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Symphony of Souls (2011)

by Jason Kao Hwang/Spontaneous River

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Movement 1 03:52
Movement 2 06:03
Movement 3 09:32
Movement 4 09:08
Movement 5 05:07
Movement 6 06:20
Movement 7 06:19
Movement 8 02:26
Movement 9 04:37
Movement 10 07:45
Movement 11 02:04




DRUMS: Andrew Drury
VIOLIN: Trina Basu, Sarah Bernstein, Charles Burnham, Julianne Carney, Mark Chung, Fung Chern Hwei, Rosi Hertlein, Elektra Kurtis, Gwen Laster, Marlene Rice, Dave Soldier, Curtis Stewart, Midori Yamamoto, Helen Yee
VIOLA: Leanne Darling, Nicole Federici, Judith Insell, Eric Salazar, David Wallace
GUITAR: Cristian Amigo, Bradley Farberman, James Keepnews, Dom Minasi, David Ross, Tor Snyder, Hans Tammen
CELLO: Martha Colby, Loren Dempster, Daniel Levin, Tomas Ulrich, Shanda Wooley
STRING BASS: Michael Bisio, Ken Filiano, Francois Grillot, James Ilgenfritz, Clifton Jackson, Tom Zlabinger,

…this is complexly engaging music that covers much ground. It fills the interstices between new improvisatory music, modern jazz and avant orchestral-compositional practices. And it does so in ways that enthrall, excite, agitate and make tranquil, intrigue and overwhelm, and open up passages to new soundworlds.
- Classical Modern Music, Grego Applegate Edwards

Conductor and ensemble work together effortlessly in this beautifully balanced and thrilling collaborative effort; it's unlike anything else in Hwang's recorded output.
- Ed Hazell, Point of Departure, January 9, 2012

In the eleven movements that make up the work, find a dazzling sound-based catalog resonances created by the multiple combinations, sometimes simultaneously, in other random-of the different timbres of strings, alternating sequences deliberate ascetic introspective and dramatic passages or spectral and visually rich plastic that seems inspired by a mimesis of nature and human spirituality.
-Sergio Piccirilli, El Intruso (google translation)


This century is still young, too young, perhaps, to proclaim any performance as among its defining symphonic works. Based on the artistic trajectory of the previous millennium, however, it should be seen not as enigma, but as prerequisite that that set of exemplary works should include some authored by musicians firmly anchored in the language and sensibilities of jazz. Similarly, the new symphony must be able to play at the boundary between formal notation and other ways of “writing music” in a way that opens the communicative potential of the ensemble to a real time flux. In Symphony of Souls, Jason Kao Hwang (as composer and soloist) and the Spontaneous River ensemble have come together as a community of spirit to instigate just such a musical work.

Spontaneous River grew out of an all-strings orchestra assembled in 2007 by Hwang and Patricia Parker to perform a memorial tribute to violinist Leroy Jenkins who died in February of that year. Seeking 50 strings to perform Jenkins’ New York Ballad, Jason was overwhelmed by the response to his call. “I had emailed about 20 string players I knew, and the outreach went a little viral. I had over sixty responses, which because of schedule, became an orchestra of around 40.” After a successful performance of Jenkins’ work conducted by Billy Bang at Vision Festival XII, Jason put his own composition – an early version of this symphony – in the hands of the orchestra along with an idiomatic methodology for conducting the work that allows for real time arrangement and the fluid integration of composed and improvised components.

First performed in July, 2008 at the Living Theater where the ensemble was first billed as Spontaneous River, the score and Jason’s strategy for conducting it went through a series of refinements and revisions over the course of four subsequent performances presented by Deanna Relyea/Edgefest, Manhattan New Music Projects/Darmstadt, the Vision Festival and Project Reach. Jason’s role as band leader was informed by his previous work in large groupings going back to the 1980s when he was a part of Dr. Makanda McIntyre’s CAAMO (Contemporary African American Music Organization) and Henry Threadgill’s Society Situation Dance Band (where he played violin alongside Leroy Jenkins and Charles Burnham). “Both Henry and Makanda treated the scores as set structures with conducting establishing the feel and duration of improvisations.” Also in the ‘80s, Jason began working with Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. “For most of these concerts, we had no written music, as Butch over the years developed a tightly controlled conducting language to create spontaneous collage.” More recently, Jason has played with big bands headed by Steve Swell, Adam Rudolph, Anthony Braxton, Sabir Mateen, Ras Moshe, and William Parker. “Adam conducts various written cues, some inspired by Yusef Lateef’s harmonic grids and different ‘world’ grooves, to frame improvisations within an improvised structure. Steve, Sabir, and Ras create improvised arrangements, designating solos, duos, and trios to facilitate energy flow. Anthony employs hand signals and icons to shift the music into different logical systems while William also conducts with his hands, but more often, from his bass. We can feel what to play from what his bass is telling us.”

The final version of Symphony of Souls (the one closest to this recording) was presented at the invitation of Fay Chiang of Project Reach, a youth crisis and advocacy center serving Manhattan’s Chinatown and Lower East Side. Jason agreed to teach workshops for the center’s kids in exchange for a date which featured Parker and her dancers. Inspired by descriptions of Sun Ra’s lavish ontological carnivals, Jason remembers the concert as a “very wild night”. The next day, April 24, 2010, Jason Hwang and Spontaneous River went into Brooklyn-based Systems II studio to record this album.

What can we expect of a symphony of souls? Jason named the work after hearing this recording. It does, in fact, live up to the promise of a musical interrogation of what ancient Jainists called jiva – the individual embodied soul. Fittingly, the work begins in the solitary grip of a sapiential (if brief) soliloquy. I have been privileged to hear Jason as an instrumentalist in a wide variety of settings across a dizzying topography of moods and colors and can say that this opening benediction is something quite different. These opening forty-five seconds of terse, insistent psychospiritual vivisection are a singular artistic offering from a gifted player and set a very high bar for the brilliant performances to follow.

The orchestra is then summoned to explore soul conceived as both a nexus of dialog and as the motive force compelling action and interaction. “I felt in the one unified sound, I could hear the voice of each soul,” Jason recalls, “It was like the music was a whole tree, but you could hear each individual leaf in motion.”

The propulsion that helps to make Symphony of Souls move is largely a contribution of Andrew Drury (drums) and Ken Filiano (bass) – the rhythm section from Jason’s quartet Edge. “Both of them guided the orchestra with their deep understanding of my music. Beyond the specificity of the written cues, Andrew had the freedom to play or not play, his instincts contributing mightily to the tension and release of the music. With his bowed cymbals and extended technique, he could sing linear sounds with the strings, or shift to a percussive role, as he interacted with the improvisations.” With a string section of some three dozen voices, Spontaneous River is top heavy in that timbral spectrum most associated with the Western orchestra and swings with a certain iconic authority. This is also the spectral range where the instruments most approximate human voice. Engineers Jon Rosenberg and Paul Zinman are to be credited with the complex microphone placements and precise mixing that allow this multi-layered texture to be heard as a breathing sonic plenum.

As a conductor, Jason works with a language of gestures designed to be clear, expedient, and immediately accessible. “The arrangement was improvised in real time,” he explains, “however, I knew the journey we would take and organized the score progressively, with the ability to revive and re-contextualize earlier themes and motifs.” Ear 1, for example, is cued by holding the left hand to the ear along with the index finger of the right hand. Track 4, begins with Ear 1, but only its first chord, which is then transposed a whole step up, and then a half step down and another half step down. A cello solo is developed against this intervallic motion. Later, violas play the first measure of Ear 2, with its last note held as a drone, which is transposed up a whole step, as a solo violin joins the improvising cello. Ear 5 is heard in the second track and features a line of sixteenth notes played spiccato. Progression through this rich material is deliberate and organic (which is not at all to say deliberately organic). Each player makes a prodigious contribution to the subtle exposition of Hwang’s jiva-centric music. In the end, the listener is returned to the custody of Jason as soloist whose receding coda lacks the tortured intensity of his opening salutation and suspends the journey of soul somewhere between isolation and communion.

- Dr. Thomas Stanley


released October 1, 2011

All compositions by Jason Kao Hwang, p c Flying Panda Music, BMI, 2011

Symphony of Souls was recorded on a Saturday afternoon, April 24, 2010 at Systems II, Brooklyn, NY

Executive Producer: Dave Soldier Producer: Jason Kao Hwang
Recording Engineer: Jon Rosenberg Assistant Recording Engineer: Max Ross, Richard Lamb, Nancy Marciano
Mixing: Paul Zinman (SoundByte Productions), Jason Kao Hwang Mastering Engineer: Paul Zinman
Liner notes: Dr. Thomas Stanley (musicovermind.org)
Graphic Design: Michael Deangelis
Photography: Nick Ruechel Video: Zak Sherzad, Robert O’Haire

Special Thanks: Gennevieve Lam, Fay Chiang/Project Reach, Patricia Parker/ Vision Festival, Deanna Relyea/ Edgefest and the strings of Ann Arbor, Nicole Federici and the Douglas Street Collective, David Chevan/ Southern Connecticut State University, The Composer Assistance Program of the American Music Center, The Living Theater, Nick Hallet and Unitey Kull/Manhattan New Music Project, Nick Hallett and Zach Layton/ Darmstadt “Classics of the Avant Garde,” Hans Tammen, Jeannie Chiang


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Jason Kao Hwang Morris Plains, New Jersey

The music of Jason Kao Hwang (composer/violin/viola) explores the vibrations and language of his history. His compositions are often narrative landscapes through which sonic beings embark upon extemporaneous, transformational journeys. The Human Rites Trio is his newest CD. In 2019, 2018, 2013 and 2012, the El Intruso Critics voted him #1 for Violin/Viola. ... more

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