The first time I saw Wu Man play the pipa, a four-stringed lute with an ancient Chinese lineage, time seemed to stop. I stood silently and slack-jawed, watching her left hand dart along the instrument's neck, bending and shaping notes to add subtleties of inflection and tone that guitarists (bless their six strings) just can't get.
A quarter-century after her arrival in America, Man has become one of the world's leading instrumentalists with an instrument that's largely unfamiliar, at least to Western audiences. Though she often plays traditional Chinese music, she is perhaps more interested in adding the pipa to unconventional settings, like the works of Brian Eno or even bluegrass.
I spoke to Man at a tour stop in Portland, Maine, where she was playing several new pieces of contemporary Chinese music with the Shanghai Quartet—simply the latest part of her mission, it seems, to pass the pipa.
INDY: You play lots of traditional Chinese music, of course, but you've never seemed limited by it. You've played bluegrass and modern Chinese classical music. You've played with Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Has that diversity become an aim?
Wu Man: I trained in China, and I grew up with the kind of music that people call "Chinese music." But in the twenty-first century, for a lot of traditional musicians, the question is how can we survive in society? Not only in China but a lot of other countries have slowly lost their traditions. Outside of small villages, it's harder to hear traditional music.
It is very important to step out of this box that we call "Chinese music." I tell others that this not only belongs to the Chinese. This culture and this instrument is for all of us, for the globe. It's important for composers to know they could use different instruments, not only violin, strings, piano, Western classical instruments. They could use pipa. They could use banjo. They could use African instruments. This is only the tool to write.
Speaking of bluegrass, you played "I'm Going Back to North Carolina" alongside a banjo player on Wu Man and Friends. How does that connect to pipa?
Sometimes you are surprised at how similar traditions are. The geographic location is far away, across the ocean, but somehow you always find a similarity in culture, in music. On Wu Man and Friends, I play with a banjo player on an American folk song. When I first heard music played on the banjo, I said, "Wow, this is perfect to play on the pipa." And I had heard from a lot of audiences that the pipa sounds like a banjo. So, to me, it's very comfortable. It's natural to play bluegrass, because the instruments are from the same family.
But are there instruments or settings you've found incompatible with pipa?
For instrumentation, I've so far been very successful with Western string quartets, wind instruments, and percussion. But I've never tried pipa with brass, like trombone. I haven't figured out how to make it work sound-wise, with the different colors. You haven't seen anything of the pipa with the piano.
If I do that, I need to be really careful of how the piano is going to be played. With a piano, every note is perfect in Western pitch, but the language doesn't really go with my pipa because we have such left-handed ornamentation. People already have the ear for piano, of how they think it should be in tune. But with my instrument, the left hand is very flexible. It is totally different intonation. For most people, the two instruments put together are probably not in tune.
Each collaboration, I have thought about it well. It's very much done carefully to pick what kind of instrument and what kind of musician I want to work with. That's very personal.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pick a Pipa"