Wu Fei: Ancient Tradition Meets the Avant-Garde at Big Ears Festival [Interview]

Wu Fei: Ancient Tradition Meets the Avant-Garde at Big Ears Festival [Interview]

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Wu Fei
Composer and performer Wu Fei plays an instrument that you may never have never heard of, though it's a common sight in her native country of China. The guzheng (pronounced goo-shung) has been around for well over 2,000 years, and while Wu has been classically trained on the instrument, her approach to composition breathes new life into an ancient tradition. Wu performs at this weekend's Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN, and we got to talk with her about the festival, her training and evolution as a musician, her work with folk trio The Wu-Force, and what she's most excited about now.  
 
Groomed to be a child prodigy who would perform in formal settings, Wu eventually moved beyond her traditional musical education at the China Conservatory of Music, into the realms of experimentation encouraged by professors at Mills College, where she completed a Master's degree in improvisation and composition. During and after her time at Mills, she performed with such celebrated musicians as John Zorn, Fred Frith, and Billy Martin (of Medeski-Martin-Wood). 
 
Wu moved to Brooklyn after completing her MA, and then returned to Beijing for several years. When she moved back to the United States, she and her family settled in Nashville, TN. Along her journey, she met Appalachian singer-songwriter and banjo player Abigail Washburn. The two joined forces with multi-instrumentalist and producer Kai Welch to create The Wu-Force, a self-described "avant-garde Appalachian-Chinese folk trio" that has garnered international acclaim. The Wu-Force released a self-titled EP last year. Most recently, Wu and Washburn were awarded a Metro Nashville Arts Grant for education and outreach to area children. 
The Wu-Force
 
Steeped in deep tradition and a lifetime of training, Wu creates seemingly effortless melodies that are often unclassifiable in terms of genre but are always undeniably her own. From talking with Wu, it becomes clear that she seeks authenticity and truth above all else in her music. The resulting pieces are hypnotic, intricate, and also incredibly fun to watch and listen to. 
 
Our wonderful conversation with Wu follows.
 
Q: Tell me a little about your instrument—the guzheng. What's it's history? 
 
The history is that it's about 2,500 years of history! It's probably the most popular Chinese instrument in China; however, there's very little research about it from an archeological or an ethnomusicological point of view. The first noted guzheng score is about 2,200 years old, from the First Dynasty of China. We have to add a few 100 years of development on top of that before the score can even happen. So we can say it became really popular about 2,200 years ago.
 
The one I currently play is the standard guzheng. It has 21 strings. 2,000 years ago it only had eight strings, so it developed over many centuries. It covers four octaves from low to high D, and it's tuned in the pentatonic scale. Under each string is a movable bridge for fine tuning. There's a little box on the right-hand side that you can open, and inside is a tuning hammer that allows you to change scales in a much more dramatic way as you play, sort of like how you tune a piano. That detail is probably from the 1960s, when China opened after the Revolution, and when the chaos stopped. China was ready to progress and connect to the world. Culture started happening. Development in musical instruments was very drastic at this time.
 
Q: Did you pick the guzheng? 
It was not my choice, it was my parent's. I was in the first generation of the Chinese single children. We were born to carry out both of our parents' dreams they couldn't fulfill during the Cultural Revolution. That's a lot of burden! [laughs]
 
My father is a musician, and he plays the Chinese three-string fretless banjo (sanxian, which means three string). He's an amazing instrumentalist, so he wanted me to continue that. So when I was about five my parents said, "All right, here's what you're going to be doing, so good luck!" [laughs] I didn't go into the conservatory to study the instrument, though. I went to study composition. I learned piano from seven years old and my music professor spotted talent early in me. My teacher persuaded my parents to push me really hard from early on to be trained as a music prodigy, and then I came to the states when I was 20, in the middle of college.
Q: Why did you come to study in the States? 
 
When I grew up in China in the 1980s and 90s—mostly the 90s—the country was really booming economically and culturally. I was born and raised in Beijing, and I had the so many interactions with the world. I so often saw a U.S. presence. I saw Bill Clinton's limousines passing by on the streets on my way home. I was just fascinated with outside and international culture, and world music. And always when I listened to the radio or watched television and heard world music, I was like, "Wow that's African music," or "That's Indian," or, "That's from Sri Lanka, how wonderful!" I was always drawn to world cultures as a kid and that made me want to explore outside of China. 
 
My mother's family especially was quite damaged during the Cultural Revolution because she was born into a capitalist family. She was always very fearful about the regime. She realized that one day, if they didn't learn lessons from the past, they might continue to make the same mistakes through the generations.
 
Her mentality was all about escape, but I didn't fully understand what that meant. Now I'm a mother, so I look back and I now understand why her only way to protect me as a mother was to get me out of a potentially dangerous situation.

Q: I'm interested in your own musical training and education, which, from what I've read, seemed very traditional and academic. When did you discover avant-garde and more experimental music, and when did you start adding that to your repertoire?
 
I was fully improvisational on my own, but when I was at Mills College doing my MA in 2002, I was just blown away by the improvisational approach to making music, stuff that was super avant-garde, sometimes not even sound-related, more performance art. It was like trying to challenge our brains and our perspectives, rather than just asking students, "Can you play this difficult piece?"
 
Then my mentor and teacher Fred Frith opened up my mind. He just turned everything upside-down. He listened to the music that I composed during my time in China and he said, "Fei, I hear a lot of amazing craft, but I don't hear you."
 
And then I needed to think. I went home, and for about a week I didn't go to school. After 20-some years of being a composer, I hadn't known why I did it. And that's supposed to be the most fundamental thing about making music. I was considered a composer-prodigy and I had my belief system turned upside-down.
 
So I decided to drop the label. I realized the craft was not going away. It's like language you learn at birth. But I tried to drop those burdens I've carried since birth, and I explored how to do that and how to succeed at it. And that was my path. Eventually I found my own voice, and I felt so grateful. For a while I also felt resentful toward the classical training I had undergone, because I felt I had been put into this box. I felt like I was an interested young child put into a factory, and at the end I looked like I was out of a can. But now I really appreciate the training and the root culture.
 
I was raised in China and that gives me my uniqueness. I don't ever need to think, "Who am I? What's my sound? Am I jazz? Blues? French?" I'm Chinese, and I play a traditional instrument that's so ancient and therefore has so much potential. I don't have to search for my identity. I really appreciate that, and I appreciate traditional arts. I grew to appreciate them even more during the few years when I lived back in Beijing after the States.
 
I think that avant-garde music, or whatever you want to call it, challenges your system in the same way that a lot of foreign music does. Because sometimes when I listen to a very ancient piece from China, it sounds way more avant-garde than something I hear in downtown NYC.

Q: Yes, it's my experience of some music traditions that they seem almost impenetrable to me. I saw a performance by the Beijing Opera when I was in high school and I was just so confused. I spent the whole time wondering what was going on, and the music sounded so strange. 
 
Yes, how did our ancestors think that some of this was truly beautiful? Sometimes I think that there must be something I'm missing! To put so much effort into something so sonically challenging, something that's really out there. When a lot of people think about Chinese culture they might think, "Wow, it's so zen!" But no! If you want to hear something from a noise artist, some avant-garde stuff, you just go on the street in China and hear a 400-year-old opera!
 
So really I've gained a lot of different perspectives that have allowed me to re-appreciate where I come from. As long as I'm being true to myself, that's all that matters. I don't want to pretend and I don't need to impress. I just need to be in tune with myself no matter the label applied to me, and it's true that traditional music can sound so strange and foreign! 
 
Q: How many people are playing your instrument in a that's way similar to your approach? 
 
Very super few. I might be one of less than 15 in the whole population of 6 billion people on Earth [laughs]. I see other musicians try to do something similar, but the challenge is that it's not easy sometimes to improvise, or even to be an audience member during an improvisational performance. It's not easy to experience the sound without feeling lost sometimes. When you go to a more avant-garde performance, a lot of the time you might feel that the artist is lost somewhere too, and trying to figure it out or find a way! I'm not saying that's wrong as an approach, but just sharing that experiential process can be quite a challenge in terms of the community aspect of it. I've felt lost and dumb many times! 
 

Q: Can you talk about the your work with The Wu-Force? What do Appalachian and Chinese musical traditions have to give to one another? Why did you decide to pair these two traditions?

It probably started with all of us individually. We were like-minded even before we met each other. Our circles of friends eventually started looping together, and we found each other and started playing. The strengths each of us brings to the group is wonderful. Each thing we learn gives us the nutrients we lack from the other. You become a richer person when you have more nutrients in your body.

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It's like eating or living healthy. You can't just eat rice forever. You might want wasabi. So I bring the wasabi, Abigail brings the rice, and Kai might bring the bread. Then we have a new dish rather than just the same thing. It's a new sound based on all of these different backgrounds and perspectives, so I feel like a better musician. That's the ultimate goal for me as an artist and musician. I want to do projects and play with people so I can truly learn something.
 
We'll be doing the same thing for the rest of our lives. We discovered, "Wow, we're just the same." Whether it's bluegrass or Chinese pentatonic or pentatonic in blues or jazz, there's something truly fundamental about human emotion. If you're sad and you make music, there's more dissonance. If you're happy, music is more upbeat. It's about very basic human things, rather than the mindset that we're different because geographically we're on this or that continent. Once, all continents were connected, and emotions have always been the same. I've gotten more truth from learning and making music and meeting good people. That's really fulfilling. More truth means there's less possibility to be brainwashed. 

Q: When did you move to Nashville? What is your experience of the South? 
 
We moved here in early February, 2015, so we're just past the two-year line. When we decided to move from Beijing, I knew that I wanted to move to Nashville, because I was already friends with Abby and Kai, and because I knew that it was a heavy musically-oriented city. When I was living in Brooklyn, I flew to Nashville several times to record, so I knew it was where I wanted to be. Before moving back to Beijing, I lived from Texas to California to Colorado to Brooklyn, from the smallest to to the biggest metropolitan areas in the United States and in the world. After we had a kid, I felt I wanted to be in a place where I could do music with world-class musicians in an environment that wasn't so expensive that I didn't have to sacrifice music to pay school fees or high rent.
 
And Southern culture has been so nice. I fell in love with the people in Nashville when we were staying with Abby and Béla [Fleck]. We checked it out for six weeks during the year prior to moving. People are sweet and down to earth. They're proud but they don't have a bad attitude. So many people are proud of where they live and have a bad attitude about it. And I'm like, "Just go home!" [laughs]
Q: What can we expect from your Big Ears performance?
 
It's something I've never done on stage before. I'm going to challenge myself, to be honest, to see what I can do. I'll have a solo double guzheng set. So I'll have two instruments instead of one. I've thought about playing two, but never as a whole solo set at a public performance. I've practiced that way. It will be challenging, but my best performances always come unexpectedly from an improvisational approach. I surprise myself. In those performances, every nerve comes out of my body! So I really look forward to it. 
 
Q: What's next on the horizon for you?
 
Another Big Ears artist, Rachel Grimes, is having a concert in Louisville, and I'll do that concert with her the next weekend. And Abigail Washburn and I just finished a recording. She and I have been doing a public school tour in Nashville for almost a year ago, and we received a grant, and on June 1 at OZ Arts, we're giving a final round of a concert as a final presentation for this grant. That concert is scheduled on International Children's Day.
 
Then I'll be at Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It's the first year of a program they're doing called "We the People." Abby and Béla invited a few world music friends to join them on stage there. That's June 18th.
 
Abby and I have started our non-profit organization, The Pentatonic, so we're really excited. We're using music and education to open up perspectives in the U.S. about understanding and celebrating diversity in culture, music, and language.
 
Q: What are you listening to/reading/watching right now?
 
One very immediate thing that comes to mine, which has recently been really inspiring, is from a friend from China, Wei Xiaoshi, who created an ethnomusicological record label, Tash Music and Archives. He's an expert in Turkish and Uzbek music, and the label releases archive records of incredible musicians. This one features string players and folk songs that are so beautiful and interesting. Wei also runs Ourfolk.net, an internet radio channel (in Chinese) that has a lot of his field recordings and interviews. The production level and cultural/historical depth of the project is as amazing as NPR in my opinion.
 
Another musician I'm inspired by now is a new classical composer, Gabriel Prokofiev, who I think is one of the most interesting composers working right now. His grandfather is the famous Sergei Prokofiev, the composer of Peter and the Wolf. The music is so amazing and out there. When I listen I think, "Oh my, can you hear his attitude? He's brilliant!" He's got such big attitude! He wrote a wonderful piece called "Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra." 
 
What am I reading? It's so hard to read [lauhgs]! Internet culture doesn't help, and after I put the kids to bed I burn out. They're 2 and 4. So I think, "Oh maybe I'll read a few tweets" [laughs]. I love reading local newspapers about what's happening in the community. I love NPR and The New Yorker, but that's about how much energy I can give . So I just read shorter pieces.
 
Recently, I started watching a movie I found while I was researching a song, and it was great, but I had to split it into two nights because the kids were crying. So I said to myself, "Ok, I guess I'm done!"
Q: What are you most excited about for Big Ears this year?
I am going to reconnect with so many friends this year. I just learned that Gyan Riley is playing, as well as my old teacher from Mills, Alvin Curran. And Fred Rzewski is playing; he recommended Mills to me in 2001. My friend from Norway is also coming here to play, as well as Shayna Dunkelman, she's on my second record and is the percussionist for Xiu Xiu. So I'm very excited!
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Going to Big Ears this weekend? Catch Wu Fei's set on Friday at 2 p.m. at St. John's Cathedral. Need a ticket? Some weekend and day passes are still available here