Wu Fei with Erik Friedlander at The Stone, NYC

Wu Fei

My second show at The Stone, Manhattan’s tiny experimental concert space came by recommendation from a friend back home. This venue reminds me of Austin’s Hyde Park Theater, with its intimate seating, black walls, simple mood lighting and worn hardwood floors. As Wu Fei remarked during her introduction, “the night is cold but the room is warm.”

A staffer told me no photography is allowed, but the combination of lovely white spotlight against the ornate carvings of Wu Fei’s folk harp was too much to resist. I allowed myself two discreet shots taken at two unobtrusive moments.

The folk harp is called guzheng, or zheng/cheng, which is a type of zither. This instrument comes from China. I first heard a cheng performed by Adam Pierce while touring with his band Mice Parade. More recently I’ve been in love with the string music of French musician Colleen, herself a fan of exotic instruments both plucked and bowed. Recalling these points of reference I knew I would enjoy the show.

Sitting in the front row I could hear every feature of her unmic’ed guzheng–the creaks of the bridge as the strings strained against, the fingertips of her idle hand coming to rest on the string, and the faintest notes as they levitated and evaporated against the unlit black.

This was an evening of songs of folk tune length with accompanist Erik Friedlander, using some conventional eastern harmony and some unconventional technique and form.  Erik slapped and strummed his cello like a bass guitar, while Fei worked the back end of the string to accent or alter the pitch from the front.

Before the second piece she said “there it goes–have to tune already!” which is ironic because the following song was particularly full of out of tune notes, both in relation to scale and in relation to temperament.  These free-pitched notes came from the untuned back end of the guzheng (behind the bridge), marring the front end euphony to beautiful, earthy effect.

The third song brought the unexpected entrance of Wu Fei’s dulcet singing voice, with just a few plainsong words to play out the tune. The fourth song gave us more vocals, that you could tell were not words, but somehow still phonetically Chinese.  Coming to a venue that describes itself as experimental and avant-garde, I didn’t expect to hear such folksy and unpretentious cooing, the kind that brings to mind early blues–if such a feeling could be applied to her unique and adventurous musical style.

The highlight of the brief program was a showstopper drone, so moving and intense that I thought, “Who should I have brought to this show?” and “Who should I tell afterwards?”  Cellos are really made for drones, with their capacity for long bowed chords, a low anchoring register, fretless wavering of pitch, and a bright and beautiful tone. It’s a sound that billows out and fills the room, thick and heavy, even as it comes from such a relatively small acoustic source. Wu Fei’s singing over this was slight and silken by contrast, gliding through cheery and sonorous intervals and lingering on the piercing high peaks.  I know the twenty or so other audience members agreed with me, as the song ended with murmurs of appreciation.

The final song was chilly and bare in comparison, full of pointillistic tones each isolated in their own beat, pulled and pushed outside of their home pitch by slow and poignant bends.  I thought the words for this one must tell a life story, one equally bleak as the musical mood.

The set ended early I thought at fifty minutes, though that may be typical for this venue.  I overheard talk of an earlier performance with Brandon Seabrook and Trevor Dunn, and vowed to follow The Stone‘s calendar more closely.  Shows of this sort occur several nights a week, contributing to uniquely New York danger of death by overstimulation.  Wu Fei herself will appear there a couple more times, and she plays again with Erik Friedlander on this Saturday at Barbes in Brooklyn.  I hope to catch her once more for an album and an encore before her NYC stay ends.

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2 comments so far

  1. captain groovy on

    basically it’s Terrastock every night in New York is what you’re saying!! Keep up the reviews for us culture starved Texans woman!!Good to read your thoughts & i’ll check her stuff out on the web

  2. nariposa on

    October in New York City has been absolutely incredible.

    My stay started off with the My Bloody Valentine curated ATP festival in upstate New York. Then over the next few weeks in Manhattan there were shows from Tony Conrad, Gate, and The Dead C. Last week was CMJ fest and “Not-CMJ” fest (much like SXSW and all the tangential “Not-SXSW” shows), and this week is Thurston Moore’s curated series the Week of Noise. Oh, and last week I caught a performance of music by Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Rhys Chatham–just one of a Classics of Avant Garde series put on by Issue Project Room.

    I also could’ve seen Sunn O))), Nadja, and Fursaxa again, but I am getting really tired of going out every night.


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