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A Conversation with
Jon Jang and Francis Wong

10th Anniversary of Asian Improv

Part 5 - The recordings of Jon Jang and Francis Wong

San Francisco, California

Jon Jang and Francis Wong. Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeThis is part five of an in-depth conversation with composers / musicians Jon Jang and Francis Wong. It marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of the independent recording label Asian Improv. At the time of this interview, Asian Improv had issued over thirty recordings by such artists as Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Glenn Horiuchi, Miya Masaoka, Jeff Song, Mark Izu, Genny Lim, and many others. The interview is in five parts and covers a wide scope of topics ranging from the reasons why these composers started their own recording label; how that label has grown; how Asian Improv related to the Asian American Consciousness Movement; multiculturalism; politics, music and spirituality; music and everyday life; and the composers' tracing of their musical histories and compositions. Interview and photos by In Motion Magazine publisher Nic Paget-Clarke.

Jon Jang


Jon Jang: I probably should begin with Tiananmen!. Tiananmen! represent the first significant work and the first step towards making a commitment to using Chinese folk songs as part of my musical language.

I describe my musical language as a recontextualization of Chinese folk songs into various contemporary music genres, whether it's in the music world, jazz or classical, or music that's in-between that. As a composer, Tiananmen! draws upon some of the lessons that I've learned from Duke Ellington, in terms of using motif development. A motive being an interval, but a motive can also be defined as a theme or story. It doesn't necessarily have to be something that's rigidly defined by a music technique.

In this case it was a music interval, meaning that what I did was take a Chinese sorrow song Mengjiang Nu and developed it the way that Duke Ellington developed Harlem. In Harlem, composed in 1950, Duke Ellington took a minor third (sings) "Harlem" and just placed it and developed it. I guess a more familiar example would be Beethoven's 5th. "Dah dah dah daaah". So Mengjiang is introduced by the erhu (two-string) in the sorrow song but then that sorrow turns to joy in the last movement where it becomes an anthem.

The movement Come Sunday, June 4, 1989 was about the disintegration of old Chinese patriotism with the reference or quote of the Chinese national anthem and the recognition of the new Chinese patriotism through Xue Ran De Feng Cai (The Red in My Blood Is the Color of the Flag), a popular song sung by the Chinese students. It's a statement about redefining Chinese patriotism because students who were trying to raise issues and have a dialogue with the Chinese government were also thinking about redefining China. They were patriotic, redefining Chinese patriotism.

The last movement of Tiananmen! is called 5th Modernization and is dedicated to Wei Jing-Sheng. Wei Jing-Sheng is the person who originally said that in order for modernization to succeed in China there needs to be a fifth modernization - democracy.

Tiananmen! marked the first major step in my commitment towards Chinese folk songs. Also, thematically, it was the search for the changing meaning of the Chinese diaspora. For me as a Chinese American it was not only about deepening roots but also seeking to redefine what it means to be Chinese in America as an artist.

Island Immigrant Suite #1

Jon Jang / featuring Genny Lim: Island Immigrant Suite #1Tiananmen! was scored for the Pan Asian Arkestra but I decided to go in a different direction with Island Immigrant Suite #1. Originally the Pan Asian Arkestra was designed to perform Reparations Now! (see earlier analysis of Pan Asian Arlestra). It was a large ensemble that would complement taiko, it had brass in it. But I was changing my focus, my language was changing in Tiananmen!, (I characterize that period as being the "blowing period"). Tiananmen! had more of a classical music sensibility, it was becoming less distinctively jazz than Concerto for Jazz Ensemble and Taiko.

On Island Immigrant Suite #1 I went further in the direction of becoming Chinese-based. There was a recruitment of Chinese musicians and fewer western instruments and also there was the absence of the brass which is not really used in Chinese music except for the symphonic music that was influenced by Russian music. I wanted to utilize Chinese percussion, although I had western musicians playing percussion. The concept was for them to function like Beijing Opera percussionists. I was clearly looking at the relationship between the melodic organization within the rhythmic organization which is one of the aspects of Chinese music, particularly Chinese opera. I was using Chinese folk songs. In this work I wrote a melody which had characteristics of the Chinese folk song.

Island Immigrant Suite #1 was a jazz-based work featuring Genny Lim, a poet. I used poetry by Genny Lim that related to the Angel Island experience. (Publisher: Angel Island is an island in the San Francisco Bay where Chinese immigrants were detained before being allowed to enter San Francisco). I also used some of the English translations of the poetry carved on the walls of the detention buildings on Angel Island. In Island Immigrant Suite #2 I exclusively used poetry and it was sung and performed by a Cantonese Opera singer although it was sung and performed in the Hong Kong dialect not the Toishan dialect.

Island Immigrant Suite #2

This work, (Island Immigrant Suite #2 for String Quartet and Cantonese Opera singer) was in five movements for the string quartet. The early movements feature the Cantonese Opera singer with the String Quartet accompaniment and then the latter movements feature the string quartet I selected some popular Chinese, specifically Cantonese, folk themes like Pinghu Quiyue (Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake) and I used the theme that I wrote for Island Immigrant Suite #1.

These are examples of recontextualization of Chinese folk songs in different kinds of musical contexts, whether they are jazz, in-between, or classical music.

Two Flowers on a Stem

During the past six or seven years, I've been listening to Chinese folk songs from the northern and southern regions of China. I wanted to write a melody for the erhu, a Chinese two-string instrument, that has characteristics of a Chinese folk song but place it in a jazz ballad context. This piece Two Flowers on a Stem originally was one of the themes that was part of the score for the dramatic adaptation of the Women Warrior which was commissioned by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. It's dedicated to my mother.

Two Flowers on a Stem is about my mother dealing with the tragedy of my father's death. He was a model minority who got his Ph.D. as a chemical engineer and and was a vice president of Fluor Corporation. But during the '50s he couldn't even buy a house because he was Chinese American. He died in 1956 in the worst airplane disaster over the Grand Canyon.

When my family tried to hold funeral services we were denied because he was Chinese American. This was the Glendale cemetery in Southern California. My mother was four weeks pregnant. My sister was born eight and a half months after my dad died.

My mother sang to the music of Paul Robeson, and she sang Chinese folk songs. When I was four years old, she suffered a nervous breakdown and had to go to Belmont to get electric shock treatment.

Here was this American dream that was shattered. In Two Flowers on a Stem I look at my mother as the lily that can endure the swamp. She raised us by herself. And even though she wasn't the same after electric shock treatment it's something that I try to carry with me in terms of no matter the ugliness of racism you still have to carry your head high and deal with it. That's what Two Flowers is about. Some of it is about tenderness, the profound challenge of tenderness as an unfulfilled desire, of beauty and strength.

When Sorrow Turns to Joy

My latest work, When Sorrow Turns to Joy, is a deepening of my collaboration with James Newton. It pays tribute to Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang. It's scored for an African American bass baritone singer; a Beijing opera singer; a chamber music ensemble that composer James Newton had collaborated with before, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, violin, cello, bassoon; European percussion; West African percussion; and the Chinese instrumentation is the jinghu which is a two-string instrument which accompanies the Beijing opera singer, and the erhu, another two-string Chinese instrument and Beijing opera percussion. And also a conductor. Then there's James Newton on flute ;and myself on piano; contrabass; and trap-set drums. This was a work that was commissioned by the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and Cal Performances and UC Berkeley.

Francis Wong

Prayer for Melvin Truss

The Francis Wong Quartet - PilgrimageFrancis Wong: Prayer for Melvin Truss was my first composition and probably the one I've played the most. Within that piece is a combination of different influences. One of the primary influences is the Coltrane composition Alabama. It's a multi-sectional piece in the tradition of some of Mingus' compositions. At the same time, harmonically, it's an intersection of two different voices. In some ways, as opposed to dealing with harmony and melody in a vertical way, I deal with it as different voices going forward, different lines. The first part of the movement is more of a dirge and that is in an ambiguous tonality although the bass notes are very clear.

The process of the dirge is about the passing of Melvin Truss and leads to a solo bass statement which to me was reflective of the process of passing as an individual one. It then goes in to a melody that I wrote that is a release. Once the passage is over there's a feeling of release of all the emotions.

It's difficult to describe this thing about death. When my brother died of a drug overdose and when we were burying him there was this thing that happens when they lower the body into the grave. There was an outpouring.

Ritual Theater

Although I didn't really plan it out this way when I wrote the composition, it's also about the idea of ritual theater. There's different points in the ritual that reflect different kinds of passages and points in time where things happen. I would say this about a number of my compositions. It's a following of ritual. That's how I use a lot of the multi-sectional components that Jon was talking about.

Some of my compositions are a series of instructions for the musicians to go through a process within a certain space. "End that section and go to the next section, with a transition." A number of my pieces follow that process.

As opposed to smooth transitions, it's ritual, like theater. Fade to black. Scene comes up. There's a sequence of dialog, a sequence of interaction that takes place and completes itself before you go into the next section. Often times, the different sections of my compositions like Melvin Truss or this other requiem piece I wrote for my brother, are indeterminate in length because you're trying to reach a level of completeness and wholeness in the course of the particular section. That's how I marry pre-composition and composition in-the-moment, or improvisation.

Waters, textures and instructions

Some of my pieces have specific notes or themes written, like Melvin Truss, but in some of my pieces, such as a piece called Waters, I describe textures and instructions of how individual players are supposed to lay in each section. In Waters there's a chant at the end that brings it together.

Probably one of the more consistent threads in my compositions that are written out is they have a ritual theater approach and they also incorporate improvisation because you don't know how it's going to come out. The way I look at ritual the purpose of ritual is one of transformation.

In my experience of improvising and playing music, the most satisfying performances are solos, or passages in which one feels a sense of transformation. Whether it be one minute or five minutes or twenty minutes. I try to incorporate that sense of transformation and the idea of not really knowing what's going to happen.

In Motion Magazine: Which is pretty interesting in the context of a ritual. A ritual has certain steps and you know what they are. So you would think you'd know the outcome.

Francis Wong: In a lot of rituals you actually don't know the outcome. For a ritual to be effective there has to be an element of risk. That's one thing that people talk about who study ritual. One of the shortcomings of rituals in our society today is people are doing rituals but since they know what's going to happen and there is no sense of risk - there's no real transformation.

Let's say you're going to confession. That's a ritual. There's very specific things you have to do. But actually you don't know what's going to happen that day. You don't know whether you're going to be forgiven. If you're really looking at the process of contrition you have to go into the process begging for forgiveness. You don't know what penance the priest is going to give you. Or even what the priest is going to say. The problem is these things have become so commonplace and ordinary that the element of risk is not there.

Another example - cooking. You go through the steps. and you may have a sense of what it's going to taste like at the end. But you actually don't know what it's going to taste like.

In these kinds of rituals, there's steps you are doing that are consistent, but the actual experience can change. I think all compositions need to have that. I think I incorporate this idea of it being interactive. There's an element of improvisation which all jazz is like. These are not any big concepts, but it's what has guided me, and how I play is my personal thing.

How can I make the saxophone play in my image?

My compositions are not quite the same as what Jon does. That's not my major activity. I've put a lot of time into saxophone playing and having an individual sound on the instrument itself. I've gone through a lot of different influences and tried to develop extended techniques in my approach to the horn in order to be able to play the saxophone the way I feel.

How can I make the saxophone play in my image? Part of it is getting from the masters certain traditions and sounds. But also, with that sense of control or mastery of the instrument, be able to have come out what's inside of me. Relating that to some sense of self-empowerment with the instrument .

This is one of the basic messages of the African American masters. Be yourself. Looking at that whole tradition, every player that has come along to develop his individual sound has had to change the instrument or the way the instrument is played in order to be themself with it.

I've added my voice to a lot of different people's works. I've been on a number of Jon's albums, played his compositions, Glenn Horiuchi, Miya Masaoka, Mark Izu, I've played on a lot of albums. That's one of the things I talk about in my bio, I'm on 30 albums, that's the documentation of my work. All those recordings represent a life, going through all these experiences, trying to play whatever I felt at that given time in those different musics.

Part 1 - Founding An Independent Recording Label
Part 2 -
Cultural Synthesis: A Global International Context
Part 3 - The Legacy of Overcoming Obstacles
Part 4 - We want to bring our culture to people in our music

Published in In Motion Magazine February 25, 1998.