Working with musicians like the Kronos Quartet and Lou Harrison, Wu Man changed the image of the pipa worldwide.
How did you first come across the pipa?
My parents are not musicians, but my father he’s an artist, so there’s something of the arts in the family! But the pipa was quite popular in China, especially in my generation – traditional music was very popular in China during the 70s and 80s. Actually my parents, they chose the pipa for me.
Did you enjoy it once you started playing it?
I think, like any other kid, beginning was awful. I hated it. You have to practise… I wasn’t happy. A year later, by the time I was twelve, I really enjoyed it, I really liked it so my parents didn’t have to yell at me to get me to practise! And I’m still playing!
Pipa player Wu Man. Photo © Wu Man
What role does the pipa play in Chinese traditional music?
The pipa has one of the longest histories among all the traditional Chinese instruments. We have a solo repertoire, so most of the time people play solo pipa, but it’s also in small ensembles like teahouse music and playing with other instruments – with a bowed instrument, or with percussion, or accompanying the voice. That’s all in the traditional setting. So I play everything, I play solo, I play with ensembles.
Did you start composing early in your career, or did that come later?
Actually later. The interest came through all those years I’d been playing a lot of people’s music, composed music and working with so many composers. One day I thought, “Wow, I want to play that way, I want to have something myself…” So I think it was probably ten years ago I started to improvise, myself, and then gradually play more and more of my own pieces, my own music.
How did you first become interested in Western classical music?
Somehow people always think I play a lot of Western classical music, but that’s not exactly true! I’ve played with many traditional musicians in Africa, South America, I play jazz, I play with Japanese musicians, Korean… many different genres. But it was in a chamber music setting that I started to work with composers, involving Western classical instruments. I realised that the sound of the pipa with the sound of the Western strings, or with Western wind instruments, is a really beautful sound, something different from the traditional music that I’m familiar with. So that’s why I’m interested in that direction as well. In the early years I played with the Kronos Quartet, that was the first Western string quartet I played with.
Are there many composers writing for traditional Chinese instruments?
Today many composers have started writing for traditional instruments, so I would say right now there are a lot of new pieces written for pipa or other traditional instruments in China.
Has interest in the pipa changed over the course of your career?
I think yes, definitely. My biography just came out – the author does mention that somehow I have changed the concept of the pipa, of what people think the pipa is, both in the West and in China – in the West because I work with many composers and musicians and take the pipa there. I would say that 20 years ago, nobody really knew what the pipa was. And now you see a lot of new music, a global stage, and you will recognise Chinese instruments like the pipa and others.
This is a traditional instrument, but because my work includes so many different experiences, in China now the younger generation, they have realised, “Oh, we can use the pipa to play in a quartet, we can play concertos…” Bringing pipa to a different stage, much bigger than just playing traditional pieces. “Could it be both?” is now an artistic possibility. So in that sense I really “changed the game!”
Is there a steep learning curve for composers who haven’t grown up in that tradition, to understand what the pipa can do and how it works?
Yes, especially for Western composers. It’s not an instrument they have grown up with, they’re not familiar with the cultural background. If I work with a composer I always have to show them what the pipa can do and get them to listen to more Chinese or pipa music to get them familiar with it. I really encourage them to write pieces from what they feel about it. It’s not necessary to follow the Chinese traditional path, but they should come up with their own language.
Lou Harrison wrote his Pipa Concerto with String Orchestra, and it’s very much Californian music – Lou Harrison music – it doesn’t sound anything like Chinese music, but is very much Lou Harrison’s own language, his own music. So in that way it’s also very nice to see that the pipa can do something besides the traditional music. I’m happy to see that. If a Chinese composer writes a piano concerto, it will definitely not be like Mozart, but will bring different elements to the piano and orchestra. It’s the same thing for the pipa – Western composers write for this instrument and use their own knowledge and language, bringing the pipa to a much bigger stage and other possibilities.
Is there a large audience for the pipa in China these days?
It’s still going very strong. Many younger kids are learning the pipa, although it’s a very demanding instrument – it’s not easy. But I just came back from China two weeks ago, and they have just finished a huge pipa competition where thousands of kids were competing.
What are some of the challenges of learning the instrument?
For both hands, the fingering and the technique side is not easy to handle. So for the beginner it’s quite difficult to sound good. You have to take years to adapt your hands to the instrument, the sound and how you control the instrument – that’s very difficult. Musically speaking, the traditional pipa has two main, different styles. One is lyrical, soft, meditative – you always hear that kind of Chinese music. The other style is very dramatic, very percussive. You have to learn pieces in both musical styles – that’s also not easy.
What will you be doing in Sydney and Melbourne?
This is not my first time in Sydney or Melbourne. I’ve been there a couple of times, at the Sydney Festival a couple of times, and the Melbourne festival as well. This time I will be doing a residency at Sydney University with the Confucius Institute, and working with students. I have a a lecture workshop and a concert with local musicians. Basically the idea is to not just play one concert and then leave, it’s about working more deeply with the students. We’ll probably have a chat, Q and A, to get much closer to Chinese music and to talk about pipa music. This trip is very special to me.
How important is education and advocacy as a part of your career?
I think the education component for any musician, that’s all very important, because that’s the next generation, that’s your audience. How can you make people understand, make them want to listen to your music, or pass down the instrument and the culture? Education is a huge part of it, actually I think the main part of it. To me that’s extremely important.
But also, I’m playing Chinese music, and a Chinese instrument, I live in America and now I’m going to Australia! Music actually travels, culture also travels. To me it’s important to share, to understand each other. Especially for the younger generation, we have to, to understand each other – this will make it much easier for the world. So I’m very passionate about it, I love to do any education activities.
What projects have you got coming up in the future?
I just finished a recording with some Mexican folk musicians, and I’m very excited about it! Right now listening a lot to the recording and we’re doing the editing. Folk music from South America and the Latino style, playing with the Chinese pipa – or the Mexican guitarists playing together with the pipa, it’s an amazing sound! Surprisingly amazing! This is a new project I’m very excited about. But also I’m going to be going back to China after the Australia trip to tour America with the Chinese National Symphony, what they call NCPA Symphony, and to play Lou Harrison’s pipa concerto. That is also very meaningful to me. I’m excited!
Wu Man will perform at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, September 24, as part of the Confucius Institute.