Wu Fei is from China but she likes to break down barriers. From childhood, she trained on a traditional Chinese zither and studied Western classical composition before making the leap to the United States as a young adult.
There, she landed alongside Fred Frith and John Zorn in the improvisational avant-garde scene, but she also ventured into a mix of Chinese and Appalachian folk songs with banjoist Abigail Washburn.
An interview by Stijn Buyst
Could you perhaps start by explaining how you ended up at the Guzheng as a toddler?
My mother and my father decided that for me. My parents were a very bright young couple, but they had grown up during the Cultural Revolution, so in their prime they were deprived of any opportunity for education.
So they projected all those missed opportunities onto me. (laughs loudly). My father was a talented musician who played the three-string Chinese lute. A few friends of his played in state orchestras and my father thought it would be a good idea for me to pursue that profession later. One day, two of his professional musician friends came to scout me. They not only tested my sense of tone, but also looked at the structure of my hands.
When the choice was made for the guzheng, the problem turned out to be that no instruments had been produced for more than ten years, due to the political chaos. Eventually my parents found a dilapidated copy for me in a corner of an instrument factory in Beijing.
Do you still have that instrument?
No, but I do have a photo from when I was six, with that monstrous instrument.
The Guzheng has a whole history behind it.
Yes, and it is still very popular in China. In terms of construction and sound it is perhaps the counterpart of the classical Western harp, but in terms of popularity it is closer to the piano: it plays a leading role in every classical ensemble or orchestral work.
I recognised that I had a strong set of wings that I had never flown with before. All I wanted was to test out those wings. That realisation was incredible - holy shit, I can fly! And look how far I can see from above!
In 2000 you moved to the United States to further your musical studies?
Yes, first at the University of North Texas in Denton, and later I went to Mills College in California to get my master's degree. The training in Texas was very similar to the classical training at the China Conservatory of Music, but my world still opened up completely. On the college campus I saw West African drum-and-dance ensembles, electronic music, and Indian raga, all by people from all over the world who lived in Texas. There were at least two bands in every student house.
I came out of the conservatory system, I had never seen anything like that in my entire life. For the first time in twenty years I realized that music could also be fun. (giggling) I was absolutely shocked: I suddenly realized that I had been trained in the Chinese system as a music soldier, and had spent my entire childhood carrying out the expectations of my parents and my professors.
I finally realized that I actually had a strong set of wings that I had not used to fly before. All I wanted to do was test out those wings. That realization was incredible – holy shit, I can fly! And look how far I can see from above!
What a wonderful gift to find a whole new world in which you could use your immense technical skills.
I also owe that a bit to Fred Frith, who taught me at Mills. I played him a recording I made in China and he said “I hear wonderful crafts, but I don't hear Fei”. That shocked me: all that time I was 'the Chinese wunderkind composer' and with one sentence Fred woke me up like a lightning strike.
I then didn't go to school for a week to let it sink in and reassessed my life. I literally considered becoming an accountant or something completely unrelated. Fortunately I stuck with music.
Fred told me not to worry about structures, to let the music just flow through my veins. That was a very important lesson: there are no limits to what improvised music should sound like. The only thing that matters is that you express yourself clearly and strongly and that you listen carefully to other musicians.
That process took a few weeks, a few months at most. Since then I've really only enjoyed playing music, unlike my childhood, when playing music wasn’t fun.
Wasn't that first time improvising very frightening for someone who had spent a lifetime sticking to scores?
That would have been in the improv ensemble classes at Mills College, an environment that felt very safe. I remember we were playing with an ensemble of about fifteen people and we were making a lot of noise, a big sound chaos.
My natural reaction was to throw in a melody – a childhood lullaby at a moment when everyone sounded lost. Everyone immediately started to smile: we had all gotten lost in the music, and suddenly we found each other again.
We were all lost in music, and suddenly we had found each other again.
Magical moments often arise at that intersection between pure experiment and melody.
I love melody! When I was fifteen and started studying composition, we had to do twelve-tone compositions in the spirit of Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Paul Hindemith and that never worked for me. That music was very fashionable at the time, but I now realize that I often hate what is fashionable.
Moreover: I grew up with Chinese folk music and Chinese opera. The Chinese just want to sing: it's not without reason that we love karaoke. My ‘memory bank’ is full of melodies, they are the basic material I work with.
Occasionally you also apply extended techniques, you prepare your Guzheng.
Yes, but never gratuitously, it just happens in the moment. Occasionally I also lift the instrument into the air and sing into the sound hole at the bottom, to really hear all those beautiful overtones. Those are very healing sounds: all doctors should have one of those sound boxes to put in their patients.
I saw a video where you called the Guzheng a big feedback machine.
I like to play outside, when the wind blows through the instrument, while you hear insects and birds. Maybe we should take a wind machine with us to the Handelsbeurs…
I love playing outside, then the wind chases through the instrument, while you hear insects and birds. Maybe I should put a wind machine on stage at the Trade Fair...
I've interviewed many musicians, but I've never heard anyone speak with as much love about their saxophone, guitar or synth as you do now.
(laughing) Well, then my professors chose the right instrument for me. They can be proud of that.
What can we expect from your concert with Dijf Sanders, Simon Segers and Louise van den Heuvel?
Wim Wabbes (the programmer) chose the musicians for me. Wim and I have known each other since 2008 and we have worked together a lot, so I trusted him completely. In the meantime, I have already listened to music from all the musicians and I am really looking forward to being inspired by them and soaking up their wisdom - it is almost selfish, but I really love learning from others.
In that respect it is already a success. (laughs loudly) We are going to rehearse for the first three days, but I have also sent the musicians written material. The concert will certainly involve improvisation, but there will also be a composed part: I don't like to do a full hour of loose improvisation.
The title of the concert is 'Tides and Time' and refers to 'Water Melody', a poem from 1076 by the poet Shu Shi from the Chinese Song dynasty.
The Chinese word for poem is literally the same word as 'song', so Chinese poems are meant to be sung. The melody literally comes with the words. So I'm going to use some of my favorite poems from the Song dynasty. 'Tides and Time' is about the universe and the relationship between the earth and the moon, which is a theme that poets from different dynasties have dealt with.
Since Covid I've been living in a forest, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about nature. How insects and birds have been around so much longer than humans, and that they will still be around long after we are gone from the planet. And how the moon has been here for trillions of years and in five trillion years, it will eventually leave its orbit around Earth. That is pure science, but those sentiments of insignificance are also reflected in ancient Chinese poetry.
At this stage of my life I realize very hard how small we are, how we are all together in that tiny dot in time, while everyone worldwide wants to kill each other. I mean let's just chill the fuck out. (laughs very loudly and surprisingly happily)
House of Wu Fei: 'Tides and Time' (première)
Creation with Dijf Sanders, Simon Segers and Louise van den HeuvelStart: 20:15 Tickets
Wu Fei, Sarah Yu & Geoffrey Burton: 'Memory & Remembrances' (6+)
Creation with Chinese children's songs, calligraphy and dumplings (première)Start: 11:00 Last tickets