NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
Wu Fei plays the guzheng, a 21-string Chinese zither with over 2,000 years of history. She has traveled and played all over the world — Beijing, New York City, Belgium, Tennessee — and her next stop is Chautauqua.
Amid a week of morning and afternoon lectures, the Chinese-American composer, musician and singer will address this week’s theme of “China and the World” through music. Fei is set to perform at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, June 30 in the Amphitheater.
What makes Fei’s musical style unique is her mixing of traditional Chinese and Western sounds with a contemporary spin. She will perform some original pieces tonight as she dives into Week One’s theme.
Even though Fei loves playing the guzheng, she didn’t choose this instrument — her parents did.
“It was a typical Chinese kid thing,” Fei said. “You didn’t really get to choose what to study.”
“My mom was in a music store and by chance found a big guzheng that was much bigger than the standard size,” she continued. “It was nearly twice as big as me when I first started. I really liked it. I thought it was really beautiful, with all of it’s strings. It’s easy to start, but it’s never easy to play it well.”
Fei began pursuing her musical dreams over 20 years ago when she moved from her hometown of Beijing, China, to Texas as an undergrad student studying music composition. From there, Fei began traveling the world to satisfy her curiosity and desire to experience new cultures.
“In China, people make it to their destination in a big city, and then they’re just there for their entire life,” Fei said.
To avoid this, Fei moved from Texas to the Bay Area of California for her master’s degree. From there, she found herself in Boulder, Colorado, and traveling to France and Italy to record her first album.
“I was shocked to see how different cultures can be after just a couple of hours on a small train ride,” Fei said. “As a composer and a creator, I wanted to have that drama and tragedy. Shakespeare wrote his plays because he was struggling, not because he was comfortable. During those 10 years of living in the States and living part-time in Europe, and still traveling to Beijing to visit my family, it was the most exciting time of my life.”
However, even though Fei was traveling the world playing her music, she felt as if something was missing.
“I was feeling tired and quite lonely,” she said. “I felt like I needed to recharge myself culturally and to just be grounded. My routine was traveling, venue, soundcheck and then getting on the next flight. I felt like I didn’t have a real story. I needed to have real emotions to let the natural sound come out instead of pretending. I thought about Beijing, my home city. I wanted to reconnect with my parents. I felt like I needed to get to know them again. I gained more appreciation for traditional Chinese art. Just seeing the ancient sites, the beauty and the people, I was very moved.”
Fei now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and two kids.
“Without living in a new environment, you’re just a tourist,” Fei said. “Not staying in my comfort zone is what led me to be able to travel to all of these places. You just have to want to do it. I slept in my car, I talked to people in gas stations and pulled out my guzheng to show people.”
“I felt like I didn’t have a real story. I needed to have real emotions to let the natural sound come out instead of pretending … I gained more appreciation for traditional Chinese art. Just seeing the ancient sites, the beauty and the people, I was very moved.”Wu Fei, musician and composer
Fei has been performing in big concert halls since she was 9 years old. With her life filled with concerts at such a young age, over time, Fei found herself disliking this aspect of her life.
“However, rediscovering improvisation and learning composition, I think liberated myself,” Fei said. “When I play my own music and tell my own story, it’s effortless. I have endless things to share and tell. I’m so excited to be playing for Chautauqua, and it’s also my first performance since the pandemic.”
Fei hopes to inspire people through her music and has a strong message to send to any young musicians.
“Just play your own story, and that will give life to whatever it is you’re playing,” she said. “Don’t let the instrument control you, but be the master of that instrument. I feel very lucky to be playing this ancient instrument from Chinese culture. Life is all about improvisation. From the moment you wake up in your bedroom you are improvising. Every time you brush your teeth it’s different from the last time you brushed your teeth. It’s the same with music.”
Tonight, Fei will be performing traditional old school repertoire on the guzheng from the Shandong and Hunan provinces. She will also be including contemporary compositions of her own and singing Peking and Kunqu opera, which are the oldest extant forms of Chinese opera.
“I will utilize those elements to create new improvisation pieces on stage,” Fei said. “I will make my own Chautauqua story right there on stage. I’m so excited to share these personal emotions that have been brewing inside of me this past year and a half.”