can hear the proliferation of neo-conservative inventions and the suppression of individualism.
I'm moving forward with the belief that from this tremendous change, new opportunities will emerge to profoundly affect how we survive, create and share our music. We must strive to elevate our vision and discover new paths. We must reexamine and rejuvenate our arts education system. We must re-articulate why creative expressions are essential to the health of society and back it up with strong work. And through it all, we must maintain our faith in the music and continue to evolve.
This interview was conducted in October 1996.