5 Questions to Wu Fei (composer, vocalist, guzheng virtuoso)

Nashville-based composer, vocalist, and guzheng virtuoso Wu Fei recently found an unlikely spark of inspiration in the little known story of European Jewish refugees who fled eastward to Shanghai during World War II and eventually relocated to San Francisco. Her piece Hello Gold Mountain, a collaboration with contemporary music ensemble chatterbird and oud player Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, was recently dubbed “Best New Classical Work” of 2019 by Nashville Scene. The February 2019 premiere took the city by storm as the musicians partnered with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, the Chinese Arts Alliance of Nashville, and the Nashville Public Library to bring the stories of these refugees to life in community programming events. As a graduate of the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing and Mills College in Oakland, Wu Fei’s own personal journey shares dimensions of the Hello Gold Mountain story—the pain of loss coupled with the fresh possibilities of life in a new country.

You’ve described Hello Gold Mountain as a “requiem for lost possibilities of the Jewish community of Shanghai.” What vision of these “lost possibilities” are you ultimately trying to convey in the piece?

I live in Nashville, Tennessee—the heartland of American music and a hotbed of musical cross-culturalism. In this city and nearby regions, west African music brought over by enslaved people got mixed up with Celtic, English, and French folk music. Over many generations these fusions helped create blues, jazz, rock, and all the sub-genres that came after.

Imagine if the Jewish composers of wartime Shanghai had stayed there, collaborated with local musicians, and learned local folk music? Imagine if these composers became a natural part of the landscape for Chinese musicians? Imagine if this collaboration lasted for generations and not just a number of years. That did not happen. Hello Gold Mountain is my attempt to write music that I think could have come out of the fascinating cultural possibilities of the Jewish presence in Shanghai.

Hello Gold Mountain sheds new light on a turbulent, devastating moment in both Jewish and Chinese history, which has significant parallels to the harsh realities facing refugees and migrants around the world today. How do you hope audiences will respond to the piece?

The events that inspired Hello Gold Mountain are obviously part of a large and complicated subject regarding the challenges of refugees and migrants. One aspect I hope audiences will want to learn more about from this chapter in history is the impact of languages on these moments. In music, every language has its own unique ability to bring emotional detail and context to the meaning of a piece. But language also plays a complicated role in how different cultures and traditions understand one another, especially in periods of conflict like those Hello Gold Mountain focuses on.

I believe immersing oneself in another language is also to immerse yourself in a new culture, not just new words. Knowing the considerable hurdles these communities had to clear in order to embrace one another is something that we are seeing today in our communities, and, unfortunately, with only varying degrees of success. What I hope Hello Gold Mountain conveys is the idea that embracing one another is how to find a new and higher path to truth. The more clarity and collaboration we have in pursuing truth, the less we can be used (by the very few powerful and divisive ones) to hurt each other.

Wu Fei--Photo by Jérôme Pierson

Wu Fei–Photo by Jérôme Pierson

Relocating to Nashville in 2015 has allowed you to make several surprising musical connections, especially to your touring partner, virtuoso banjoist Abigail Washburn. What roles do you see Nashville playing in the broader landscape of contemporary music?

There will be more collaborations between the musicians who have moved to Nashville in recent years and those who’ve lived here a long time. I grew up in classical and traditional music conservatories. I now live in the home of singer-songwriters, which is the tradition that Abby is steeped in. The confluence of our two musical backgrounds is wonderful. 

Since I moved to Nashville, I’ve also been working with classical musicians and ensembles whose mission is to play works by living composers, and collaborating with artists from other countries in all kinds of artistic disciplines. Check out chatterbird (which premiered Hello Gold Mountain) and Intersection (which premiered If I Was A Batman Queen). Both of these ensembles are directed by women.

I believe that the new music being made in Nashville will touch people’s hearts–just as it always has–but this time, with new elements. Nashville has always had musicians and entrepreneurs who want to push the envelope in all kinds of fields, not just in music.

Being kind and down-to-earth are two essential characteristics of Nashville, from my experience living here. Regardless of genres and forms, people who live and work here in music will create new art that will always carry those characteristics even with all the new development—good, bad and ugly. As long as Nashville retains its earnest, warm culture (weather too, haha), and stays affordable to live, it will keep attracting creative people.  The world will hear more interesting sounds coming out of Nashville, no doubt.

Your parents also recently relocated to Nashville, bringing you closer to your cultural and musical roots. How do you think this new chapter in your family story will shape your performances and compositions going forward?

I’m learning about myself all over again since my parents arrived in Nashville from Beijing two months ago. It’s pretty amazing to spend time with them after being apart for nearly two decades, and to watch them adjust to life in the U.S. (which is mostly good!).

My father is a musician. He plays the sanxian, a traditional string instrument from China. I call it the fretless Chinese three-string banjo. We’ve been playing a lot of music together at home. We’re still working out when we want to do some shows as a duo! But generally, it’s very grounding having my parents here. Being grounded makes me write better music, and that’s a good thing.

We live in a time when the US government is trying to raise public suspicion toward Chinese residents. What do you wish Americans knew about Chinese music and culture that they probably don’t know?

I’m a musician and a composer in my blood and bones, so what I really care about is music. And I don’t think it matters where my collaborators and listeners are from if they get my music. Good music is good music, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

But what I can say on the political aspect of the question you asked: I hope people can see that the tensions between the U.S. and China are geopolitical. These tensions should not affect our human relations. These are no doubt extremely divisive times we live in, much of it influenced by political differences, but I hope that music lovers in the U.S., China, and all over the world can come together over our shared human culture.

For more about Wu Fei, listen to her interview on NPR’s Classically Speaking.