Jason Kao Hwang/Spontaneous River

Symphony of Souls
Mulatta MUL 022

Chocolate fetishists often have such a strong attachment to the sweet that to secure their business restaurants will describe a cocoa-infused desert as Death by Chocolate. While those who love stringed instruments as much as others love chocolate will find much to savor on Symphony of Souls, one would hope that the expansive sound picture created by violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s conduction of his composition is appreciated in less thanotological terms. Maybe the most appropriate recasting of the title should be Depth of Strings.

All together 38 string players, including Hwang, are represented, with drummer Andrew Drury alone providing the percussive flow for the 11-movement composition. Including multiple violins, violas, celli, double basses and guitars, the composer takes advantage of the improvisational sophistication of these New York-based players, whose familiarity with Jazz, Blues, so-called Classical and New Music is necessary for appropriate dialoguing and individual sonic actions. Accustomed to moving among these genres, Hwang has also composed a chamber opera as well as being a member of various combos which emphasized the improvisational qualities of Asian music.

Febrile but not particularly formalistic, Symphony of Souls could be described as possessing Klangfarbenmelodie. Propulsive and polyphonic, the themes encompass near-impressionism at points, as well as muscular thumping at others, with the percussive beats coming as much from massed string motions as Drury’s drum kit. Besides the percussionist, notable rhythmic impetus comes from bassist Ken Filiano who often works with the violinist in smaller configurations. Solos per se are few and unidentified, although it’s likely the composer who takes all of the fiddle interludes. With six of the city’s most accomplished six-stringers on board however it’s impossible to single out soloists on that instrument.

Most of the time however the slippery and shuddering created by harmonized string groups are what is showcased. Sprawling violin glissandi, six-part bass slaps, doleful cello pumps and guitar finger plucks and string snaps make their appearance; so do staccato and agitated contrapuntal challenges between the same instruments or among sections. Sometimes individual variants swell to cacophonous, strained atonality that return to legato pacing following cymbal pops or wood-block pumps.

Credibly the climatic sequences arrive with “Movement 3” and “Movement 4” where the timbral development is divided among tremolo motions while the bassist and drummer producing a Jazz-like walking pulse. Interruptions in the form of a solo that has an almost hillbilly fiddle jump to it are later smoothed over as stacked harmonies from the multiple violinists make it seems as if they’re all playing a single mammoth stringed instrument. “Movement 4”, which includes staccato agitation from the celli plus intervallic asides from the violas and violins, includes an extended episode when the massed strings accompany the soloists. Singular guitar strums, sharp spiccato violin pressure with erhu-like timbres and an intense double bass slap move forward, then fade among the sympathetic stopping and pumping from the other strings. With its finale devoted to romantic counterpoint between two violin sequences, the blueprint for ping-ponging between dissonance, expressed in the subsequent suite movement by shakes and stops from many of the strings, and completed by legato concordance is firmly established.

By the ultimate variations, as contrapuntal, sharp dissonance and connective silky glissandi are confirmed as the opposite poles of Symphony of Souls; angled, bowed string motions, rasgueado guitar flails and sul ponticello slides are established as different elaboration formulae. Eventually the polyphonic interface gives way to a final violin solo. Initially sweetly romantic, it shatters into wood clanks, angled stops and staccato jumps before fading away.

Hwang’s Symphony of Souls provides not only mesmerizing listening but also an exemplar for promoting intense improvisations by many multiples of string players

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Movement 1 2. Movement 2 3. Movement 3 4. Movement 4 5. Movement 5 6. Movement 6 7. Movement 7 8. Movement 8 9. Movement 9 10. Movement 10 11. Movement 11

Personnel: Trina Basu, Sarah Bernstein, Charles Burnham, Julianne Carney, Fung Chern Hwei, Mark Chung, Rosi Hertlein, Jason Kao Hwang, Gwen Laster, Marlene Rice, Dave Soldier, Curtis Stewart, Midori Yamamoto and Helen Yee (violins); Leanne Darling, Nicole Federici, Judith Insell, Eric Salazar and David Wallace (violas); Cristian Amigo, Bradley Farberman, James Keepnews, Dom Minasi, David Ross, Tor Snyder and Hans Tammen (acoustic guitars); Martha Colby, Loren Dempster, Daniel Levin, Tomas Ulrich and Shanda Wooley (cellos); Michael Bisio, Ken Filiano, Francois Grillot, Clifton Jackson, Tom Zlabinger and James Ilgenfritz (bass)and Andrew Drury (drums)