What to Read: Wu Fei is composing original songs every day
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
I compose, perform, and record an original piece of music every day, which I send to my subscribers with a short note about its inspiration.
It’s astounding that you’re able to compose and record a new song each day. What is that process like?
I have been practicing both of the instruments every day for at least two to three hours since I was 5 years old. When I was 13, I started to take composition lessons. That’s when composing became part of my daily music routine. I usually start my daily practice—on guzheng [21-string Chinese zither] or piano, or both—around the early afternoon in my home studio.
My creative process has changed quite a bit over the years from when I was an inexperienced student to where I am now. Now I sit down in front of the instruments, and as soon as my fingers touch the strings or keys, music starts to flow out of my chest. I feel like a channel for the sounds that come to me. The less I think about what I want to play, the easier the music comes out.
I usually have a video game on my phone next to me when I lay down multitracks. I play the video game while coming up with counterpoint tracks to the earlier tracks. Playing the game helps me to keep my heart or my “channel” empty because my brain is distracted. That way, when the music hits me, there is no analytical resistance that would block the natural flow. It works every time.
In your music, we hear the guzheng. Sometimes you say this is “solo improvisation,” “prepared guzheng,” or a “multitrack guzheng.” Can you explain what these terms mean?
A solo improvisation is when I record playing the guzheng in one single take and it’s completely improvised. There is no pause during recording, nor rehearsed or practiced section. It can be the most challenging and easiest way to create, at the same time.
Prepared guzheng is when I tinker with the instrument, for example, by attaching rings or forks or something to the strings.
Multitrack guzheng is when I record two or sometimes a whole bunch of tracks separately, and then mix them together digitally on the computer.
The guzheng, sometimes just called a zheng, is a traditional Chinese zither with a history dating back around 2,500 years. It is related to the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh.
What role does listening to music play in your creation?
I almost always come up with the music first without needing any thing or person to inspire me. After the music is done, I listen to it. While I listen to it, I start to look around either in the room or step outside into the forest (I live in a forest) with no purpose. Then something—scenery, a plant, a bird call, often a visual stimulation but sometimes an imagination—clicks with the music and presents a story. It usually only takes a few minutes for that to happen, and it’s hard to explain what that feels like. I see a pattern in everything that exists in the world. I gaze at the pattern and stories start to jump out of my head.
You’ve published more than 600 new songs now. Which ones stand out to you?
What does the future of your Substack music look like?
I’ll be traveling more to play live concerts all around the world in the coming seasons, and I plan to create more music inspired by the fun and interesting things I learn from traveling with my Substack audience.
Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?
Bill Bishop’s Sinocism!