Berkeley’s Theresa Wong: Have cello, will travel

Theresa Wong. Photo: Peter Gannushkin, downtownmusic.net
Theresa Wong: plays a benefit for Doctors Without Borders on Saturday in Berkeley. Photo: Peter Gannushkin/downtownmusic.net

Theresa Wong calls Berkeley home, but she forged her artistic identity via a long and winding journey abroad, soaking up creative currents in Salzburg, Vienna, Venice and beyond. A cellist, vocalist, composer, and graphic artist who can often be found enmeshed in gripping multi-media productions, Wong joins forces with guitarist/vocalist Fred Frith at the Berkeley Art Festival space 8 p.m. Saturday for a set of duo improvisation (a double bill with the electronics, piano and percussion trio Dapplegrey benefiting Doctors Without Borders).

In many ways, Frith has played a central role in Wong’s unlikely transformation from Stanford University-trained product designer to performance artist responsible for riveting works like The Unlearning, a multi-media collaboration with violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt inspired by Goya’s disquieting Disasters of War etchings (the album was released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label).

A long-time member of the music faculty at Mills College, Frith first gained renown as a pioneering experimentalist when he co-founded the avant-garde British rock band Henry Cow in 1968. He’s dauntingly prolific artist who works on multiple fronts as a composer, educator, and globe-trotting musical explorer, and his path first crossed with Wong’s when she attended the Venice Biennale in 2003.

“It was the first time I heard Pamela Z, Julia Wolfe, and Fred Frith,” Wong recalls. “I still have my book of notes, trying to make sense of what makes this or that performance work. Everyone was so friendly. I’d go to talks and lectures. I heard Fred playing solo, and saw that he teaches at Mills, near where my parents live.”


Born in and raised in Schenectady, her family relocated from upstate New York to Danville when she was 10, and Wong grew up dedicated to studying piano and cello. By the time she graduated from Monte Vista High and enrolled at Stanford though she was ready to take a break from music. She gravitated to Stanford’s product design program, which in hindsight she sees as “the beginning of my composition education. . The department was great. People were exploring things, asking questions, experimenting. I loved being in the machine shop, using my hands, thinking philosophically about what was going on.”

She spent a year working in her field after graduating, but laid off by a startup shortly after the high-tech bubble burst Wong decided to head to Europe, where she wanted to put her German language skills to work. She ended up in Vienna, enrolled in a school for applied arts. The experience opened her eyes to the wider art scene (“In the Bay Area design is a lot more focused on the high-tech world,” she says) and reignited her passion for music.

“I had a lot of musical friends in Vienna,” she says. “People would go to the theater just like they go to the movies here. A friend in an amateur orchestra said they need a cellist, and she hooked up me with a decent instrument. I didn’t know any of the musical terminology in German, but it worked out. We ended playing Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ at the Musikverein where the Vienna Philharmonic plays.”

After a year in Vienna, looking to stay in Europe, she accepted a fellowship in the Italian design program Fabrica founded by Godfrey Reggio and Oliviero Toscani and funded by Benetton. Before long, she decided to move from Treviso to Venice, commuting to the design center while learning Italian from her roommates, “a Venetian and a Sicilian, so the best of northern and southern Italy,” Wong says. “They were so warm, they became like sisters, and they refused to speak English with me.”

Fred Firth (photo: Heike Liss) and Theresa Wong (photo: Pak Han).
Fred Frith (photo: Heike Liss) and Theresa Wong (photo: Pak Han).

After her encounter with Frith at the Venice Biennale, Wong experienced another epiphany hearing Chicago drummer Hamid Drake with Assif Tsahar at Fondamente Nuove in Venice, which sparked her interest in free improvisation. Eventually making her way back to the Bay Area, she struggled trying to figure out how to pursue music and art. She had joined Frith’s improvised music ensemble, and then a conversation with Annie Gosfield, the Mills’ Milhaud Professor of Composition, brought her into the college’s creatively expansive fold.


“She said you should come to Mills and study with Joan Jeanrenaud,” Wong says. “I did and very quickly I felt like this is my world. I have some community and structure. I studied with Joelle Leandre, Fred, and Alvin Curran. They weren’t saying this is how you do things. They’re examples of artists who are active, exploring interdisciplinary and conceptual things, not just music. I could bring in a video piece, a graphic score, a pop song.”

After graduating Wong performed widely around the region with Bolivar Zoar, an avant-folk punk trio with guitarist Ava Mendoza and flutist Maryclare Brzytwa. In recent years she’s intersected with a disparate array Bay Area innovators, including video artist John Sanborn, saxophonist Larry Ochs, performance artist Dohee Lee, and pioneering post-modern choreographer Anna Halprin (performing in 2013’s unforgettable Berkeley Art Museum restaging of “Parades and Changes”). And of course, she still collaborates with Frith.

“What I love about playing with Fred is that I can go anywhere and he is such a sensitive, creative player and can handle so many situations,” Wong says. “When you sit down with someone like that it’s really liberating, and these weird organic song structures emerge. They can become abstract, texture and timbre based. The other thing I love in music is this incredibly powerful experience where you feel like you’re channeling something. Fred taps into that. I don’t want to say it’s shamanic, but something greater comes through.”

Her steadiest creative collaborator is her partner, esteemed Berkeley composer Ellen Fullman, who has created a striking body of music for a 70-foot string instrument tuned to just intonation that she plays with rosined fingers.

“We work together and we have our own projects,” Wong says. “Throughout the years we’ve done a lot of different things. She was in my improvised opera O Sleep, and I performed some of her compositions when we did a concert at the Berkeley Art Museum. We have a set of songs that I’m trying to figure out how to release. Right now we’re focusing on composing for each other and together, and we’ve got a concert coming up in Denmark in May.”


Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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