The film begins with the universal cues of an orchestral warm up: a retrieved violin bow, the tell-tale crisp sleeves and cuff links of performance attire, the scrambling annotations, the conductor’s swelling flourish. This could be anywhere, until we catch glimpses of something cheerfully familiar, locating us in the heart of Taiwan: the interior of a double-decker bus (equipped with karaoke screens), a cup of bubble tea.
Hwang’s recent documentary Between the Notes, now playing at the Austin Asian American Film Festival, explores the world of classical music in Taiwan. It follows the stories of four musicians training with the Taipei Music Academy & Festival as they tackle their doubts head-on to achieve their dreams of a successful music career. Although the students come from different backgrounds – UCLA, Julliard, and The Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University – they all strive to improve their craft. Between the Notes is a refreshing take on classical music: a narrative not just about playing the notes, but the expression and journey in between the notes that makes a piece of music come alive.
I had the opportunity to speak to Hwang about his experience in creating Between the Notes.
Vivienne Chang: Hi Jordan! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today and congratulations on being selected for the Austin Asian American Film Festival.
Jordan Hwang: Thank you! I’m excited to be here.
Chang: Before we dive into the film, I am curious to learn a little bit about you. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into filmmaking?
Hwang: Yeah, so I grew up in Houston in a predominantly Asian American community. One of the first passions I had was in wushu, a form of martial arts, which I started practicing at the age of five. In fact, I attended the Pan-American (Wushu) World Championships and won three golds in high school. Practicing wushu taught me not only the importance of working hard, but also this idea of flow. There are a lot of choreographic elements and timing-based movements in the art form and so this flow eventually led to my understanding of pacing in film and storytelling.
During that time, I was also watching a lot of YouTube and witnessing the rise of Asian American presence on the platform from channels such as Wong Fu Productions and KevJumba. Their content inspired me because even though they did not have the traditional means of media, such as movies and television, to showcase their work on, they were able to use YouTube to directly connect with their audience. They showed me that I had the ability to go out and create, which is why I pursued filmmaking.
Chang: When I think about Taiwan, classical music is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. How did you become aware of the Taipei Music Academy & Festival and why did you ultimately decide to portray it?
Hwang: It stemmed from my meeting with Cho-Liang Lin who is a world-class classical violinist who has performed with many professional orchestras across the world. He wanted to create opportunities for rising musicians to train in an advance classical music program in his home country in Taiwan. From there he founded the Taipei Music Academy & Festival. After I met Lin, he gave me a lot of freedom in terms of the stories I could tell of the festival. I could have focused on the masters and teachers who are world-class artists who came to Taiwan to teach, but I wanted to place the attention on the students who had such high potential for growth.
Chang: How did you get connected with the four students that were portrayed in the film?
Hwang: There were a lot of students at the academy, so in the first week [the entire crew and I] kind of hung around the students to get to know them a little better. But it soon became apparent the people we were going to portray because of their unique personalities and passion for music.
Pi Wei, the youngest of the four, had this pure motivation inside him, which derived from wanting to make his parents proud. Katherine Woo had such a strong communication style that allowed her to be a great leader (her quintet ultimately won best in show in the festival). Everett Kelly seemed a little lost in the festival, but he was determined to find his own sound. And finally, Angela Wee had this honest tenacity in her that was very inspiring to witness.
Chang: In the making of this documentary, were there any challenges or funny stories that you met?
Hwang: In the beginning of the process, my crew and I were not quite sure how to approach telling this story. However, after a week in Taiwan, we received a hurricane warning which would mean that classes and thus the progression of our filmmaking process would have to pause for a day. We decided to hang out with a couple of students at the food court of Taipei 101. It was great to see them outside this professional classical music environment and we got to be fast friends through this interaction.
As the process grew, we would often go out to eat with the cast and crew at local night markets and visit Taiwanese arcades. This was such a great experience because we were able to immerse ourselves into the community, meeting new friends on the way.
Chang: What do you hope the viewers take away from the film?
Hwang: I hope for the viewers to see an intimate perspective on the thought process that students go through to become professional musicians. They know that this journey is not easy, but they love what they do, and this is a dream worth chasing.
Chang: If you had to offer advice to anyone seeking a career in a creative or artistic field, what would that be?
Hwang: If you want it bad enough, go for it. If you have the internet, there are actually not many limitations stopping you. A lot of people worry about not having a film degree, but there are a lot of free education and resources out there to help you in continuing to add to your skill set. For example, right now I am learning about 3D visual effects. Also, if you do not have a professional camera, your phone is pretty good too!
Chang: Thank you so much for sitting with me today, Jordan. But before you go, would love to ask you some quick (and very important) question!
Hwang: Sure, I’m glad to be here!
Favorite Taiwanese Film – Life of Pi. It doesn’t have a storyline relating to Taiwan, but it was shot there, and the cinematography is beautiful.
Favorite Asian American Film – Crazy Rich Asians. A truly transcendent film.
Favorite Taiwanese Food – Lamb Noodle Soup. My parents owned a noodle shop, Xiong’s Cafe in Houston Chinatown, and this was one of her specials on the menu.
Follow Jordan @jordanhwang on Instagram and jordanhwang.com to see more of his upcoming projects including a feature documentary of The Try Guys (YouTube) coming out soon!
The Austin Asian American Film Festival (AAAFF Online Shorts Festival) admittance is available via purchase of the full series ($11.99; virtual access to all shorts for the duration of the online festival) or tickets to individual, soon-to-be-announced “blocks” (virtual access to the shorts in the themed “block” for the duration of the online festival). Series passes are on sale now at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/aaaff, while individual short film blocks will be available for purchase during June 11-17.