Composer Wu Fei , as evidenced by the five compositions on Yuan, occupies a world that straddles traditional Chinese music and more contemporary styles of writing and playing.
Fei seems to be particularly interested in strings and percussion, as well as in percussive strings and melodic percussion. The instrumentation ranges from solo percussion and solo piano (the latter, of course, being the king of all strung percussion instruments) to the Eastern string trio Melody of China (who play erhu, yangqin and shougu) and the Percussions Claviers de Lyon, an orchestral quintet augmented by pipa and Fei's guzheng and voice.
The music Fei composes often seems, to the unknowing ear at least, quite traditional: a plucked-string phrase punctuated by a small gong carries some heavy Chinoiserie. But her compositions are always moving forward. That phrase might be immediately exploded into a percussion statement and then quickly followed by an ethereal passage of a minute at most. Yet this isn't fast-cut music; her passages follow a strict and organic logic that lets the quick movements remain smooth. It's surprising, in fact, that with the wealth of ideas she has, the pieces are so brief. Only one piece runs longer than 10 minutes and the entire disc runs just 40. It's easy to imagine her working and reworking a single set of ideas for over an hour.
Given the pace, it's the solo pieces that seem to work best. "Red Carriage," for marimba, tom-toms and gong, is alternately gentle and exciting. Stephen Drury plays the episodic piano piece "Before I Wake" beautifully. And "Yuan? Yuan! Yuan..." is an opportunity to hear the composer on her own, layering rhythms, repeating soft melodies and pulling buzzes and blurts from her instrument's prepared strings.
Tzadik has a history of building relationships with artists. It can only be hoped that that will give us an opportunity to hear Fei's music expand.
Track Listing: Lou Lan; Red Carriage; Yuan? Yuan! Yuan...; She Huo; Before I Wake.
Personnel: Wang Hong: erhu; Zhao Yang-Qin: yangqin; Wang Wei: shougu; Chen Tao: dizi; Shayna Dunkelman: marimba, tom-toms, gong; Wu Fei: voice, prepared guzheng, guzheng; Raphael Aggery, Sylvie Aubelle, Henri Charles Gaget, Giled Dumoulin, Gerard Lecointe: vibraphone, marimba, marimba bass, blockenspiel, bamboo chimes, Beijing opera gongs, bows, Chinese cymbal, gong, little tam-tam, singing bowls, tambourine, timpani, tom-toms, triangles, wood blocks; Pan E-Quing: pipa; Stephen Drury: piano.