Wu Fei is a master player of the guzheng, a Chinese string instrument that is more than two thousand years old, and known today mostly as the parent instrument of the Japanese koto. Fei began her musical studies at the age of six in Beijing, later studied composition in Mills College in California, and now splits her time between Beijing and New York. She has collaborated with composers and improvisers such as Alvin Curran, Joelle Leandre, Elliot Sharp, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Ikue Mori, Cecil Taylor and Fred Frith, who featured her in his recordings Eye to Ear II (Tzadik, 2004) and The Happy End Problem (ReR, 2007).
Her debut recording features her original compositions for guzheng and vocal, rooted in the Chinese musical tradition, as well as her contemporary improvisational approach with fellow master improvisers: Frith, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and Norwegian percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken. The latter improvisations are the most striking ones, as they feature the swift and subtle reflexes of Fei and her collaborators, especially Kihlstedt and Frith, who succeed in expanding and abstracting the arsenal of sounds of the guzheng.
Kihlstedt does so beautifully on the opening track "Cloud of Birds," where her sustained touch of the strings triggers a gentle counterpoint approach by Fei. Kihlstedt's wise plucking of the violin strings is a perfect accompaniment for the short vocal piece "Ping Tan." Frith and Kihlstedt begin "Diao Chan" with an unstructured, open improvisation that forces Fei to adapt to Frith's fast, phrase-based percussive approach. Frith leads "Dawn" with economic, evocative guitar lines; and his subtle interaction with Fei and Kihlstedt offers a mysterious cinematic atmosphere. All three are featured on the beautifully nuanced improvisation of "Mukamu."
Frith's affinity for patient and abstract improvisation, his rich vocabulary of guitar sounds, and his adaptability to almost any musical genre are best featured on "Yu Yin" and "For Yuxi," where his guitar sounds like a distorted ancient Chinese instrument. "Nothingness" is a non-idiomatic and thought-provoking improvisation between Fei and Frith, and it's almost impossible to know who produces what sound, as their language has become so close. "Mad Season" features a playful abstraction of a traditional Chinese theme, and Frith challenges Fei for a fast improvisation that leaves behind the original theme. Frith's percussive playing on "Break Away" is answered cleverly by an imaginative Fei. Norbakken, who is featured on one track only, "Hunan," rubs the skins and alternates between rhythms in a way that challenges Fei for a balancing textural answer.
Fei's solo compositions for the guzheng incorporate elements from her Western studies, in the way that she slides and rubs the strings, jumping between what sound like traditional themes to a more adventurous plucking of the strings, or introducing an almost distorted sound of the strings. This is a most original recording by a daring composer and improviser that deserve a wider recognition.
Personnel: Wu Fei: guzheng; Fred Frith: guitar; Carla Kihlstedt: violin; Helge Andreas Norbakken: percussion (6).