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Fengxia / Fuchs / Turner - The New Flags

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Artist: Fengxia / Fuchs / Turner

Album: The New Flags

Label: a/l/l/

Review date: May. 20, 2003

Sonic Semaphores

Geography no longer holds sway the way it once did. Today the virtual pinions of politics and culture are often all that separate disparate populations of people. Those too are crumbling through the decay of outmoded isolationist styles of thinking. The New Flags stand as a symbolic stanchion of this sort of ideational bridge building. Points of origin for the players range from London to Berlin to Shanghai and the trio’s transcontinental trappings form a template for improvised music that seems entirely new.

A child of Communist China, Xu Fengxia grew up under the totalitarian climate of Mao’s rigid cultural doctrines. Conservatory-trained in the guzheng, an elaborately strung instrument in the zither family, she also found musical freedom as a member of Shanghai’s first all-female rock band. Strong ties to the international improv scene coalesced soon after through a spot in Peter Kowald’s Global Village Ensemble. Wolfgang Fuchs also has grounding in formal classical training and has worked with a veritable laundry list of European improvisers. Turner’s chops are largely self-taught and his resume too reads like a phonebook of free form heavy hitters.

Live at the Total Music Meeting 2002, the band’s debut at the annual Berlin free improv festival, supplies two hulking slabs of music and a comparatively brief audience-seducing encore. Their stated purpose is to fuse fragments of traditional Chinese song forms with spontaneous improvisation. An organic and highly combustible chemistry fuels the results. Roles between the three principals seem in a constant state of flux throughout. At first, Fengxia’s spiny strings work as the harmonic anchor, stitching ghostly chordal webs in a harp-like fashion. Her fingers flutter against strings like beating hummingbird wings and later she bows stringently at the surfaces creating creaking contrapuntal waves. Turner summons up fields of rhythmic tension, mirroring the stuttering starts and stops of Chinese percussion patterns, only to crack said mirror with tumbling bursts of clattering dissonance. Fuchs shows off his substantial faculties at negotiating register extremes of his contrastive reed cache. Jockeying from bass clarinet to its elephantine contrabass variant and on to the sawed off sonorities of the sopranino saxophone, he masticates vigorously on his reeds, driven by what seems like an insatiable hunger to produce streams of chattering multiphonics.

Fengxia’s haunting, and often highly melodic, choral voice creeps in midway through the first piece “Lichtvögel.” Her lush willowy pipes add yet another element to the already tonally rich sound palette in conjunction with Fuchs’ flittering reed exclamations. Turner slices and hammers at his cymbals, punctuating the Chinese sung lyrics with loud percussive retorts. “Wellenflug,” the second piece, is more diffuse and takes longer to coalesce. Drifting through spates of near silence the three deal in delicate juxtapositions of sound, just as often as heated exchanges of energy. Turner’s sticks in particular show a greater measure of weightlessness and the abstract rhythms he conjures refuse to be nailed down. The closing minutes make the earlier wandering moments worth it as Fengxia’s ululating vocals grapple with Fuch’s snorting sopranino in a wild dervish like dance flanked by Turner’s crackling cymbal static. “Flux Island,” the encore, pairs Fuch’s upper register drone frequencies with the scribbling counterpoint of Turner’s tiny percussion and Fengxia’s distant string plucks and hoary exhortations. It’s a hypnotic closer to a disc already ripe with beguilingly alien sounds.

The New Flags are but one beacon of a rising world consciousness in creative improvised music. Given the continuously narrowing gaps between improvisors across the globe, like-minded combinations of formerly far-flung players are sure to follow. In the meantime, for the intrepid sonic explorer, the music of Fengxia, Fuchs and Turner exists as an superior place to gain ingress to the revolution.

By Derek Taylor

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