Breathing new life for an ancient instrument abroad

Updated: 2013-03-01 12:35

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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Breathing new life for an ancient instrument abroad

Wu Man suited up for the winter cold after rehearsing with her friends, The Knights orchestral collective, in preparation for a performance at the Asia Society earlier this month in New York. Caroline Berg / China Daily

Chinese pipa player, Wu Man, finds it difficult to say "No" to potential performances and projects, because spreading her native land's music and culture is her life's work.

"Any chance I can do a concert or participate in a collaboration, I do whatever I can to make the pipa visible on the global stage," Wu said. "The work never stops, but it's something I feel I must do."

Most recently, Wu partnered up with the New York-based orchestral collective The Knights for a concert series spanning 10 US cities, which concluded in California in mid-February.

"The Knights are all my friends, so I can't say no," Wu said after a rehearsal for a performance at the Asia Society in New York. "I said no a long time ago, but they just kept asking me."

Apart from their friendship, Wu values the young talent driving The Knights, as well as the group's international spirit, she said.

"It's so much fun to play with someone like Wu Man and bring these two elements of traditional Chinese music and classical Western music together," said Colin Jacobsen, violinist and co-founder of The Knights. "She's created a new body of repertoire with her pipa that was not present on the music scene before."

The concert series program featured two original Wu compositions, one based on a folk tune by the Li tribe of Southeast China and another inspired by a tune she once overheard her four-year-old son humming.

"The music showcases her personality, and playing it is a very intimate experience," Jacobsen said. "The way Wu Man sings as she bends notes on her pipa is like nothing else."

The tour took the music troupe to a number of universities including the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"The most valuable thing about playing at universities is we always get the chance to meet with the students and do some education programs," Wu said. "For me, interacting with the students is really valuable, to know what students want to know about the pipa and what they think about culture and music."

Despite her established fame as a pipa player, Wu Man also hopes to be known as an educator, she said.

"At a certain age, when you get old, your experiences make you see the world in a new way," Wu said. "Spreading pipa culture feels a bit like a responsibility."

She fears students in China are gradually abandoning their roots for pop music and Western culture, and believes decision makers in China should invest greater efforts in preparing a curriculum that incorporates more traditional music education.

"I don't want someday for the pipa to die," Wu said. "But the whole education system for this generation should have many people concerned about keeping the pipa alive and building education packages, not only me."

Nevertheless, Wu can understand why interest in traditional culture may be waning. She said when she was a student in China she didn't care about Peking opera; instead, she was curious about Western music traditions and what it was like to be a musician in America, she said.

After her first visit to the US in 1985 as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe, Wu moved to the US in 1990 as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University.

She has lived in the US ever since, working on a vast array of projects that feature the pipa in concertos, opera, chamber, electronic and jazz music, as well as in theater productions, film, dance and collaborations with visual artists including calligraphers and painters.

"After 20 years in the US, I realize I have done so much because there is so much information and creation and variety of culture," Wu said about her partnerships with musicians from all over the world. "That's something you would never get in China."

Still, Wu has always maintained her connection to China through the pipa, she said.

"After 20 years, you look back at your roots, at your traditions, and you discover you care about it much more," Wu said.

"By coming to the US, I appreciate China more," Wu said. "I know what the differences are. I have the comparison. I've learned about so many cultures and I know what the unique thing in China is now."

Wu encourages students and professionals to consider the pipa in many forms. Through countless collaborations, she has proven that the traditional instrument is more than capable of breaking from a box of stuffy musical conventions. For one project, she commissioned the construction of an electric pipa, she recalled.

Wu isn't interested in being cast as merely a flavor in someone else's music; she chooses her collaborations strategically by making sure there is a purpose behind each project, she said.

Wu's next endeavor is the study of traditional Uygur music and folk songs. She became interested in the tradition when she met and worked with a Uygur musician during the recording of her latest album, Borderlines. In March, Wu plans to travel to the musician's village in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in northwestern China to work with a group of Uygur musicians for her next collaboration project.

"Uygur music, and culture, is kind of mysterious to me," Wu said. "But the pipa comes from the Xinjiang area, from central Asia, so it's like going back home for the pipa."

Ultimately, Wu hopes to bring this group to the Lincoln Center to perform next year as part of her mission to right what she views as a lack of representation of ethnic Chinese arts on Western stages.

"People say I'm some sort of ambassador of Chinese culture, but I don't know," Wu said. "I have nothing to do with the Chinese government. It's just my passion. I love it. I want to do it."

(China Daily 03/01/2013 page10)