The guzheng is an instrument in the zither family that dates back more than 2,000 years in Chinese history. Its beauty stems from the sound that resonates from its 21 strings (although that number can change), comprised of both steel high strings and copper bass strings, and the pure, clean sound from a plucked string can hang in the air for what seems like days.
A guzheng player tapes a pick to each finger of the right hand; the left is used more for ornamentation, but an advanced player will tape picks to the fingers of both hands. Sometimes a player plays elegantly, evoking images of the Chinese countryside or an ancient temple, and at other times he or she might play more energetically, providing a wilder image like horses galloping.
What you almost never hear, however, is anything improvisational or experimental. That is, of course, unless you’re listening to Wu Fei. She has managed, somehow, to make these seemingly incongruous elements work together in a fascinating and beautiful way. Like most artists, her ability did not come about accidentally, for Wu is indeed, as she says, “an old-school craftsman” who has taken to heart everything she has learned and observed during her varied life, even though it has left her stranded in a place between two cultures.
Born into a “lao Beijing” (old Beijing) family, Wu was assigned to the guzheng by her parents by the time that she was five. As musicians themselves, they had noticed her penchant for melodies and accurate pitch, and they were determined to get her on the path toward a musical existence. This involved living a life that was quite unlike most of her peers.
“I couldn’t do anything but practice,” she says. “From when I was about five years old, I had to finish my homework during school at break time between classes, so I wouldn’t have to do homework when I got home, so that I could have a solid two hours to practice every day. When I was seven, I was in a choir. At eight, I was going to the conservatory to get training and some music theory every weekend. I started playing in Chinese ensembles when I was nine and an orchestra when I was ten. I almost did nothing else except music.”
Just like other teenagers, Wu grew more independent as she got older. She didn’t want to spend all of her time working; she just wanted to be young like her friends. She grew frustrated at her diverted youth, developing a poor relationship with her father during her teenage years.
Yet despite the tediousness of her early life, the hard work paid off when Wu was accepted into one of the best conservatories in the city, the China Conservatory of Music. This immediately changed her attitude.
“When I got into the conservatory, I felt, ‘Wow, this is pretty awesome,’” she says. “The entrance exams were so difficult, and I had this overnight realization, just seeing how few students from all over the country got in, and we had the best musician teachers in the whole country protecting us, raising us like little genius kids. We were just so privileged.”
The students were so privileged, in fact, that even their parents were told by the school’s teachers to lay off the children. “My composition professor had a serious talk with my father right after I got into the conservatory,” Wu says. “Because he noticed that I was acting kind of nervous around my dad, he told him, ‘If your daughter’s going to become a composer, then her mind needs to be freed; it needs to be liberated. She cannot behave like this. She needs outrage, or to do some crazy things. So don’t make her feel nervous.’”
As a student of composition, Wu had studied plenty of Western composers. But she felt that in order to truly grasp them, she needed to get closer to the subject matter. So she moved to the United States, and from 2000–2002, she worked on her undergrad music degree in the composition department of the University of North Texas College of Music.
Adjusting to university life can be tough for anyone, never mind someone who has moved to a completely new culture and country to do it. At that time, there weren’t many Chinese students in the music program, and there were none in the composition program. That sense of isolation was bad for Wu, but things became worse after a seemingly innocuous question from a professor.
“I remember when my first professor asked me a question about composition,” she says.
“He asked me, ‘Why do you feel like you need to compose music?’ I was stunned. [It was] the simplest question, and I didn’t know how to answer it. My mind just went blank. Nobody had asked me that before in my life. I was put on this path. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He was like, ‘If you want a career, you need to think about it!’
“I was really troubled for quite a long time, almost depressed. I thought I had been betrayed somehow, that I was put on this path without knowing what to do about it. Before that I was excellent, a top student, promising young composer, the future of Chinese music. Suddenly, I felt like I had wasted my time. I hadn’t figured out who I was with all these crowns on my head.”
Her salvation came in the form of a master class that she took with Frederic Rzewski. His advice led her to Mills College, where she completed her master’s in music composition from 2002–2004, studying from people like Fred Frith, Alvin Curran, and Joëlle Léandre. It proved to be a pivotal decision, but one that took time to welcome. If her early life in the States was about trying to live in a different culture, then her early life in Mills was like trying to live on a different planet.
“The first semester, I was completely confused,” Wu says. “I thought I had chosen the wrong school. It’s a very experimentally oriented, artistic, avant-garde style. Students are really good players and really good improvisers, or electronic musicians who can’t read any music at all but have just brilliant minds. At the same time, I’m there, [with] the sort of traditional, classical background, like a craftsman. But they’re doing so many weird things! I was really confused!”
Having never much listened to that style of music, Wu felt like she had chosen poorly. She even went to see Frith and told him that she wanted to quit. This place was just too different for her, too confusing. He convinced her to try to embrace it and give it one more semester.
“And that’s when I really started to study improvisation,” she says. “The teachers there were quite brilliant. So that got me thinking, ‘Maybe this is an interesting place that I can get something worthy out of.’ Once I started studying improv, I just loved it — almost overnight. I never knew you could create music like that.”
Her professional life progressed pretty quickly. She toured Europe, made a successful and well-received first album called A Distant Youth, and spent time in New York. She started playing at The Stone, a performance space run by prolific composer John Zorn, at the invitation of multi-instrumentalist Elliot Sharp.
She had the opportunity to play with such people as Eric Friedlander, Billy Martin (Medeski Martin & Wood), Serbian composer Stevan Tickmayer, Lukas Ligeti, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka. Arguably the most important moment came when she played in an improv group with Zorn, giving her the opportunity to meet him and pass along her CD. He contacted her two days later, wanting her to do a record for Tzadik under his composer series.
Yuan was the title of the album, which was released in 2008, and it featured ensemble pieces for traditional Chinese instruments like the guzheng, dizi (a bamboo flute), erhu (a small, two-stringed violin-type instrument that rests on the knee), and the pipa (a four-stringed lute) as well as for piano and percussion.
As one can tell strictly from that range of instruments, Yuan is not just about traditional Chinese music but a fusion of elements from both sides of the globe. The images of the ancient Chinese temple are still evoked by the soft caresses of the guzheng, the pleasant whine of the erhu, the clang of Beijing opera gongs, and all the other assorted Chinese instruments, but that temple has been placed within a Western concert hall and complemented by its piano, marimba, glockenspiel, tambourines, and other elements. With this and her first CD, Wu has brought some traditional Chinese music to the ears of the West within the context of its own instrumentation. But can she also bring sounds and elements of the West to China in a similar way?
“Music here in general is pretty crappy,” she says. “It’s not that the people don’t have a taste for good music; it’s just that they’re not exposed to it. When they see a violin or piano doing improv, they just think, ‘Oh, well, that’s just their form.’ But when they see a traditional Chinese instrument doing innovative stuff, you can see in their eyes that they’re really interested, really thinking about it. And actually, I incorporate a lot of traditional Chinese elements into the new music, and they really like it because they feel familiar with the sound, but they realize that it’s something new that they’ve never heard. Even older folks, like 55-year-olds, find it really interesting. Audiences need to be educated as well. So it’s changing, but the mainstream in China is so powerful [that] it’s hard to break.”
So there’s hope that improv and genre mixing will catch on with the people of China, and there’s hope that someone like Wu Fei can increase the understanding between the two cultures by straddling that place that lies between them, and showing each aspects of “the other” that they can enjoy. Recognition from her own government, however, seems to be farther from coming to fruition.
“My friend was in charge of the China new-music section at the Europalia International Arts Festival in Belgium in 2009, which was the year they highlighted Chinese music,” she says. “They asked me to provide a list of artists who I think are interesting, who the Belgian audience should see, in the innovative area. So I gave them a list, and of course, the Chinese government didn’t approve all of them, and they need to approve it. I heard through the Belgian officials that the Chinese culture ministers had said that because I had an American passport, I couldn’t play the festival — that I wasn’t allowed to represent Chinese culture. And do you know what’s ironic? During this whole new-music festival, I was the only one who played a traditional Chinese instrument!”