Alto Quartets

[organized sound recordings 4]

James Fei & Kato Hideki

[Improvised Music from Japan 522]

Alto Quartets brings together works written between 1998 and 2001 by Taiwan-born James Fei, one of many saxophonist/composers who have studied with Anthony Braxton, including Chris Jonas, Jackson Moore and Seth Misterka (who also play on the album, as does Braxton himself on one track). Unlike Braxton's music, which can't resist frequent affectionate glances over its shoulder, Fei's concern with process and mass effect is mirrored in the timbral uniformity of his instrumentation, which kills ourtright any attempt to describe his music as 'jazz.' It is gritty, uncompromising stuff, experimental in nature—notably the three "Studies" whose subtitles "Scream," "Flutter" and "Saliva" are self-explanatory—but muscular and sweaty rather than cool and posed. After the space and austerity of the first part of "for four alto saxophones"—also a study in ensemble synchronisation, or the lack of it—the honks, wails and squeals of "Horizontal-Vertical" are thrilling. "Work" uses an assortment of reeds specially 'crippled' by cuts (as shown on the album cover), producing unpredictable noise and overtone content.

On Sieves, Fei abandons his alto in favour of oscillators, filters, spring reverb and contact mic to join bassist Kato Hideki (Ground Zero, Death Ambient) in a set of seven stark improvisations recorded live in the studio and subsequently swapped, remixed, rerecorded ina reverberant staircase and, where necessary, sent back through an echo chamber. On this long-awaited follow-up to Fei's work with David Novak on 2001's Precision Electro-Acoustics on Fei's Organized Sound imprint, he and Hideki join a growing band of transatlantic improvisors (Jason Talbot, Howard Stelzer, Vic Rawlings) who have chosen to concentrate on the textural sparsity and small gesture writ large of DIY electronics instead of the luscious layer cake world of the laptop.This is no casual knob twiddling, though' Hideki's sense of timing is as dramatic as it was with Ikue Mori and Fred Frith in Death Ambient, and Fei approaches the business of making music with the deadly earnestness of his erstwhile teacher. One wonders what Braxton would make of it.

The Wire


[organized sound recordings 2]

Maestros are Taiwanese New Yorker James Fei and former Londoner David Novak, who have both played reeds with Anthony Braxton. Saxophones and bassoon feature on the second disc of Precision Electro-Acoustics, but the character of the duo is established through their dedication to low-grade electronics. Fei studied with Alvin Lucier, Novak has performed with Otomo Yoshihide, so an interest in the microstructure of sound is no surprise. It's pursued with assistance from toys and a telephone amplifier, disc pickups attached to the throats of the chatting musicians, and a cassette four track mixer generating feedback loops. The compressed 3" format, here presented in a neat gatefold sleeve, suits their grainy, agitated music. There's a Cagean spirit in their creative misuse of technology, complete with a sense of humour: those feedback loops are initially put in the service of a human beatbox; a reed organ added completes the backdrop to the Maestros singing like Suicide wannabes.  —The Wire

(The Maestro's) lo-fi innovations are accessible both musically and aesthetically, revealing an all-too-rare sense of humor as well as a genuine experimental approach. The title and the deadly serious photo of Fei and Novak standing arms folded in front of a forbidding bank of switches and gadgetry are to be taken somewhat tongue-in-cheek; "Maestro" refers as much to the Maestro Rhythm'N'Sound guitar effects box as it does to Fei and Novak. Most of the sounds here are deliciously primitive and delightfully home-made; in addition to the effects box, Fei and Novak customize a Marantz 4-track, a telephone amp and a kids' toy, exploiting their noise potential à la David Tudor by turning them into feedback loop machines. In "Fireside Chat" they attach Piezo pick-ups to their throats (again, shades of Cage who caused quite a stir when he did this forty or so years ago) and record what sounds like a conversation - it's clear that the sounding result has its origin in speech, its pitch and inflections, but somewhere along the line the lo-fi recording process transforms it into something more abstract, even sinister. There are lots of fun moments to be found amongst the 14 tracks, my favorite being "Electricity and its Double" which sets Novak's bassoon against the modified toy with intriguing results. The screwed-up doo-wop of Novak's "Holy Land" and the 30-second romp of "Early Music" (for bassoon and sax without mouthpiece) are evidence of something rare these days in New Music: a sense of humor - I haven't had so much fun since Steve Beresford's "The Bath of Surprise". And the gatefold double 3" CD is a collector's treasure. —Dan Warburton Paris Transatlantic

For Saxophone with Card Reed and Gated Ampflication (organized sound 1)

"Any saxophone player who creates his own reeds out of cardboard is inviting problems. Mr. Fei does not make it easy, but he has my attention straight away...James Fei is using the John Cage premise of chance within an imposed sound set-up. "for card reed and gated amplification" is a blossoming act of self-sabotage. The experiment is deliberate but the actaul result is gradually going out of control, until of course it is switched off. Mr. Fei allows low-fi electronics to interrupt the flow of the sax mutation to the extent that feedback deliberately pricks the soundscape at peak points, eventually splitting the whole thing open with white noise. It feels like a meditation that has jammed. I believe this really is new music. It becomes possible to hear rhythm within a reed and an uncertain source-pot of electrics...I find this exciting. This limited edition mini-CD is just two experiments. There will be others. My own view is that such work is important, and if it takes James Fei forward then it is worth going with him. I seriously like what I hear."  —Steve Day  Avant

(Fei is) attracted to the classical avant garde, and although an improviser his pieces often involve a conceptual compositional element. This mini-CD offers twelve minutes of truly intriguing music from a relentless experimenter. The main piece inserts a cardboard reed into the sax and amplifies it, resulting in a ten-minute evolution from tiny, semi-random clicks into a wall of feedback. Truly inventive stuff. Let's hope Fei records more often. —Richard Cochrane  Musings

 James Fei's mini CD contains two short conceptual pieces. In the first, he explores the effect of contact miking a sax with a paper card reed and sending the signal to a gated fuzzbox and amplifier, producing break ups and crunches not unlike those that thrill fans of extreme rock. In the second, he sings and plays "Camptown Races" into a bass sax, exploring the harmonic interference effects of the two sound sources... In a world of cosy distractions, something clean and hard and necessary. —Ben Watson  The Wire


SOLO WORKS [Leo Lab 059]

works for bass clarinet, soprano, alto and bass saxophones performed by the composer
Fei, a brilliant and demanding technician, is never going to be confused with anyone but himself... (his) work straddling jazz-based improvisation and new classical music. The instrumentalism is expansive and virtuosic... Fei has created his own logic and his own philosopy of performance, and these nine pieces are full of abstract drama. No point in pretending that Solo Works doesn’t sit at the fringes of our concerns in this Guide, but anyone interested in creative music sound sample these sounds.”  —Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD

Fei is an autodidact, it would seem, with an approach which is rather personal. For example, his use of circular breathing to produce "isolated sounds in a continuum rather than un-broken melodies" represents an extremely unusual application of a standard technique. It's these kinds of right-brain tactics which make this disk so compelling; the way Fei separates fingering and articulation into discrete, asynchronised layers in one piece, and then later quotes Stravinsky with a bass clarinet harmonic. Fei attacks these pieces with gusto, an unfettered enthusiasm which, impressively, doesn't lead him into cheap "expressivism." There is an austerity here which works extremely well; these are compositions stripped down to a single idea, expressed clearly and simply. Highly recommended.
—Richard Cochrane Musings

I am beginning to think James Fei is really asking for trouble... The performance that really convinces me that Leo Records have got a new ace in the pack is for bass saxophone. The big bass saxophone blows back within an environment that provides the player with a whole set of obtuse harmonies; it sounds like the place has sheet metal walls. Solo Works is a declaration, a mark in the sand. Brilliant things could emerge from this spot; Mr. Fei has chosen to take the road less traveled. I am prepared to believe James Fei could be important in the future.
 —Steve Day  Avant

...This image (from for bass saxophone) is one of the most memorable of an impressive group of sounds, ideas, and musical stories presented by woodwinds player Fei. The splats stick with you because of their forcefulness, their isolation as individul sound events, and because of the distinctively rich timbre of the rarely heard bass saxophone. Although the piece consists of multiphonics, Fei never plays them the same way twice. Instead, each "sound burst" consists of a number of pitches heard in varying amounts of clarity and fusion... this complexity blurs pitch relationships. On the final track Fei attempts to play as quietly as possible, inviting the listener to adjust to extremely minute gradations of volume level. The player determines the loudness through the demands and realities of the sound production, rather than through a preconceived design. James Fei has wonderful ideas about combining the unpredictable with the predetermined. His techniques of circular breathing and multiphonics are well developed, his compositional strategies challenging, and his musicality evident, not only in the sounds but also in the sensitive sequencing of the pieces. This is a fine debut that should be especially welcomed by those who have enjoyed the classic solo works in the Braxton—Lacy—Evan Parker—Mats Gustafsson continuum.
—Robert Reigle  MusicWorks

Unique and wildly eclectic, this series of nine experimental solo pieces incorporates, absorbs, and expands the modern aesthetic. This is one to drive the family crazy... Fei clearly knows what he is doing, and, however difficult it may be to listen to this recording at a single setting, it is still—at least at times—an amazingly complex work of art. Fei's detailed liner notes explaining his concept are a big plus. [4.5 Stars]
—Steve Loewy   All-Music Guide

Solo sax albums can tend to be pretty tedious affairs, but happily this isn't one of them. I venture to suggest this is because we know in advance that these are compositions, all meticulously titled according to their instrumentation and date of composition. You can even follow a score of Fei's delicate bass clarinet multiphonics, and he sure as hell looks serious in the photo. If he can get such awesome sounds out of the bass saxophone as this, may we look forward to an album of ensemble pieces, or is the playing technique too personal, too idiosyncratic to be reproduced?
—Dan Warburton  Paris Transatlantic

Exploring the minute but unmistakable sonic differentiations inherent in the individual instruments themselves... (Solo Works) is undeniably fascinating. Fei's sonic explorations draw in the listener, and turn one's attention to the smallest of variations, as in the best work of John Cage. All those interested in the beautiful possibilities of new music exploration should not pass up James Fei.
—Robert Spencer  All About Jazz

Fei's superb playing is rooted in subtle timbral inflections and changes. He demonstrates an awesome control over articulation, dynamics, fingering, multiphonics: the production and shaping of sound. At times, his playing is barely audible ('for bass clarinet (8.97)' and 'for alto saxophone (6.98)', but can rise to screeching multiphonics when called upon ('for bass saxophone (7.98)'.  
CDeMUSIC (Electronic Music Foundation)

Saxophonist and electrical engineer, James Fei finds interest in tearing apart and rebuilding motifs, pursuing odd phrasings, half-tones, micro tones and other particulars. Mr Fei is a man who believes in his capabilities while executing his thoroughly fascinating ideas through his analytical aspirations, technical acumen and intriguing philosophies. [****]
  —Glenn Astarita   All About Jazz




eXchange:China [CRI CD805]

"James Fei's Chinese Music is as much of a performance statement as a piece of music--his 'singing' through his bass clarinet the melody of a propanganda song, 'Remembering Sun Yat-San,' learned as a child in Taiwan, results in (intentionally?) harsh sounds and an uncomfortable listening experience."  —Art Lange  Fanfare

"...intentional or not, these are among the most hysterically funny two minutes in my entire collection and well worth the price of admission."—Gimbel American Record Guide

Alto Quartet Taiwan Tour 

CHINA TIMES October 7, 2001

Taiwan's John Cage to offer 'unique sonic experience'
CHINA POST  Oct 8, 2001

Rare indeed is the occasion to hear the avant-garde music of New York-based composer James Cheng Ting Fei. The Taiwan-born musician returns to present for the first time his works for the alto quartet tonight at the Recital Hall in Taipei. He has promised a "unique sonic experience." Another concert is lined up on Oct. 12 at the National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu.

To join him in the airing of an "experimental and wildly eclectic" as well as "amazingly complex" repertoire are the James Fei Alto Quartet members Chris Jonas, Randy McKean and Jackson Moore. Fei is grateful that they are not discourage by the difficulty of his pieces. 

Of his alto quartet, Fei said: "Forming the alto quartet was both a practical and aesthetic necessity. On the one hand, it allowed my works to be performed at a time when there is little interest in new music. On the other hand, the quartet functioned as a sort of experimental workshop. These musicians have always been ready to try out taxing and sometimes bizarre ideas and techniques."

Vocalizing, circular breathing and multiphonics are some of the extended techniques in contemporary music Fei requires of his musicians. He also gets his musician engaged in physical processes like extending the "instrument" to the performer's body.

Taiwan's John Cage, too, does not hesitate to cut the reeds of the saxophones to prevent them from vibrating normally. This way, the sound from the instruments ceases to be pure, according to Fei. The relationship between the performer and the instrument is put in focus.

Critic Robert Spencer not too long ago wrote of Fei's "sonic explorations" and how they "draw in the listener, as in the best work of John Cage." The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD described Fei's music as "brilliant, demanding."

While pursuing his studies in electrical engineering, Fei developed interest in new music. Due to "new technical developments, both instrumental and interpretative, as well as the worsening state of economic difficulties and unsympathetic performers," saxophone player though t it natural that he should begin his studies in composition and woodwind instruments almost simultaneously. 

The 27-year-old Fei, who is presently working on his doctorate degree in composition at Columbia University, hopes to engage local musicians and composers in an exchange during his Taipei visit.

Fei has a CD album titled "Solo Works," which was recorded mainly at the Crowell Concert Hall of Wesleyan University in 1998. He also contributed his 1997 composition titled "Chinese Music" to the "eXchange: China" CD recording involving ten composers. A large number of tapes and scores came as response to the call for submissions from Composers Recordings, Inc. The album sought to highlight quality work of some lesser-known composers who are of Chinese heritage and currently living and working in the United States. CRI was the first American label to record and distribute the work of Tan Dun.


Bang on a Can All-Stars: Serendipity for a Freewheeling Group New York Times  June 22, 2001

...James Fei's work, "The Dots and the Lines," made the ensemble stretch more than the other works. Atonal, pointillistic and full of brief silences, it touched a part of the musical universe that is outside Bang on a Can's usual orbit. But the musicians played it with the same assurance they brought to the noisier, more rock-tinged works.

—Allan Kozinn

All Music Guide profile of James Fei.



Selected reviews of performances/recordings with Anthony Braxton:

Composition No. 247 is a riveting example of the Ghost Trance Music that currently preoccupies Braxton. He and James Fei bob and weave amongst an array of soprano, F and alto saxophones, E flat, bass and contrabass clarinets, while Matthew Welch sustains a reedy bagpipe drone. This is music with immediate impact despite the intricate permutations involved in ravelling and unravelling skeins from its basic nine notes. It oozes without interruption across a demanding and immensely satisfying hour. Fei's liner notes confirm the enormous demands made upon the players' stamina, with circular breathing techniques a constant requirement. Imagine on eof Terry Riley's reed stream pieces performed by a mechanical barrel organ and you have some idea of the sound of Braxton's extraordinary compostion.  —Julian Crowley (Wire)

Anthony Braxton, Matthew Welch and James Fei (whose Leo disc Solo Saxophone made my Top Ten of 1999 list) offer another of Braxton's Ghost Trance works (Composition No.247). After an extended repetitive section comes a drastic change in direction, akin to a drop in pressure when an airplane suddenly loses altitude; we are now in a music jungle, these reeds the calls of birds and elephants, with the lowing of the contrabass sax and clarinets, then Welch's bagpipes, interweaving a basket to hold these sounds. This is the most successful of the Ghost Trance Musics to date. The liner notes by reedist James Fei are exemplary; he explains Braxton so clearly that any layman would understand the intellectual concepts and compositional constructs. As Braxton is one our most significant composers, and he usually is excruciatingly oblique in his own writings, I'm grateful to Fei (and to continual Braxton-explainer Graham Locke) for those of us who want to know more about the "how" of his music. We are promised several two-CD sets live at Yoshii's.  --Steve Koenig (La Folia)

"Ghost Trance Music" is a phrase one hears bandied about in the rather occult discourses of Braxtonologists, but this piece really makes sense of the term. Using the bagpipes not only for their sound but, it seems, their whole tradition, he creates a continuously flowing stream of notes rooted in a regular semiquaver rhythm. At the most simplistic level, this is certainly hypnotic stuff, and when one gets a way into the piece's hour-long duration, time really does seem to dilate a bit... This makes this long piece both daunting and surprisingly affecting. On the surface of it, not much happens; a simple-looking tune is repeated, interminally, by three reed instruments. It's astonishing that something so apparently slight can yield such absoorbing and fascinating music. This is helped by the line-up. Regulars will remember Fei from his previous Leo release; he's a fine player with a penchant for the admixture of composition with improvisation, but it's a surprise to discover just how well he seems to understand the older man's somtimes obscure intentions. Welch is an absolute trouper, playing his intensely demanding part which requires him to hold the whole thing together but affords little opportunity for grandstanding. The presence of extensive and very helpful notes (by Fei) is something which seems to characterise Braxton on Leo, and something very much to be encouraged, making this extraordinary music accessible even to Braxton neophytes.  —Richard Cochrane  (Musings)

...James Fei should be commended for his extensive and articulate play-by-play of the mechanics and overall implications of this piece as he also proceeds to expound upon the sonic characteristics of bagpipes. Naturally, this composition presents it’s fair share of challenges to the musicians, who need to be in synch while performing hypnotic and at times, minimalist style unison lines amid seamless shifts in tempo. Therefore, getting all this done in one take, presented more than a few obstacles. However, listening to this piece in one sitting should be deemed a prerequisite, although when viewed upon as a whole, the invariability of the proceedings demands an acute attention span, especially when considering all of the subtle nuances and barely detectable transformations.  —Glenn Astarita (All About Jazz)

Fei has performed with Braxton at the Library of Congress, De Singl (Antwerp), Verona, Ljubljana, Banlieues Bleues (Paris), Jazz à Vienne, Jazz em Agosto (Lisbon), North Sea Jazz Festival (Den Haag), Yoshi's (Oakland), Knitting Factory, and Three Rivers Arts Festival (Pittsburgh). 


Composer/Multi-instrumentalist James Fei is a third millennium master who has already established an important body of music—his future promises to be very exciting. Mr. Fei's body of compositions ranges from orchestra to solo music and he is a dynamic multi-instrumentalist. This is a global musical thinker who is defining his own creative challenges—James Fei is very meticulous in everything he does. His musical universe opens into a unique sound galaxy that redefines all working components. This is a composer/multi-instrumentalist to watch. 

—Anthony Braxton (liner notes to Composition NO. 169 + (186+20+214) [Leo LR320/321])