James Fei is an associate of Anthony Braxton, and has appeared in some of Braxton's large ensembles. This disc of his solo works is an extension of Braxton's ground-breaking work for solo reeds. The story goes that in the late Sixties Braxton was playing a solo concert wherein he ran out of ideas within ten minutes, and had to start repeating himself. Resolving never to let that happen again, he developed an entirely original approach to the instrument, isolating various types of sound attacks: long lines, staccato lines, multiphonics, etc. Twelve in all. Using these as building blocks, he constructed a solo language that is the grandfather and progenitor of a disc like this one.
For Fei is also working in the arena of sound. He is not constructing melodies, after the manner of Steve Lacy's haunting and austere solo explorations, or even progressing lines, however idiosyncratic, after the manner of Evan Parker. Fei, in contrast, works from the various sound capabilities of the instruments he uses here (soprano, alto, and bass saxophones, plus bass clarinet), preferring, as on "for alto saxophone (11.97)," "for bass clarinet (8.97)," and "for bass saxophone (7.98)" to develop minute variations of tone and dynamics in short bursts, only occasionally playing notes in a conventional sense, and even more rarely stringing them together in anything like a melodic line (for a delicate Braxtonian line, however, see "Little Piece (12.97)." In this respect his work resembles Braxton's larger works, which generally eschew motivic development in favor of overlapping waves and shards of fragmentary and disconnected themes and phrases. But where Braxton generally achieves this effect through the interplay of different instruments, Fei attempts it here through exploring the minute but unmistakable sonic differentiations inherent in the individual instruments themselves.
This is consequently rather forbidding music, even less rooted in conventional tonality than that of Braxton or Parker. However, it is undeniably fascinating. Fei's sonic explorations draw in the listener, and turn one's attention to the smallest of variations, as in the best work of John Cage, which the composer himself remarked were intended to "sober and quiet the mind." All those interested in the beautiful possibilities of new music exploration should not pass up James Fei.