Forrest Fang: Phantoms

A review of the instruments Forrest Fang used to create his ninth solo album, Phantoms, says much about the sonic character of its eight ambient soundscapes. In addition to the expected synthesizer and electronics, the Chinese-American musician plays electric violin, mandolin, ukelin, marxolin, Japanese palm harp, and non-Western strings and percussion (cumbus, khustar, saron, kora, sueng, kulintang, baglama, kendang). Almost eight years in the making, the album catalyzes that wealth of sound materials into a seductive, seventy-minute tapestry that draws upon Indonesian gamelan music and Far Eastern exotica as much as it does standard ambient conventions. Fang (who also issued the Hypnos Secret Sounds recording Tones for LaMonte Young last year under the Sans Serif moniker) comes by such influences honestly, having studied electronic music and jazz improvisation at Washington University, zheng (Chinese zither) with the late Zhang Yan of Mainland China, gagaku with former Japanese Imperial Court musician Suenobu Togi, and gamelan with Balinese composer I Wayan Sujana.

Some of the album's pieces conform to the celestial tranquility one associates with the ambient-electronica genre: “A Walk Through the Clouds,” “Ebb In Winter,” and “Float,” for example, are all gentle, impressionistic soundscapes which focus on vaporous electronic formations and synthetic decorations. But other pieces step outside the genre for a more panoramic style. The music's exotic character comes fully to the fore during “The Great Wheel,” where the pluck of a zither-like string instrument is heard against a becalmed, tinkling backdrop, and “Little Angklung,” where a rich array of hand percussion patterns provides an anchor to a cloud-like swirl of strings and glassy electronics. All facets of Fang's musical interests come into play during the twenty-three-minute unfolding of the album's centerpiece, “The Hallucinations of Hung Tung,” which was inspired, so we're told, by the ethereal paintings of a Taiwanese fisherman and outsider artist. In its early stages, tones drift and exhale in unhurried slow motion as gamelan percussion sounds softly tinkle but the pace picks up considerably when a seeming army of hand percussion players joins the fray. Eventually the intensity subsides and the piece settles into a somnolent state to bring it to a peaceful close.

Info accompanying the release classifies it as “New Age,” an alienating designation for some given the “wallpaper” connotations the term carries with it, but Phantoms—despite the fact that some of the more celestial settings could be described as such—includes provocative pieces that render the term a little bit misleading.

August 2009