It wasn’t love at first sight when pipa player Wu Man first encountered the Chinese lute-like instrument at the age of nine. She started taking lessons when her parents, inspired by the resurgence of traditional music in China during the early-1970s, chose the pipa for her to pursue.
“It was only when I moved beyond boring scales and fingering practise and started playing songs that I started falling in love with the instrument,” says Wu.
Today, she is a five-time Grammy Award-nominated artist with an illustrious career spanning decades. One could fill a whole issue of Phil News with everything that Wu has achieved – from being the first artist from China to perform at the White House, to being a founding member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy Award-winning Silk Road Ensemble (a collective of musicians and composers from more than 20 countries), from a discography of over 40 albums, to performing with prestigious orchestras around the world.
While it is impossible to summarise all of Wu’s achievements, one thing is clear when looking back on her career – her dedication to bringing the pipa to an international audience through both traditional and contemporary music.
“The pipa has such a broad musical language, so many different sounds can come from this instrument. It can sound like your typical Chinese traditional music, slow and lyrical, almost like it’s describing scenery or a beautiful painting. But it can also sound upset, dramatic or percussive, sometimes even taking on a rock ‘n’ roll tone,” she explains.
This is evident from the feedback that Wu has received after concerts, with people describing the pipa as sounding like a ukulele, a guitar or even a harp. “People find something familiar but also something new,” says Wu. “The pipa has the ability to evoke the imagination.”
Throughout her career Wu has strived to create opportunities that showcase this versatility, challenging the perception that the instrument is limited to Chinese music.
One such opportunity knocked on her door in 1997, when Wu was contacted by American composer Lou Harrison, who wanted to compose a piece especially for her. Harrison had been fascinated by Asian music since his student days, a topic he continued to study throughout his life. She immediately said yes.
“Lou didn’t want to write a Chinese piece because he wasn’t Chinese; he wanted to use the instrument in his own way,” Wu recalls. “Traditional pieces show off the instrument and technique but for Lou it wasn’t about that. He composed the melody and gave me the notes to interpret as I wanted, to make it sound beautiful and distinctly like pipa.”
The result was Pipa Concerto, a fusion of the single Asian instrument with the Western symphony orchestra, which premiered on 26 April 1997 at Lincoln Center in New York City with Wu as the soloist and accompanied by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Even though she has played Harrison’s Pipa Concerto hundreds of times since then, the freedom of interpretation means that every performance is different, with varying dynamic and use of technique depending on the balance and the situation.
After decades of sharing the pipa with audiences worldwide, Wu still has the desire to discover new ways of using the instrument and connecting with new audiences.
“For me, being a musician means always having curiosity – it’s what keeps me going. So, I’m always searching for something I never knew about. There are so many types of music and so many cultures that I want to understand and learn from. You never know, I might discover something when I visit New Zealand!”
The Chinese pipa is a descendant of prototypes from West and Central Asia, first appearing in China more than 2,000 years ago during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534).
The four-string, pear-shaped lute was originally held horizontally and played using a triangular plectrum – much like the modern guitar. The word ‘pipa’ is derived from the plucking strokes of the plectrum: ‘pi’ (to play forward) and ‘pa’ (to play backward).
It wasn’t until the Tang dynasty (618–907) that musicians started to ditch the plectrum, instead using their fingernails to pluck the strings and hold the instrument in a more upright position – the technique still used today.
Its strings were traditionally made from silk, however, many pipa players today use nylon strings instead. The back of the pipa is usually plain but the pegbox finial (the topmost part of the instrument) often features decorative detail
The New Zealand Herald Premier Series: Reimagined
8pm, Thursday 8 August, Auckland Town Hall
Conductor Tung Chieh Chuang
Pipa Wu Man
Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite
Harrison Pipa Concerto
Shostakovich Symphony No.1
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Phil News. Download it here.