Wu Fei: An Authentic Voice

Wu Fei is a Beijing-born composer, vocalist, and guzheng (Chinese zither) player. Her music career tracks a journey from East to West and back again. Born into a musical family, she started playing guzheng as a child. After graduating from the China Conservatory of Music, Wu moved to the United States in 2000 to study composition at Mills College in California. While at Mills, she began to experiment with new musical styles, collaborating with Fred Firth, Béla Fleck, Carla Kilhstedt, Pauline Oliveros, Cecil Taylor, and John Zorn. Today her work is characterized by an innovative and experimental approach to traditional Chinese music with jazz and avant-garde influences. Wu returned to Beijing in 2010.

How much of a factor does Chinese identity play in your music?

Simply growing up in China gave me a deep-rooted Chinese voice, but my education in China did not necessarily play much of a role in shaping my aesthetics. My primary instrument is guzheng, so to some extent my instrument was also born with a Chinese voice. So I do not need to deliberately emphasize or celebrate my Chinese heritage. The more I travel to other countries and work with musicians from different cultures, the more my music will naturally have foreign influences. But I tend to look at these influences as different types of “nutrition” that I can absorb on top of my original voice, which is deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

Your compositions often have titles that refer to Chinese history, such as “Three Kingdoms” or “Yuan.” How important is it that your audience has background knowledge of these titles? What is your ideal audience?

I always create the songs first and give them titles afterwards. I only give them titles because I need to fill in the space on concert programs or the back cover of an album. The titles don't necessarily have anything to do with the songs. I would rather see my audience disregard the titles and just enjoy the music without any attachment or constraint. I have never thought about my “ideal audience.” I hope people around the world, adults and children, peasants and intellectuals, can all be my audience.

Can you tell us about some people outside your medium who have influenced your music?

Aside from my parents, who decided when I was five years old that I should live a musical life, there are Cao Xueqin, whose novel Dream of the Red Chamber I have read more than twenty times, and Zhuangzi, a philosopher from the Warring States period (475-211B.C.). To me, Zhuangzi was an idealist, an exceptional writer, a dreamer, and an anarchist. Although he lived more than 2000 years ago, his philosophy still seems quite avant-garde today.

Have your experiences in the U.S. influenced your music? How do you balance Chinese tradition and Western avant-garde in your music?

My ten years living in the U.S. had a tremendous influence on who I am, and consequently, my music. It was then and there that I learned more about myself and found my own way. Every aspect of my life impacted my music, whether it was making friends, going to school, working, teaching, eating different types of food, falling in and out of love, or learning to live an independent life. I think improvisation or genre mixing is only a matter of labeling. It is life itself that undergirds my music. Questions like what instrument I play, which culture I identify as the foundation of my music, what style I borrow from, or what kind of style I adopt to interpret a piece are all matters on the surface. Nor do I ever think about how to balance Chinese tradition with Western avant-garde since they all mean one thing to me: culture. And among all kinds of cultural products, music is the least in need of translation. When I am being sincere in my music, my Chinese traditions and Western influences (or any other style) will naturally be in balance. The more I consciously think about them, the more unbalanced they become.

How are you most misunderstood as an artist?

I think I have always been misunderstood. However, I fully understand and accept this natural “misunderstanding.” I was technically trained as a composer in school but debuted as a performer. Most Western audiences do not know that I have been writing chamber music for most of my life. Since my first album came out, a lot of people have thought I was a jazz musician (maybe because I was collaborating with several famous jazz musicians). But at the time, I did not have a very deep knowledge of jazz. Subsequently, many people thought I was an avant-garde musician. I did play around with experimental music, but it’s only a small part of my creative interest and performance experience. All in all, most of my audience knows me through my individual albums, which are all stylistically distinct because I like to do something different with each album. So being misunderstood is quite natural and I cannot complain; at least it is all part of the real Wu Fei.

If you were not a musician, what would you be doing?

I would like to be a scientist, especially in the aerospace field. One of my childhood dreams was to be an astronaut and travel into space.

Can you describe your relationship with Beijing? How is the relationship different from what it was ten years ago when you left to study abroad?

The urban environment is very different. Beijing is now more crowded, has more skyscrapers everywhere and more of the flair of an international metropolis. In some respects life has become more convenient. For example, online shopping is so common now, and delivery services are amazing, whether you are ordering meals or flight tickets. There are also other changes that I do not like, such as traffic jams. And the air pollution has gotten so much worse, which is very hard to live with. I can only try to go to the suburbs every weekend, such as Miyun county where my parents moved to a few years ago. I also like to go to Chenjiapu village, which has a section of the Great Wall and is located at the border of Hebei province and Yanqing county of Beijing.

Jeremy Goldkorn
The Great Wall at Chenjiabu.
One of my favorite places in Beijing is Xinjiekou. I grew up in that area until the age of eight and still go there often. It is famous for a street that’s filled with music shops. A meal at Huguo Temple Snacks is a plus after some music store window-shopping.

You have collaborated with many talented musicians in both New York and Beijing. What differences do you see between the experimental music community in China and that in New York?

In terms of experimental music, New York has a much longer history and a much bigger community (more artists and bigger audiences) than Beijing. This is probably the most significant difference. The Chinese experimental music scene has been growing very fast, though it is quite small and mostly unknown to the world. This has its advantage as things happen faster here and the world is more curious about China. But that kind of curiosity evaporates quickly if [the music scene] lacks substance.

What do you enjoy most as an artist working in China today?

Learning Chinese traditional art forms like kunqu opera and a Beijing-based form of folk music called chaqur, driving in the countryside to discover unknown villages and their local culture, and eating the food I love here.

What kind of challenges do you face as a musician in China?

The biggest challenge is to support myself without losing myself as an artist. I am an independent musician. There is not really any support system in China for artists like me who want to work independently. Another difficulty Chinese independent musicians face is the lack of freedom of expression. It puts a huge lock on people’s creativity.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new album, Pluck?

Pluck is a new string duo I formed with Northern Californian guitarist Gyan Riley in the summer of 2011 in New York City. We were introduced to each other by composer/producer John Zorn and since then have performed together at The Stone, Barbès, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The album is a collection of our collaborations. We will come back to New York for more performances in Fall 2012.

Music, Guzheng