When Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn recorded their self-titled collaborative album, neither expected a pandemic to cause tension in the relationship between China and the United States. But the combination of Chinese folk music and the tunes of Appalachia flow together beautifully, in an expression of their friendship.
How would you each describe your compositional approach, and who are your biggest influences?
Fei: My approaches have varied in my life since I began to compose as a child. For now, my approaches can change depending on the instrumentation, size of the ensemble, the purpose of the new work, and whether I am involved as a performer or not. The process is very similar to an architect or a clothing designer’s work. For strictly written work, one process of mine is that I do not start composing right away when I feel a “craving” in my head. You could call it an inspiration or an idea. I usually prepare myself emotionally for a while before I lay down the first note. It’s a process to withdraw myself from reality. And then I enter my imaginative world and become ready, like making a cocoon and incubating. This process can take weeks to months before I’m ready. Once I’m ready (I know when I’m ready), the new composition has matured in my head regardless of the length or instrumentation, the rest of the work is labor – converting my imagination to notes on score. That usually takes a lot less of time to complete than the incubation period.
Improvisation is also another important component in my composing. It is a very different approach from the approach I described above because it just happens on the spur of the moment. I either do solo improvisations or in a group. I have started using signal conducting methods to create game improvisation pieces in contemporary ensemble music — in other words, I improvise in my head and then hold up colored signs or other symbols to conduct orchestra. My dream is to make it happen (effectively) with a full symphony orchestra. That would be amazing!
There are so many composers who have influenced me throughout my writing life. The ones who have influenced me in a major way from when I was about 10 to now are: Wu Zuqiang, Gao Weijie, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Sofia Gubaidulina, Bach, Chopin, Prokofiev, Chen Qigang, Frank Zappa, Prince, Fred Frith, John Zorn, Erik Satie, Messiaen, Ennio Morricone, Raymond Scott, Laurie Anderson, Toru Takemitsu, Kodály, Ahmad Jamal, John Cage.
The list goes on. The composers mentioned above all have at least one work that changed my perspective in music. Each of those compositions took me to a completely new universe from the first three seconds when I heard them. I still do listen to them now and they keep giving me new perspectives. It’s like films that you watched as a kid and you still love watching them now because there are so many details, symbolism and life growth implemented in the films by the directors that you could only understand more as you age and have more life experiences.
Washburn: I am not a classically trained musician. I began playing the banjo and music seriously within the first year of playing, at the age of 21. My ability to read a score is extremely rudimentary dating back to my fourth grade piano lessons. I do not write using paper and pen, or computer program such as Sibelius. I write tunes and songs and arrangements by ear and memorize them. The folk music community that has taught me tends to rely more on oral tradition than any other form of passing along music, such as score or tablature.
My biggest influences are, firstly, my collaborators, secondly, musicians from the folk community, and, thirdly, recordings.
Among my collaborators are Wu Fei, Béla Fleck (my husband), the women from my old-time band Uncle Earl (Rayna Gellert, KC Groves and Kristin Andreassen), Kai Welch (dear friend, co-writer and indie-pop musician) and, Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee from our time playing together in The Sparrow Quartet.
I was lucky in the beginning of my journey learning to play the banjo that Rayna introduced my to the great round peak clawhammer banjo player, Riley Baugus, from Surry County, NC. He learned directly from Tommy Jarrell Fred Cockerham, and he passed along this playing tradition to me. It is a central part of my banjo sound and writing style.
There’s a lot happening this year. In addition to the pandemic disrupting live performances, we’ve also had a tornado, widespread protests against racial injustice… and it’s an election year. How have the events of 2020 so far influenced you as a composer?
Washburn: These events influence who I am, what I believe and my aspirations for the future of humanity, all of which deeply impact my voice as an artist.
At the beginning of isolating, Béla and I did an online series for 9 episodes called Banjo House Lockdown. Rather than asking people to tip us, we asked every week that they give to a different organization whose efforts focus on the impact of the virus.
At first, we focused on the strange new feeling of building life around a highly contagious virus forcing us to isolate in our homes. We tried to speak musically to the new experience for us while trying to connect universally to what other people might be feeling. As the series continued, the death of George Floyd brought a new layer of shock, despair and desire to do better. We spoke to this in our series by honoring Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and other strong musical voices in the fight to overcome racism. We also focused on monetary giving to local and national organizations dedicated to creating more space for dispersing power and opportunity to black communities.
As a composer of original material, I have not written significantly since these wild transformations, that are happening inside so many of us. Béla and I will be writing an original song cycle commissioned by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra this fall to possibly debut next Spring in CO. I am certain or writing will be strongly influenced by all we have been thru in the last 8 months.
Fei: I’d say the influences are pros and cons. All my live concerts have been either canceled or postponed to 2021 and only hope the C19 crisis will end in 2021. Since the lockdown started in March in Nashville, I’ve been practicing more, which is a good way for me to escape the crazy reality. I learned how to make home recordings by myself, which I avoided doing so for two decades. I’m actually composing everyday now and releasing a new piece on wufeimusic.substack.com. We gotta figure out a way to stay productive and a new way to bring income as well. The uncertainty of the return of live concerts is too real to not be deeply worried about the future. I hope an effective working vaccine will come out eventually. But there is also a chance that it may take much longer than we hope. I hope for the best, prepared for the worst.
Which composer do you wish was better known?
Fei: I nominate my friend Paolo Angeli from Sardinia, Italy.
Washburn: WuFei gave our family a children’s book about Erik Satie. Ever since we have been listening to his music and have felt inspired by his playfulness and risk-taking in music, and his contribution to changing to expectation of the classical music world to one that could “catch you by surprise”. The musical and artistic avant-garde scene of Le Chat Noir in Paris in the late 1800s is one I wish I could experience for even one night!
Speaking of Wufei… She is one of my favorite artists and composers! I wish more people could hear the way she weaves Chinese tradition, leaps into the unknown, travels the nominal spaces armed with strong classical technique and wild passion. It is a pleasure and wonder to behold Fei on her compositional journey.
When you sat down together, how did you go about weaving together folk music from from different parts of the world? What does your collaborative compositional process look like?
Fei: We had small babies when we started working on the songs that are on our new duo record (released on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in April 2020.) We asked each other about what lullabies that worked to put our babies to sleep. And we had the first song Water is Wide/Wusuli Boat Song realized that way. From there, we realized that folk music tradition is about people singing about their daily life – labor songs, boat songs, love songs, cowboy songs etc.
People from all over the world, regardless where they are from, have lived similar lives like doing hard labor, feeding their young children, farming, falling in love, chasing their dreams. We connected the songs from China and America based on real living. The songs just worked because they share the same human emotions. The only technical work we did was to make the transitional passages as natural or as effective as possible with our unique approach.
On some of the songs we used non-traditional ways to present the sounds like singing into the sound holes that are on the back of the guzhengs to get the effect of all over tones ringing from the 21 strings, and mix them with our voices. Or we hit the drum part of the banjo and the wooden body of the guzheng to use them like percussion instruments. On some of the songs, we alter different time signatures for fun. We basically used our voices as instruments in this record.
Pentatonic scales are in all folk cultures with different versions or flavors of their own. American folk music and Chinese folk music are no exceptions. We never had tonality issues when we tried to weave the songs together. We had a total 26 strings combined, two voices in multiple languages & dialects across three continents’ cultures and history. The possibilities we had for making this record was infinity.
Washburn: Weaving folk music together from two distinct cultures is a matter of will and communication. If there is a desire to do so, the heart of the collaborators will reach out to the other side with vulnerability, deep listening and a deep knowledge of the offerings of their own culture and musical background. Our friendship was the gateway but our will to find common ground and our musical knowledge did the weaving. The jiggering of timing and transition, is technique, imbuing the crossing of melody and rhythm with meaning is the will. And the love of two hearts finding one another.
You’ve been friends and collaborators for a long time— what about this moment inspired this album and musical dialogue between cultures?
Fei: We were friends and had respect and passions for each other’s cultures. That was really the core of the making of this album. This album happened to be released during the pandemic, rapidly derailing the US-China relations, and the national social uproar caused by long-ignored racial injustice and economic inequality. All of these things that are happening in 2020 have given our album deeper meaning, which we could not have predicted. It is hard, but it is a gift.
Washburn: Like Fei said , we recorded this album a while back, between 2017-2019. We did not anticipate a pandemic, nor the rapidly deteriorating goodwill between US and Chinese governments. We don’t know how this musical offering may impact the connection between Chinese and American people, or people of different races and cultures, but I know we both have a desire for it soften hard edges, and bring comfort that there is always a place to find one another.
Some of these folk songs are well-loved and very old. Did you learn anything new about the music as it evolved into this project?
Fei: I learned all the American folk songs from Abby that are on this record. The melodies are beautiful and the history behind the songs is rich. To me, I’ve learned a lot of truth about humanity. I’ve even discovered new facts from doing research on the Chinese folk songs featured on this record. Once again, I feel I’m closer to knowing truths after this collaboration that I could never have learned from schools from neither China or the US.
Washburn: We both learned new “old songs” from one another that we had never heard before from the other’s culture. A big learning curve, although we already knew it would be a challenge, was trying to unearth the origins or oral tradition heritage of Chinese folk songs. Chinese music business culture unabashedly adopts and assigns writing by modern composers to heritage folk songs. For example, The Wusuli Boat song, was being attributed to modern singer songwriter until in recent years the Hezhe people from who the melody and meaning were “stolen” took the writer to court, and in an unprecedented turn of events, won back the songwriting credit to their people.
But most Chinese folk songs to this day take serious digging to find whether they are originally from longstanding folk traditions or how they have been modified, or whether they are new writing. US music business culture is more dedicated to attributing folk music to folk sources. But our modern folk culture since the founding of the nation spans a much shorter period of history and we conveniently have identified that all music before mid-1900s is concerned public domain. It is hard to compare but easy to see, from our perspective, that it is important preserve the beauty of distinct folk cultures to give credit where credit is due, when we can.