Chinese musician Wu Man is the master of the pipa, the Chinese lute.
For over 20 years, Wu Man has made it her mission to introduce the little-known pipa to western audiences and to perform western genres of music on it.
She often plays with cellist Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet, among others.
This year, the magazine Musical America named her Instrumentalist of 2013.
Wu Man is proud to say she is the first non-western classical musician to receive this award.
She began studying the pipa when she was 9-years-old. It was her parents’ idea. “They picked up this instrument for me,” she says. “Now they joke: ‘fortunately you play this instrument, you are the musician, because we see other than that, you can’t do anything’ (laughs).”
By the age of 12, she was already studying at the renowned Beijing conservatory where she learned the pipa’s traditional repertoire. And by the time she reached her teenage years, she had memorized virtually every composition for pipa available in China.
But then, in the mid 1980s, something extraordinary happened. The Chinese government began to open its doors to western culture.
“Suddenly, so many things coming in to China,” she says, “symphony music, western classical, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, pop, jazz, but as a young music student, I started thinking like, okay, wow, there’s so many different styles, different music, very different language.”
Until that point, Wu Man had never heard anything other than Chinese music, and she soon caught the music explorer bug. In 1990, she headed out to the US, to expand her repertoire. She experimented with new pieces, most of them not written for the pipa. She says just getting her hands on new music and trying anything she wished was very exciting.
It was a turning point in Wu Man’s career. She has since mastered many different styles in contemporary classical music, folk and pop. She even composed a tune for electric pipa.
In 1997, composer Lou Harrison, scholar of Asian music, wrote a piece for her: “Concerto for Pipa & String Orchestra.”
“Lou called me and said ‘I’m going to write a piece,’” she says, “but I’m not going to write anything like Chinese traditional style, I will write in my own way.’ And I said ‘totally, totally, Lou, that’s what I want exactly, I want to see how a non-Chinese composer, great composer, can write for this instrument.’”
Then she added a personal touch to the piece to give it an Asian flavor, wondering every step of the way what ornament was called for.
“Do I do tremolo here?” she asked herself, “or do I do bending notes, do I do vibrato? You know, how can make the piece more vivid, how can I put more sauce in this piece? Right now, it’s just Linguini, or the notes, how can I put this together, very tasty?”
Apparently, Harrison approved Wu Man’s take. “After [the] concert premiered at Lincoln Center,” she said, “he came to me and he said: ‘you’re damn good!’ That’s what he said to me (laugh).”
This month, Wu Man has been performing this piece on tour with The Knights, a chamber orchestra based in New York. The program also includes a suite she wrote, called “Blue and Green.”
“Blue” is a meditative tune based on a Chinese folk song, and “Green” is a riff on a little tune her son came up with on a toy piano when he was a small child. After several iterations, and new arrangements, the uttered sounds became a full-blown orchestral piece.
Wu Man’s work in contemporary music and a wide range of style and artists has helped the pipa come out of its exotic shell.
That’s thanks to her passion for any music, from East to West.
“I really love music,” she says. “If anything grabs me, anything opens my eye, I want to know it.”
Wu Man’s Tour with “The Knights”
February 21: Ruder Theater – Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
February 23: Campbell Hall, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
February 24: Bob Burton Center for the Performing Arts, Fallbrook, CA
STRAVINSKY: Concerto in E Flat (Dumbarton Oaks)
HARRISON: Concerto for Pipa & String Orchestra
DEBUSSY: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
MILHAUD: Le Bœuf sur le toit, Op. 85
WU MAN: Blue and Green (arranged for pipa and orchestra)