A Story in Chinatown - liner notes
Liner Notes by Ellie M. Hisama
(published in the CD booklet)
Ellie M. Hisama is Director of the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and is Associate Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Jason Kao Hwang (born 1957) is the son of Chinese parents who immigrated to the Midwest in the 1940s while the anti-Asian exclusion laws were still in force. Hwang studied classical violin as a child in Waukegan, Illinois, and did not encounter many other Asians until he moved to New York at the age of eighteen to study film at New York University. The East Village in the late 1970s offered the newcomer a vivid cultural palette, including the legendary jazz club theTin Palace, the Ladies Fort, St. Mark's Church, and the Basement Workshop, a community-based Asian-American arts organization. At the Workshop, he met key figures in the emerging Asian-American cultural movement, including the poets Fay Chiang, Richard Oyama, Teru Kanazawa, and Helen Wong. Hwang also met the extraordinary jazzcomposer/arranger/saxophonist/flute player Will Connell, Jr., a member of the Horace Tapscott Arkestra. Connell's generous mentoring provided Hwang with a lifeline to the bracing world of free jazz, revolutionary politics, and aesthetic experimentation. In 1981, Connell and Hwang formed the quartet Commitment with drummer Takeshi Zen Matsuura and bassist William Parker. Hwang's remarkable ear for a multitude of genres and styles was thus formed in the crucible of the heady New York music scene in the 1970s and early 1980s, and honed over the subsequent twenty-five years while working with such musical luminaries as Butch Morris, Reggie Workman, Anthony Braxton, Billy Bang, Sirone, Henry Threadgill, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jerome Cooper, and Dr. Makanda Ken McIntyre.
For many listeners who know Hwang's music through his brilliant work as a downtown experimental jazz violinist with Commitment, Glass Shadows, and The Far East Side Band, The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown comes as a revelation. His feeling for the chamber orchestra's possibilities-captured on this recording by conductor Juan Carlos Rivas-and his exquisite vocal writing for the central three characters lead one to expect a composer grounded in years of training in composition at a music conservatory. Yet Hwang's intense sense of drama, evident in the opera's compelling musical narrative, is deeply rooted in his experience as a filmmaker-his poetic documentary film Afterbirth (1984) is a mustsee -and as the composer of music for many films, including J. T. Takagi and Chris Choy's Homes Apart, Korea (1991), Rene Tajima's All Men Are Created Equal (1993), Sue Williams's Born Under the Red Flag (1997), and Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997), for which he composed the source music.
The musical ideas and dramatic themes in The Floating Box resonate with Hwang's 1996 opera-poem Immigrant of the Womb, presented at Dance Theater Workshop. After working as a sideman in Henry Threadgill's oratorio Run Silent, Run Deep in 1992, and Anthony Braxton's Trillium R, Shala Fears for the Poor, in 1997, Hwang was inspired to compose an operatic work of his own. He wrote the libretto for this work, which interlaces stories from his family history, including his mother's wartime experiences, his parents' immigration, and his father's health after surviving a major stroke, with images from the Boxer Rebellion in China and the freighter The Golden Venture that ran aground in Queens. Like The Floating Box, Immigrant of the Womb addresses a family's isolation and fortitude-in the composer's words, "confronting my historical, cultural, and emotional inheritance while evoking transcendent potentials." For the ensemble of Immigrant of the Womb, comprised of soprano, baritone, flute, bass clarinet, tuba, percussion, vibraphone, pipa, zheng (zither), harp, violin, viola, and cello, Hwang composed an orchestral score that provides a rich sonic cloak for the poetic narrative. Immigrant of the Womb is a milestone in Hwang's oeuvre in its seamless weaving together of a notated score with improvisation, both by the orchestra and by Hwang himself, who performed several improvised solos on violin.
With The Floating Box, which was premiered in October 2001 at the Asia Society in New York City, Hwang and librettist Catherine Filloux have fashioned a richly textured musical work that movingly captures the struggles, disappointments, dreams, and hopes in the lives of many immigrants. Filloux's striking ability to compose a nuanced and sensitive portrait of the lives of Eva and her parents can certainly be attributed to her own experience as the bilingual child of immigrants. Also a playwright, Filloux has written extensively about Cambodia and other countries, including her parents' native France and Algeria. Her play Eyes of the Heart won the 1999 Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, and she developed an oral history project, A Circle of Grace, with Khmer women in the Bronx. The Floating Box was supported by a three-year Meet the Composer/New Residenciesgrant in partnership with the Asia Society, Museum of Chinese in the Americas, and Music From China.
The story of Eva/Yee-Wa, a young Chinese-American woman living with her mother, is the story of many diasporic peoples who have sought a better life in new, often harsh surroundings. The poetry of Filloux's libretto fuses perfectly with Hwang's eclectic score, beautifully capturing the complex, intimate relationships among these three characters.
The Floating Box is also the story of many who call New York their home. Set in New York's Chinatown in the 1980s, the opera traces the intertwined emotional strands in the lives of Eva and her parents. The cramped apartment in which Eva and her mother eke out an existence contains hints of another, unspoken life, one suggested by a red box of photographs on the family altar and a recording of Eva father's playing the erhu. The family's efforts to make a living-Eva teaches English to immigrants and the father works as a cook on a cruise ship-underscore the hardships that many new arrivals experience while living in an East Coast metropolis.
Eva's sometimes difficult relationship with her mother and the mystery about her father's past as a famous erhu musician in China create a dramatic tension that carries the story to its climax. The opera's poignant conclusion allows Eva and her mother to acknowledge the past and to share their love for each other as they accept and embrace the possibilities in "a life for us here."
The Floating Box is a collaborative work, born of the composer's and librettist's artistic imaginations and founded upon an extensive community research project in which Hwang and Filloux collected more than forty hours of oral histories of immigrants to New York City. Listening to the powerful stories of family, friends, colleagues, artists, and other community members, they assembled a diverse collection of experiences and memories into a composite story that sympathetically recounts the personal histories of many people. Hwang taught music to a group of high school students at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, and, under the auspices of the Asia Society, taught music to grade school children at P.S. 102, a public school in Queens, New York, with a substantial Asian student body. Both of these teaching experiences provided further inspiration for the opera.
The historian Robin D.G. Kelley's concept of polyculturalism, the simultaneous existence of multiple cultural lineages in a single work, presents a fitting framework within which to hear Hwang's evocative score. The opera employs both Chinese and Western instruments in an ensemble of eight players: piccolo/flute/alto flute; B-flat clarinet/bass clarinet; vibraphone; pipa (Chinese lute); accordion; percussion, including Tibetan chimes and singing bowls, whirling air tubes, Chinese tom toms, and a Buddhist fan drum; gaohu/erhu/zhonghu (a family of two-stringed Chinese violins categorized as huqin); and cello. In Hwang's skilled hands, these instruments together forge a rich amalgam of sound- in the composer's words, "complex suspensions rather than homogenous solutions." The precision with which Hwang mines each instrument's sonic possibilities and the imaginative ways with which he draws upon subsets of the full ensemble result in a vibrant musical narrative that propels the drama forward to its conclusion. The kaleidoscopic range of musical styles employed, from atonality to blues to Broadway to Chinese opera to chromaticism, impressionism to jazz to pop, establishes The Floating Box as the work of an artist who is completely comfortable bridging multiple musical worlds.
The Prologue immediately establishes the polycultural sound world of the opera. It showcases the brilliant playing of all eight instrumentalists, who present the listener with the full timbral and emotional palette of the opera. The bold, blues-inspired opening dominated by the three voices soon gives way to more pointillistic instrumental passages, and then to the haunting, lyrical moments that spotlight the Chinese instruments. The erhu introduces the father's memorable theme, and the pipa signals the mother's calming presence. The use of the accordion is a particularly effective musical touch, one that bestows an unexpected source of coherence in a very wide-ranging work.
The delicate opening of The Women of the Grave, in which each instrument gracefully passes the melodic line along to the next to spin a silken web of sound, establishes the quiet pathos of the lives of Eva and her mother. The two women stand together at the grave of Eva's father, until a single word sung by Eva-"Break"-punctures the sonic texture painstakingly created by the instrumental ensemble. The emotional distance between the two women is evident in Eva's attempts to engage her mother, who remains silent until the duet between them ("I will stay here" / "Stay here"), an intimate weaving of these two voices that suggests the women's potential closeness.
The rhythmic activity that initiates Ghost in the Classroom swiftly changes the scene to one of youthful playfulness. Eva teaches English in Chinatown and is flustered by her father's appearance as a ghost. The vibraphone's anxious ostinato provides the backdrop for his entry into the classroom. The stop/start quality of the scene and the percussion's groove interposed with the pipa and huqin vividly suggests Eva's awkwardness in moving between China and America, between ghosts and the living.
The atonal opening of Broken Pieces, established in an expressive duet between the cello and alto flute, returns to the somber world of Eva and her mother's apartment, and touchingly depicts Eva's mother's attempts to learn English by repeating the weather report. (My father, who emigrated from Japan to Cleveland in 1963, learned English from The Jack Benny Hour.) The erhu dominates the scene with music that the mother has played "all my life" but which Eva hates, deeming it "too depressing." The pipa emphasizes the mother's quiet resilience as she dreams of life as a bird "flying, flying way above / To China."
The lushly dark sound world that opens First Words, First Drink captures the otherworldliness of this scene, in which the father reappears, dressed as a cook. The mood is initially established through a chromatic musical scaffolding, one that gradually shifts into jazz-inflected pizzicato by the cello. Eva then employs in rapid succession an array of musical styles-blues, Chinese opera, pop/Broadway, and experimental/avant-garde-while singing "Didn't you ever wish, Abah? / That your hands / Cutting, cleaning, chopping / Didn't you ever wish you could stop?" This amalgam of styles suggests the complex blend of Eva's own cultural makeup. The scene is then transformed through a doubling of the tempo to mark a childhood memory in which Eva learns to say a simple sentence and discovers what a kiss is- sadly, not from her parents, but from her approving teacher. The music alternately moves from swing and funky passages to more tentative, frozen moments with sparse accompaniment.
The Red Box highlights the three richly nuanced voices singing "Floating, floating bodies all alone / Floating in my sleep." In this scene, Eva plays with the cutout figures in the red box on the altar. The solitude of which Eva and her mother sing ("Alone, alone / Floating alone") is contradicted musically in a brief, touching duet. Together they imagine a "happy family / sewn at the seams" that enjoys dim sum at a restaurant. Eva's frustration with their life culminates in her angry declaration to her mother, "You are everything I hate," a sentence that goes uncomprehended because it is in English.
Having quit her job, Eva remains at home, suffering from depression. The spurts of sixteenth-notes in the accordion, vibraphone, clarinet, flute, and pipa initiate a fresh, modernist, almost-Stravinskian sound. In this scene, No Name, the mother emerges as the backbone of the family: In an extended a cappella solo, she encourages Eva to teach, and supported by the full ensemble, joyfully sings about the eggs that will go into egg drop soup.
In the climactic scene You Opened Your Mouth, A Fish Came Out, the mystery of the father's life on the ship and the fate of his erhu are finally revealed. The percussion infuses this scene with particular dramatic power, building up to the moment in which the father's boss tosses the erhu from the ship into the ocean because the sound "disturbs the passengers" and the father dives in after it. The impossibility of reconciling the father's work as a cook on the ship and his rare talent as an artist is painfully revealed, as the father ruefully declares that "There is no life / For my music, here." Yet the parents' hope that their child will succeed where they did not-a common dream in many immigrants' lives-is also brought forth, as Eva finally realizes her father's sacrifice and wondrously recalls her father's words, "You can be anything! / Anything at all! / What you dream," fittingly sung in a jazz-inflected passage with resonances of that quintessentially American composer George Gershwin in the clarinet phrase, followed by the pipa/Mother's firm underscoring of Eva's final statement of "What you dream."
In Across the Seas, the accordion's and flute's Debussy-like sextuplets evoke the roiling waters in which Eva and her parents are "surging / surging / floating / floating" after which they will "Wake up in the morning! We don't know / Where we're from." The mixture of musical styles employed-blues, impressionism, bossa nova-suggests the diverse forces pulling at these three people.
In Weeds, the father encourages Eva to accept his death. By throwing weeds rather than chrysanthemums onto his grave, she will "bring him down / To the ground," allowing him to rest. Eva's recognition that the erhu is an integral part of her father's identity is necessary to her maturation and eventual reconciliation with her mother. The evocative sonic space created by the whirling tubes and by the sound of unpitched air from the clarinet and accordion provides an inspired musical backdrop to Eva's discovery from her father of "silence / Space / in all sound."
In the final scene, Eva, the question that went unanswered in the last scene ("Does the heart still beat?") is answered by the mother, who acknowledges that "yes, it still beats" and then caresses her daughter. The jazz- and blues-inflected endings of some vocal phrases ("Your heart beats with me," sung by Eva, and "EVA!" sung by the mother), suggest that the cultural roots in both women are now intertwined, as the mother is finally able to call Eva by her American name rather than her Chinese name, and the family begins to bridge the past and the present.