Forrest Fang wears many hats, but during this interview over coffee in the Mission, he’s not actually sporting any haberdashery. Instead he projects the comfortable ease of the longtime employment lawyer he is. Though not a native -- he was born and raised in Southern California -- he’s called the Bay Area home for over 30 years, living in North Berkeley and currently working for a firm in Hayward.
Many families would be proud of someone succeeding in law, he notes with a laugh. But Fang was going against his family’s grain.
“My whole family’s in medicine,” he says. “I worked one summer in a lab with mice and it just wasn’t for me. Tried it out, didn’t like it, more power to people who can do it!" A friend from high school first turned him onto philosophy and debate; he eventually graduated from Northwestern University's law school, and went on to become a litigator with an expertise in employment law.
But while his clients may know Fang for his day job, another set of music fans worldwide know him for something else entirely. By the time he graduated from law school in 1984, he'd already self-released two albums of avant-garde ambient music. In the '90s, he moved on to release through the Cuneiform label; since 2000 he’s most associated with Portland’s Projekt label. His sixth album for them, Following the Ether Sun, was released this February. It's his 16th album overall.
Following is the latest example of Fang's elegant and serene way around composition and performance. Working with electronic elements and a combination of instruments from around the world -- ranging from synthesizers to such traditional music makers as the Japanese palm harp and the cumbus, or Turkish lute -- Fang creates a fusion that resists the stereotype of the term. Instead of a forced marriage or the soggy middle-of-the-road character that afflicts some commercial ‘new age' music, Fang’s work creates an enveloping flow of rich sound and understated experimentation. It doesn’t sound like one specific style, nor a mix of them all at once -- but something else distinctly his own.
“The new album started,” Fang notes, “with some very unconventional ways of trying to finish something that I had started and abandoned. Once I got those pieces down, then I felt better about sensing where it would go. This may be a pre-streaming era way of thinking about things, but I still think of albums as a whole rather than individual songs. I’ll finish those songs, but it’ll always be in the frame of something larger.”
Over the course of our hour-long discussion, Fang references figures who have excited his musical imagination over the years: the still vital work of John Coltrane; the continuing explorations of legendary English guitarist Robert Fripp and Arizona synthesist Steve Roach; and another longtime local stalwart, his fellow sonic experimenter Robert Rich, with whom Fang has collaborated over the years.
Fang also gives a good deal of credit to another group of local performers when he discusses his musical development in the Bay Area: “I joined a group of Asian American musicians,” he recalls, “who were primarily into jazz -- Miya Masaoka, Mark Izu, Francis Wong." They invited him to participate in the San Francisco Gagaku Society, "a sort of a workshop Miya founded" in 1990. (Gagaku itself is an orchestral form of royal Japanese music developed over centuries, combining wind, stringed and percussive instruments in large ensembles.)
“What made it interesting to me was that we had a sensei [Master Suenobu Togi] who was originally a member of the Japanese imperial court," recalls Fang. "He was in residence at the time at UCLA, so the bargain he struck with our group was that if we paid for his plane fare, he’d come up on the weekends and teach us! So I’d regularly go over to our small apartment practice space in Pacific Heights, at Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu’s place.”
While Fang’s legal and musical careers are both in good health, there is, of course, the question of whether the latter would be financially possible without the former. Fang admits to more than a little concern over where the Bay Area is headed when it comes to a wider civic sustainability. He only lived in San Francisco for a few years before moving to the East Bay, but like so many longtime residents, he’s seen the gradual changes that preceded the current economic reality of life in the area; he's not entirely sanguine about the future.
“A lot of artists have gotten the short end of the stick with the push to develop the area, without a clear plan except to replace a lot of existing housing,” Fang concludes, which is "damaging for the community as a whole."
"The arts are really a community’s backstop," he concludes. And not to put too fine a point on it, "A lot of people draw their strength from the arts at difficult times.”