Forrest Fang: Letters to the Farthest Star
As Forrest Fang has been releasing albums steadily since 1980 (by Discogs' count, twelve, included among them his latest as well as a collaboration with Carl Weingarten), I would hardly consider myself qualified to make some general statement about his entire output, even though I have reviewed three of his recent releases (one of them under his Sans Serif alias). I mention this by way of preamble because, even though I stand by that statement, his latest full-length, Letters to the Farthest Star, strikes me as so definitive a portrait, it's hard to resist thinking of it as an artistic peak of some kind, especially when it so powerfully fuses the electronic and acoustic into a single compelling statement.
Fang's ‘Fourth World' music stands out from the ambient-electronic crowd in the way it extends the electronic side of his music into other spheres. Hints of classical minimalism can be detected as well as echoes of a progressive rock outfit such as Jade Warrior, but it's the presence of traditional non-Western sounds within his productions that really sets Fang apart. Elements of Javanese gamelan and Chinese folk music are woven into his pieces, and the rich soundworld presented on Letters to the Farthest Star, which Fang recorded over a two-year period, includes everything from hichiriki (Japanese double-reed instrument) and gu-zheng (Chinese zither) to baglama (small Turkish lute) and bandurria (Peruvian stringed instrument). String and percussion instruments originating from China, Japan, Indonesia, and Turkey lend the recording a panoramic feel, and to say that the list of instruments Fang is credited with on the album is impressive is understating it.
The album begins with a transporting, nineteen-minute suite titled The Unreachable Lands, which undertakes a global excursion in four parts. Populated by lutes, drums, zithers, violin, electronics, and guitar (the latter courtesy of Jeff Pearce, who contributes lustrous textures to the peaceful fourth part “Hermitage”), Fang's resplendent material undergoes dramatic shifts of mood from one section to the next, such that the carefree spirit that infuses “Song of the Camel” is darkened by the exotic mysteries of “Water Village.” As exotic is the hypnotic, raga-styled “Burnt Offerings,” which peppers its ethereal ambient base with the sounds of a cumbus (Turkish stringed instrument), Japanese palm harp, and percussion.
Elsewhere, Fang individualizes a deep ambient meditation such as “Fossils” with unusual instrumental touches, in this case something resembling a dusty, out-of-tune piano, and then soothes the listener with lyrical violin melodies and delicate gamelan patterns in “Seven Coronas.” Following the New Age-styled “Lorenz,” the album concludes with “Lines To Infinity,” an immersive kosmische-styled setting that sees Fang transforming layers of processed electronic mandolins into synthetic breezes. An encompassing, seventy-minute portrait, Letters to the Farthest Star plays like a summation of sorts. It might even be Fang's grandest achievement, though, as stated earlier, in order to make such a determination one would need to be familiar with all of his work.