This was the second of two nights of concerts I saw in St. Audoen's, as part of the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival. Read about the first here
The second night was meant to feature three performers, but one of them was held up by visa prickology. The first actual performer was Miya Masaoka, who was playing the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument that looked a bit like a harp turned on its side and redesigned by a civil engineer who had been exposed to non-Euclidean geometry through one too many acid trip. Just seeing this thing was worth the price of admission. Masaoka was in some ways doing similar things to the previous night's performers (the whole sampling layers thing) and also seemed to be using the koto to trigger pre-programmed sounds. I found her set a bit disappointing, as I would much rather have heard her just play the instrument without resource to the electronic trickery; this reflects my own current musical interest in non-western stringed instruments rather than any intrinsic lack of brilliance in the music she was producing. I did find that her music was at its best when she was just kotoing away without letting the electronics get in the way, suggesting that I am some kind of luddite world music granddad.
However, the most impressive bit of her performance was the last piece, where she abandoned the koto and instead moved her hands through laser beams she was shining across the stage to trigger stored koto sounds. The effect was to make her look almost like she was playing air Theremin, with all the impressiveness that suggests, while the music produced was among the most straight down the line of her set.
Wu Fei, then, was from China, and she played another one of those horizontal stringed instruments, but one less mental looking than that of her predecessor; investigation suggests that this one is the guzheng. She had also perhaps sneaked into the festival on false pretences, as there was nothing really obviously electronic about her music, unless you adopt the very inclusive position that all amplified music counts as electronic. She herself said at the beginning that the only electronic thing about herself was the feedback from her instrument (of which there was a fair bit, though it sounded accidental rather than intentional).
So I wonder, where the DEAF organisers silently shaking their fists and angrily asking each other who had invited this purveyor of virtually unreconstructed traditional music? For that was largely what Wu Fei seemed to play – some of her pieces were original compositions and some appeared to be tunes she had picked up while travelling around the country in the manner of a trad archivist. She also broke with the other musicians by using her voice a lot, and by basically doing songs a lot of the time (though not exclusively, as some of her tunes could be quite abrasive, like one introduced as a tribute to the province of Hunan).
She was easily the best thing I saw over the two nights, or at least the one I enjoyed the most. As noted above, I'm on a bit of an orientalist kick at the moment, so her playing her instrument without any funny electronic stylings very much gave me what I wanted. Her voice was also very beautiful, well-suiting the songs she sang, some of which had poignant and wistful subjects (like remembering being a child, when in the winter time she would go into Summer Palace in Beijing and ride her bicycle across the frozen lake contained there.
So I bought her album A Distant Youth on the way out, and it is pretty much more of the above, although it does feature a few other musicians, including Fred Frith. It does not seem very electronic either.
image from Wu Fei Music