Forrest Fang
(Copyright © 1993 I/E MAGAZINE)

After two critically acclaimed, but underdistributed late Eighties releases on his own small independent label, Forrest Fang was ready for a bigger statement. For the last three years he has concentrated on an ambitious project, based on his previous experiments, on his musical research and on his on-going ethnic projects in the Chinese community of the San Francisco Bay Area. The result is "World Diary", one of the most striking examples of how far world-music has come from its original Deuter-dominated days.
As a musician who has created some of the most sophisticated world-music of the last decade, Forrest is unusually modest and shy. Isolation is the price he has to pay for maintaining his identity.

He was born in 1959, the son of a Chinese doctor...
"My dad really loved music more than anything else. All of us in the family were surrounded by music since our early days. The first instrument I learned to play was a violin, when I was ten; at fourteen I was playing mandolin; and so forth. By the time I finished high-school, I already had my own little home recording studio, where I started to experiment with mixing and layering a variety of sounds. Actually, I was mostly listening to the British progressive rock bands (Jade Warrior, Mike Oldfield, Robert Fripp, all the Canterbury artists, all the Virgin releases). I guess at the beginning I was influenced a lot by the earliest electronic experiments by rock musicians, such as Fripp's "frippertronics". Then, before I started college, my parents bought me my first synth, and that I still consider the most important present of my life."

In 1977 Forrest moved to Washington University (St Louis, Missouri)...
"That was a terrific place to get a formal education in composition. I was studying jazz and electronics, I was composing pieces for tape-delay, I was diving heart and soul into minimalist music, and much more. A group of friends helped me produce the first album, "Music From The Blackboard Jungle". But you won't find it in your local store: we made only 200 copies of it... The influence of Terry Riley was rather strong. Still it was a good try: I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the tools of the studio."

For those who will never hear it, that album contains seven tracks, including a twelve-minute suite ("Greenway 112") and a solo "a' la Frith" ("To The Limit"). There's more than a passing flavor of folk music, but layered with all sorts of musical events.

In 1981 Forrest moved to Chicago and enrolled in the Northwestern School of Law. Yes, this days he is an attorney, and his music is still a fairly private affair:
"Even back then I was reluctant to perform in public. I never felt the need to play live. Frankly, I am not comfortable at all on a stage in front of hundreds of people I don't know. And I am not even sure that music like mine can be successfully transferred to the stage: the sound of my composition owes a lot to the processing I do in the studio, which would be impossible to reproduce live. Recently that has been changing: I have tried to write more "classical" pieces, that can be played by an ensemble in a theatre. Generally speaking, though, I am not crazy about performing concerts."

Regrettably, reluctance to promote his music has resulted in almost complete isolation. Having no ties at all with the contemporary scene or the show business would be a problem even for much less experimental artists.

Anyhow, in 1982 the second album appeared, "Some Brighter Stars", of which 300 copies were printed. More mature and atmospheric, with far superior instrumentation (a Korg MS20, an ARP 2500, a Moog Satellite but still, Forrest observes, no sequencer), the album is crowned by "Monsoon" (in a heavily percussive minimalist mode) and the soothing "Mirrors Surround The Sun".

A few critics were impressed, but Forrest had to focus on his degree and did not return to music until 1984, when he had graduated and relocated to the Bay Area.
"It took a lot of learning to make the next album, "Migration". By the time I started recording again, I had become a lot more familiar with production techniques. I had acquired my first polyphonic keyboard, a CZ, and was able to mix much more varied sounds. I wasn't really in a hurry to make a new record: I was viewing this activity as a hobby which would never bring me money or fame. So I took my time. In a sense I made that record because that type of music was finally becoming fashionable. As a matter of fact, it came out at the wrong time. And, in retrospect, I now realize that the album had shortcomings."

To these ears "Migration" is still first-rate world-music, with a more balanced use of the key ingredients and no minimalist overkill. Not sensual, not ritualistic, not trivial: well-thought, well-performed, well-recorded.

By the time critics began listening to it, a metamorphosis was already underway: Forrest had become a close associate of Zhang Yan, a Chinese teacher of the Chinese zither (and who has invented the "double zither", equipped with a pedal that allows the player to change scale). Western minimalism was abandoned and traditional Eastern music took over. Forrest, by the way, is one of the few Western musicians who can read and write the Chinese musical notation (a system of symbolic and numeric codes that bears little or no resemblance to the stave).
"Their notation is useful for composing modern music because one can easily capture on paper phenomena such as microtones that would be otherwise difficult to express in the Western notation. It just makes it easier to tell what is happening to notes. Now that I have such a powerful tool in my hands I am starting composing music for chamber ensembles. My scores are a mixture of Chinese and Western notations. Of course it takes a while for the performers to understand what the heck I want them to play..."

Yan's influence can be heard on "The Wolf At The Ruins", his 1989 record, widely considered a marked jump in textural effects and thematic quality. By combining acoustic and electronic sounds to create his haunting and magical soundscapes, while spanning ancient and modern styles, Forrest developed a very personal language and recorded some memorable tracks.
"With that record I finally got some satisfaction out of my art! I am going to reprint it soon. I learned how to mix acoustic and electronic instruments, but also how to employ "rhythm", not in the sense of rock music, but in the sense of percussion: I enjoy Oriental percussion, the kind that they use for leading, guiding the music, rather than just for marking the speed. Gamelan folk music, in particular, was a strong influence in that period."

Among his new "tools" was also a Korg DSS1 sampler (which has recently been joined by a Prophet 5).
"I like the fact that a sampler can simulate instruments to the point that the listener can't tell when the real instrument is playing and when it's the sampler. I find it fascinating. Last but not least, with the sampler I can play ensemble music all by myself..."

In the meantime the hyper-active Fang started a collaboration with Par Example, a Dutch duo that plays heavily electronic music. They have been remotely interacting for two years now and by sending tapes back and forth across the ocean they have managed to record over forty minutes of music. Forrest is very proud of the project and feels that some of his best ideas are to be found on those air mail tapes.
"Over the last three years I have begun to work more and more with other musicians. It's a new experience for me, since in the past I have lived and worked in complete isolation. For the new record, "World Diary", I owe a lot of ideas to a group of Tibetan folk musicians I met here in San Francisco. Their style has little in common with the stereotypes we have in the West about Tibet: ritualism, lots of bells, static harmonies and so on. All the contrary: their music is very colored, very dynamic, and unbelievably melodic. It was a big surprise for me and somehow it made me reconsider my own approach to music. Maybe music is not about was I thought it was about... Unfortunately, financial problems have caused the project to be temporarily suspended".

On his latest release, "World Diary", a summa of his musical experience and knowledge, Fang continues to carve his unique signature sound. One of the most appealing aspects is how the record avoids the kind of repetitions and redundancies that are very common in the world-music genre: even the most sensous, ornate, inventive sounds are played for just a few seconds, rather than being the source for endless variations and explorations. Effects follow effects so quickly that most listeners will probably feel shocked (rather than soothed, as common practice) by the whole. Others will be disoriented by the quantity and variety of ideas. More than a simple collage, "World Diary" is what it says: a diary made of quick notes, whose identity does not rest in the single pages but on the entire sequence.
"I have never before gone to this extent of using acoustic instruments. The reason may sound silly: this home is the first quiet place I have ever had where I can play, record and listen to acoustic instruments. I also enjoy the acoustics of these rooms, as opposed to the artificial, cold acoustics of the studio. "World Diary" features numerous unusual ethnic instruments: the gu-zheng (Chinese zither), angklung (Balinese bamboo tubes), dhamyan (Tibetan lute), chin-chin (Chinese lute), kora, mbira, balalaika, all sorts of gongs, bells, xylophones, drums, harps... This is a far more ethnic recording than anything I have done in the past. It borrows from many culture, but belongs to no one culture."

It draws from Africa for the shamanistic prayer of "The Bushmen Clear the Savannah", from Java for the street dance of "Archipelago", from Central America for "Ceremony at the Edge of the Great Abyss", always creating a compelling intensity. Over half an hour of "World Diary" is devoted to the "Nomads" ethnic fantasy, a collage of conceptual pieces orchestrated for Oriental chamber ensembles. We are overwhelmed by instruments from all parts of the world. It's a musical odyssey into the heart of ancient mythology. Fang skillfully orchestrates each piece with a colorful array of timbres.
"I hope that my music is "world-music" in its spirit, more than in its content. We cannot live in an ethnic vacuum anymore, we live in an era that is essentially multi-ethnic: music must somewhow recognize the cultural interdependence of all people of the Earth, the enormous quantity of influences that condition our perceptions every day of our life. Unlike most modern composers, who are reluctant to admit any external influence besides pure artistic inspiration, I pride myself of listening to so much music. Most of my time is spent listening to others. In a sense my style of composing "is" listening to others."

Fang is happy with his new album, but keeps a down-to-earth attitude:
"In the U.S. it is quite difficult to be recognized and respected when you are not part of the musical establishment. I belong to a generation that is trying to create a new form of music, outside the academia and not part of the show business. In our limbo we lose the support of both foundations and the discographic industry."

Do not worry, Forrest: music so deeply and carefully conceived cannot be neglected for much longer.


Music From The Blackboard Jungle (Ominous Thud, 1980
Some Brighter Stars (Ominous Thud, 1982)
Migration (Ominous Thud, 1986)
The Wolf At The Ruins (Ominous Thud, 1989)
World Diary (Ominous Thud, 1992)

Forrest Fang's music is distributed in the U.S. by Wayside, Eurock, Backroads, Silent and Playing By Ear.

Ominous Thud can be reached at 1807 Mendocino St, Richmond CA 94804