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Savage Beauty

One of the highest achievements in present-day world music is the Chinese-American fusion. It is wondrously explicable. China’s seismic political and cultural upheavals produced an earthquake of creativity. Conservatory-bound composers wound up on the countryside, absorbing folk music styles exploring timbre in ways they had never imagined. And – following Chinese speech, in which tonal inflections impart meaning – Chinese folk tunes subtly manipulate pitch, sliding between notes that are separately voiced by keyed Western instruments. A generation of important Chinese composers, paradoxical beneficiaries of enforced rural relocation, wound up studying in the West. For many, Bela Bartok became a lodestar for his way of retaining the spontaneity and savage beauty of folk elements. And so they discovered a middle ground between Chinese and Western instrumental performance – a musical kaleidoscope sounding “Asian” to American ears for its sighing speech-song and taut percussion patterns, yet equally foreign, in harmonic idiom, to Chinese audiences. 

This new music spawned a new virtuosity of which Min Xiao-fen is a peak exemplar. She is both a demonic artist and a great instrumentalist. Her musical adventures have led in many directions. Her present collaboration with Rez Abbasi – showcased on a new CD titled “White Lotus” – is special. His virtuosity is as protean as hers. Born in Karachi, raised in Southern California, he is a keen student of jazz, ethnic, and classical music. The resulting combination of pipa, guqin, ruan, and sanxian – all plucked instruments – with acoustic and electric guitars produces a limitless range of juxtaposition: of similarity and imitation; of dialogue and contradiction. The strumming physicality, the skittish passagework, the delicacy of inflection accessible to both players yields a veritable lexicon of East/West fusion. To this are added the complex melismas, shifting vibratos, and rapidfire ornamentation of Xiao-fen’s vocalism, as rooted in scat as in timeless Chinese tradition. 

Though the new Xiao-fen/Abbasi CD derives from Min Xiao-fen’s original score for the classic Chinese silent film The Goddess (1934), it requires no video component to saturate the senses. Here, for instance, is the first, introductory track, in which Xiao-fen’s haunted vocalism overlays guqin and acoustic guitar. And here is “The Flower Song,” in which Eastern and Western plucked instruments – ruan and guitar – engage in a dialogue so symbiotic that it never registers as a juxtaposition of “East” and “West.” 

I met Min Xiao-fen in 2004 during my tenure as Artistic Advisor to the Pacific Symphony. Subsequently, she’s been a frequent guest with PostClassical Ensemble (the DC-based chamber orchestra I co-founded in 2003 with the conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez). She’s played Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis for us. Also, we’ve commissioned and premiered compositions by Zhou Long and Daniel Schnyder featuring  Xiao-fen (the Schnyder being a devilishly difficult pipa concerto).  

The back-story: Min Xiao-fen arrived in the United States in 1992 feeling a “need for something new.” She had grown up in Nanjing, where her father was a pipa master. He taught her his instrument, and also to sing Beijing Opera. The family also knew Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Her sister became a prominent erhu virtuoso, her brother a symphonic conductor. When she graduated from high school in 1977, the Cultural Revolution had not quite subsided – music conservatories remained closed. She successfully auditioned for Nanjing’s leading traditional music ensemble and wound up playing eighty concerts a year, including European tours. Meanwhile, she began singing in Chinese clubs, backed by saxophone, electric guitar, and drums. Her voice proved adaptable to cooler Western styles. Some of her father’s colleagues were not pleased.

A turning point came in New York City when John Zorn invited her to improvise – which she had never attempted. That led to performing Thelonious Monk tunes for Jazz at Lincoln Center. She thought Monk “was actually a monk. “My contact with his music felt physical,” she recalls. Her transformational Monk renditions remain a Min Xiao-fen signature.

The ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman once remarked that “musical borders can be crossed, but the value of crossing them depends on the degree to which you respect them.” Some hybrids are slapdish. The intermingling of styles in “White Locus” is complete and comprehensive. 

(This blog post is adapted from my booklet note for “White Locus.”)

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