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Wu Man takes the pipa down an ancient path

After years of finding new sounds for the instrument, the musician delves into its traditional music.

October 24, 2009|Scott Timberg

The Chinese-born, San Diego-based musician Wu Man has built a reputation as an eclectic, adventurous artist, one who bends genres as wildly as she does the strings of the pipa, the two-milleniums-old instrument she champions.

Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Lou Harrison have written compositions for her; jazz experimentalist Henry Threadgill hired her to play with his band. She's recently completed a week rehearsing an epoch-spanning new piece with the Kronos Quartet. Online, she's been compared with art-rock guitarist Robert Fripp.

"I'm interested in finding a new sound," Wu, 45, says from her home in San Diego, where she teaches at UC San Diego. "How do we survive with this instrument in the modern age?"

Recently, however, Wu has begun to reach deep into a part of her nation's past that she's never experienced before: the village music that almost never makes it to Western ears.

"The audience in America has only heard urban Chinese music," she says, describing the program she's curated for the Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival presented by both Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. "I want to bring something very folk, earthy, like Gypsy music. It's the other side of China."

It's also the music that China itself increasingly overlooks as well, says Dean Corey, the Philharmonic Society's president. "One of her driving forces is to preserve these Chinese musical traditions, which are endangered," he says. "They're growing so fast -- insanely fast -- that they're not paying attention to what it's doing to their culture. They'll look up at one point and it will have disappeared."

The "family bands" that Wu sought out during recent visits to rural China are vastly less formal than ensembles in the western classical tradition. "They play at parties, at village ceremonies, funerals and weddings," she says. "They play outside in the village, not indoor at concerts."

Corey remembers his early days working in Tennessee, where a local hall offered Friday night performances by family groups of a different kind. "They'd come out of the woods, play some amazing bluegrass and disappear again. That's basically what this is."

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Reviving tradition

It's taken Wu almost 20 years away from China -- she grew up in Hangzhou -- to be drawn back to these older, more traditional styles of Chinese music.

Curiosity, she says, drove her to move to the States in 1990. "I wanted to learn, wanted to know what the world was like outside China. The Chinese government had closed the door for so many years. In the early '80s, they opened the door to the West, it was the most exciting period. I was at conservatory in Beijing; Isaac Stern visited and gave a master class, some groups from Europe came. I was like a sponge; it really opened my mind."

When Wu, then in her mid-20s, emigrated, she was so unsure she'd be able to make a living here playing the pipa (pronounced peep-a) that she brought five other Chinese instruments with her, just in case.

"If this one didn't work," she says, "I could play the other ones." Some of her friends didn't make it, driving taxis or working in factories instead of playing music.

Wu, by contrast, worked for 12 years in Boston, played at the White House in 1999, and became a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and has become the leading Western exponent of her instrument.

She came to the pipa through her parents, and was later glad she had: The lute-like, four-stringed instrument with roots in central Asia is defined by what she calls its "opposite personalities."

That is, it's both gentle and raw. "There are two styles of pipa music: One is the lyrical style, which is very soft and elegant and includes lots of bending notes and tremolo. This style is quite meditative and gives the player a lot of space to use their imagination. On the other hand, the music can also be very dramatic and percussive and have a much tougher, more hard-hitting sound." To a Western ear, it may sound at times like a mandolin or banjo.

"I've been working with a lot of different musicians -- 'pluckers,' we say -- and we've found a lot of similarities in sound and scale."

As much as she loved the traditional style of the instrument, which has existed in China in various forms since the Qin Dynasty of the 3rd century B.C., she felt it offered limited musical opportunities.

"This is not like a Western classical instrument that has tons of repertoire," she says. "The piano has music by Germans, English, French composers. The pipa doesn't have that much. There are only about 20 traditional pipa pieces in the repertoire. I cannot play those same 20 pieces my whole life, so it was necessary for me to encourage contemporary composers to create new pieces and expand the pipa repertoire."

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What's old is new

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