Live at the Total Music Meeting 2002
a|l|l 007

Leo Lab CD 069

There may be more than one billion people in China, including a goodly collection of pop music stars and classical music interpreters, but so far the country has yet to produce one major — or even middling — free improviser.

By sheer force of numbers and the society’s gradual liberalization, that lack will eventually be rectified. But right now, at least on the evidence of these CDs, the person coming closest to the ideal is Xu Fengxia, the Shanghai-born guzheng player who has lived in Germany since 1991.

Proficient enough in her playing of a group of traditional stringed instruments to be a soloist with the Shanghai Orchestra for Chinese Music, the conservatory-trained Xu also played in a Chinese rock band. Following her move to Europe she collaborated with players who combine traditional Chinese music, jazz and contemporary New music, and worked with the late German improv bassist Peter Kowald.

Erudite in many styles, she can adapt her 25 string chamber instrument to different circumstances and hold her own with some of the most accomplished improvisers. DISTANCE captures a one-off meeting with America bassist Joe Fonda, while the New Flags is a cooperative group she has joined. Her partners in it are German multi-reedist Wolfgang Fuchs, best known for his leadership of the King Übü Orchestrü, and British percussionist Roger Turner whose playing partners have ranged from German synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and American bassist/synthesizer player Alan Silva to outlandish British vocalist Phil Minton.

Familiarity with outlandish vocal techniques serves him in good steed here, since Xu sometimes vocalizes while she plays. With echoes of Tuvan vocalist Sainko Namtchylak and Peking operatic divas, not to mention improv eccentrics like Ellen Christi and Lauren Newton in her voice, most of the time you’re unsure whether she’s rhyming words or merely sounding syllables. Through these peaks and valleys she moans soulfully at times, peeps bird-like elsewhere and sometimes harmonizes with her axe.

Instrumental sounds are on tap too, of course, in New Flags’s first two tracks that each hover around the 24 minute mark, and in an almost nine minute coda. Multi-stringed and multi-toned, the guzheng can take on the properties of many Western instruments. That means that during the course of a tune like “Lichtvögel”, she slide from correct harp glissandos to string bass pummeled low notes and rhythm making, to what could be acoustic 12-string guitar flat-picking and strumming.

Contrast this with Turner minutely working away on a bell tree, bopping his snare with a single stroke, getting a campfire sizzle from his cymbals or dragging a stick over a metallic, abrasive surface. Additionally, split tone and tongue slaps enliven Fuchs’ modus operandi. But how he moves from wheezing sopranino squeaks and duck calls to burbling underwater blasts on his contrabass clarinet within seconds is a feat for the record books.

There are points where the chugging lower tones provide an aural perch for Xu’s bird-like cries and others where her orgasmic soprano wails are drowned beneath unvarying circular breathing from the bass clarinetist and percussion sounds that suggest bells, thunder sheets, or Turner lost in a warehouse filled with tin cans and garbage can lids.

On this tune and the other twos, Xu doesn’t neglect the Orientlaisms her instrument can produce either. Though it is possible that a traditionalist would be as confused by her improvised, instrumental forays as her voice. On “Wellenflug”, for instance, it ranges from serene lullaby syllables to a weird admixture of operatic and throat singing that could as easily be Arabic, Inuit or Sephardic as Chinese. Meanwhile Fuchs bites off sharp notes from his horns or puffs out a continuous drone of notes. Interaction is such that when that happens she mimic his tones vocally or with strings, the percussionist trumps them both with a speeding train rhythm, the click of wooden stick upon wooden stick, or something that sounds like rolling dice.

Elsewhere, Woodwind triple tonguing, whistles and multiphonics lead her to gibber out what sounds like tongue twisters, or turn dramatic so that she seems to be acting out many roles in different voices.

Recorded more than three years earlier, DISTANCE finds Xu less vocal than she would be later on. But, paradoxically, perhaps because it’s an American with whom she’s interacting, her instrumental work takes on the characteristics of mountain string bands, with hints of Appalachian banjos as pronounced as sounds from the Han or Ming dynasty. Fonda is also an out-and-out jazzer, unlike her European partners, so he’s able to adapt the Orientalisms to improv time, and have his bass hits in both mid- and low-range.

This is most apparent on “A Journey into the Desert”, where the echoing plucks of the guzheng reconstitute themselves as clawhammer banjo runs, while he creates a slap bass line that wouldn’t have been out of place in Duke Ellington’s Jungle band. Wonder if Wellman Braud ever made it to Shanghai? His solos get darker, buzzier and lower when she plays enhanced Far Eastern and higher pitched notes.

However, when she sings out melismic drones of repetitive syllables it appears to be a weird version of the sort of mountain blues someone like Dock Boggs recorded in the 1920s, and her string bending reflects his playing too. Meanwhile the bassist holds down the bottom with la note juste.

“Underwater Market Selling Clocks”, the longest track here at nearly 18 minutes, extends these parallels still further. At first her plinking and plucking in several timbres and pitches at once sounds like what you would have heard from an early 20th century orchestra of fiddles, banjoukes and harps. Then Fonda’s rhythmic thumping gets her to approximate swing. Soon both string players are pulling circular lines back and forth as if they were the dual guitars of Doc and Merle Watson or perhaps Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson. Fonda produces a whistling sound from stroking the highest strings in the highest pitch on his bull fiddle, as Xu flails away in the broad brush strokes of an Appalachian banjo player. Is it any wonder that often when she vocalizes here she probably unknowingly duplicates cowboy yodels and the high lonesome sound of Old Timey music?

Sometimes, Instrumentally, Xu sounds like an Oriental string orchestra playing the Peter Gunn theme, elsewhere Fonda turns his bass into a percussion instrument, rhythmically banging it like a conga drum for modulated emphasis. Should he produce walking bass lines, she created tones and harp glissses. And there are times when both forget themselves in the activity long enough so that her nonsense syllables are joined by his groaning in unison with his bass forays.

At times, both players seem to be able to finger pick backward, and the disc ends with a flourish. After his modern jazz line intersects her nursery rhyme pattern, there’s a pause and she terminates with a steel string crescendo.

When it was invented about 220 B.C. guzheng craftsmen never imagined that the string set would be used in 21st century improv. But those who fashioned the Western string instruments later on would probably be equally as shocked as well. That’s the strength of free music, especially as on these discs when Chinese impulses are mixed with those from North America or Continental Europe.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Flags: 1. Lichtvögel 2. Wellenflug 3. Flux Island

Personnel: Flags: Wolfgang Fuchs (contrabass clarinet, bass clarinet, sopranino saxophone); Xu Fengxia (guzheng, voice); Roger Turner (drums, percussion)

Track Listing: Distance: 1. Happy Chinaman 2. A Journey into the Desert 3. Underwater Market Selling Clocks 4. Monastery on the Peak of a Glacier 5. Some Silent Movies

Personnel: Distance: Joe Fonda (bass, voice); Xu Fengxia (guzheng, voice)