One Wu Man, Pipa Champion of the West

Lisa Houston on January 13, 2014
Wu Man
Wu Man

When Wu Man was informed that she had been named Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year for 2013, she wondered if there had been a mistake. Perhaps they meant to give it to Wu Han, the classical pianist, she reasoned. Wu Man had reason to be surprised. She is the first player of a traditional instrument to be given the award, which previously had been awarded exclusively to players of classical Western instruments. As a recipient of the award, Wu Man is bookended by the 2012 winner, violinist Gil Shaham, and the 2014 winner, pianist Jeremy Denk. But Wu Man is familiar with taking the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument similar to the lute, where it has not gone before.

Since emigrating to the U.S. from China in the 1980s, the native of Hangzhou has brought her virtuosic playing of the four-stringed, pear-shaped instrument to the world’s most prestigious concert halls. She has played with the New York Philharmonic and many other symphony orchestras around the world, and with composers and ensembles such as Phillip Glass and the Kronos Quartet.

Often called an ambassador of Chinese music, Wu Man helped to curate part of a festival at Carnegie Hall taking Chinese music to New York, and has collaborated with a wide variety of acclaimed performers in various genres of music. As part of the Aga Khan Music Initiative and the Smithsonian’s Silk Road Project (founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998), she traveled through Central Asia and collaborated with Chinese classical, Uyghur, and Tajik musicians not previously recorded, tracing the pipa back through its millennia-long history to its Central Asian origins. (The recording of this music is number 10 on Smithsonian Folkways’ Music of Central Asia. The title is Borderlands, Wu Man and Master Musicians From the Silk Route.) This month she continues her expansion of the pipa’s role in Western music with the help of the Santa Rosa Symphony, premiering a new pipa concerto by one of her Silk Road colleagues, composer Zhao Jiping, who is sometimes called “the John Williams of China.” And on Jan. 26 she will perform a solo pipa recital at Hertz Hall, presented by Cal Performances.

I’ve read that you’ve said, “My instrument is my child, my lover, the other half of me.” Can you tell us a little bit about your instrument?

I’ve been learning this instrument since I was 9, so it’s been with me almost all my life. The particular instrument I have now is a brand-new instrument. We actually don’t use antique instruments. The reason is because, first of all, the structure of the instrument changed since the 19th century. The version I have now is quite modern, a 20th-century pipa with more frets and string changed from silk strings to nylon strings, so the sound of the instrument is much louder than in the 19th century. And the size of the instrument is much bigger than the older version. If you see the old version in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it’s very small, actually, compared to my instrument. We don’t use old instrument, we use new instrument.

You’ve mentioned that in the ’80s when things first opened up in China, it was the first time you heard pop music and jazz, and American popular music. Do you remember specifically which artists you heard and what kind of impression it made? Did you hear Madonna and think, Oh my God, what is happening over there? What was that like for you?

The first American popular music we heard was Michael Jackson and Madonna. That’s true! And Whitney Houston. That’s huge in China. And the first time I heard Western music not from records, but live, was in the concert hall. Beethoven’s Ninth, Beethoven’s Fifth, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Symphony, conductor Seiji Ozawa, violinist Isaac Stern. So that was all [in the] late ’80s suddenly open to us. Still, being a music student, it was quite a shock. Jazz even today in China is still not popular. I don’t know why. But that different type of music as a young Chinese musician I was, in a way, shocked but also very excited.

I read a story about you singing one of the melodies from the Eight Model Operas and your neighbor hearing you and saying that you should study music. How did you know those operas? Did you attend performances or did you see them on TV?

Wow, you really know me.

Well, you’re very interesting.

No, we didn’t have a TV in the ’70s and ’80s. All radio. They teach on the radio how to sing all those arias, the revolution songs, the Eight Model Operas.

They teach to you to sing on the radio?

Yes, they sing [she sings a melody] and then they say, “Sing,” so you can follow. It’s very interesting. Not anymore, but that’s how I learned. I learned the whole piece, the whole character. It’s crazy.

They’ve just published some of Leonard Bernstein’s letters, and he was famous for having an amazing musical memory, being able to hear something and then play it, and you too were celebrated as a prodigy very early. So it sounds like you had that kind of amazing musical memory right from the start. Would you say so?

Definitely. I remember my dad took me to a movie, and after the film we went out and I started to hum and my father’s friends were all amazed: Right after the movie, I could sing the whole thing.

As for your decision to come to the States after Tiananmen Square, I understand that you were very excited about the music here. But what was the decision like to leave home, to leave your family and come to the States?

Leaving home is very normal for Chinese children of my generation. I left my hometown and went to Beijing to study music. I was 12, already a very young age; I’m used to it, very independent, so when later in the ’80s there’s a chance for a lot of young kids after they graduate from school to experience what life looks like in the West, outside of China, especially in music school, my classmates all had some chance to go to Europe, to the States, and I was really jealous. I wanted to see the world. I think that’s the big reason I left China — curiosity. I wanted to see and I wanted to know how a musician’s life [was] in America.

Leaving home is very normal for Chinese children of my generation. I left my hometown and went to Beijing to study music. I was 12 … I wanted to see the world.

In China, you study the music in music school and you graduate from school and the government will give you a position. Either in the faculty or going to a theater, they will put you in a place. They give you a job. You have no choice, in a good way or bad way, I don’t know; you don’t pick. You want to be a teacher, but they say, “Go be a performer,” so I was very interested, since I remember Isaac Stern came and some musician asked him, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I’m a freelancer.” To us that was very shocking. We thought: 'What do you mean, freelance? You have no job?' That brings me interesting thoughts:'I want to go. I want to leave. How can I go play Chinese pipa in America?'

You brought seven instruments with you when you came, and how did that work? Did you have somebody to stay with? How hard was it when you didn’t speak English at all?

I had friends, roommates, family friends, but I could only understand a few words of English. It was quite a down time in my life, because I was already a young star of the pipa in my generation, really the star of the pipa; I was already faculty, the youngest faculty at my school, and suddenly I dropped. I started from zero. Nobody knows me. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know anything. I brought seven instruments for my security: If this instrument doesn’t work, I’ll play that one. If pipa is not working, I’ll play the dulcimer; if dulcimer doesn’t work, I’ll play the zither. That’s why I brought all those instruments.

I so enjoyed listening to your music as I prepared for this. There is such diversity among your collaborators. There was one about North Carolina, with banjo …

“I’m Going Back to North Carolina.”

Yes, and the pipa worked so beautifully with the bluegrass style, and I wonder if you had a couple of favorite moments when you realized how well the pipa worked with a certain type of orchestral music or type of Western vocal music. What were some of the things that made you feel confident early on that, “Yes, the pipa really works with all kinds of music”?

The pipa’s language [is] very rich. … The sound of the instrument, the potential of the instrument, could do much more than only traditional Chinese music.

Very fortunately, the pipa’s language [is] very rich. Many personalities in this instrument, as you mentioned. Every time I play I would say 90 percent or 80 percent of the audience, it will be the first time they see this instrument and somehow they always can find something familiar to them. They’ll say, “Pipa sounds like banjo, or ukulele, or mandolin, or guitar,” so that actually tells me pipa, the sound of the instrument, the potential of the instrument, could do much more than only traditional Chinese music. Of course, the Chinese traditional music is original, but I wouldn’t say it was the original because pipa came from Central Asia. Because of the history of this instrument it’s really amazing to see the instrument diversity already in this instrument.

You’ve said that you’re not as popular in China as Lang Lang. Do you think that it’s true that there’s a wider audience for pipa in the rest of the world than there is in China, or do you worry at all that the popularity of the piano and other Western classical forms in China is overshadowing traditional Chinese instruments? Do you think that’s true at all?

Well, Chinese know what the pipa is; though they’re not playing the instrument, they know the instrument. When I picked up the instrument, my parents, they loved the instrument, they loved pipa. They loved Chinese traditional music. The late ’70s, ’80s, even ’60s — that kind of music was very big in China. That was the only kind of music there was in China. There were very few Western music; Western music quite strange for majority of most Chinese, so the situation changed. But I do have to say that the piano is a big thing in China, and in south Asian countries, too, and all the kids want to play piano, be a soloist, a pianist, but to me that’s the time right now happening in China, but I don’t think this is the future. But still, quite a big number of kids in China are still learning Chinese traditional music.  

You’re teaching now yourself and you have students who want to learn the pipa. I was hoping you would talk a little bit about your earliest teachers in China. I think you said you began at 9. Who was your first teacher at 9, before you went away at the age of 12, and what was that teacher/student relationship like? Maybe you can compare that to how you teach now.

A lot of kids of my generation are very good at art, very good at sports, very good at music, because that was the time [when there was] nothing to do. Practice every day, 10 hours; that’s how we got good at it!

As you mentioned earlier, I was humming songs and my father’s friend, he played pipa and other traditional instruments; he told my father, “I heard your daughter singing, very musical — why don’t you let her pick up an instrument? I can teach.” And my teacher gave me a falling-apart instrument from his garage and I just put on strings and started to play. It was just a very different relationship. My parents never bought me an instrument. My teacher gave me a very old instrument and say, “Play on it, start,” and that’s how I started. But the relationship [was] very different. There’s no money, no tuition involved. All I remember is my teacher came to my house and gave me a lesson and afterwards, we feed him. [Laughs] That’s all; that’s the relationship. More like a family member in some way.

You’ve said that you’re a child of the Cultural Revolution and your father was banished to the countryside. Your father was an artist?

Yes, he was a painter.

I’m assuming that you felt very aware of that as a child, that this was something that was imposed on your family, and I wonder how you felt about it then.

I was still very lucky; when [the Cultural Revolution] started I was very young, but of course the Revolution starts and is 10 years long. I only remember that’s why my parents led me to learn music, to keep me inside of the house. “Don’t go out!”

Because it was safer?

Safe. On the streets a lot of things happening, not very safe, very dangerous; at that time the whole society not very stable, always something happening, someone killed, especially for young kids, and also they wanted kids to learn something to get good jobs. That’s another reason: If you’re talented, you’ll be picked by government, then the government will support you. That’s why a lot of kids of my generation are very good at art, very good at sports, very good at music, because that was the time [when there was] nothing to do. Practice every day, 10 hours; that’s how we got good at it!

I saw one film clip, of your Silk Road Project. I’m not even sure what instruments they were; one of them had two necks and it was a man and a woman and at one point you said you couldn’t even follow what they were doing. Uyghur musicians, I believe. What was the most important thing you learned on that trip?

That particular project was actually the traditional music from the western part of China, and that’s where the pipa came from, and the musicians you see are the Uyghur. The Uyghur people are a Muslim people that live in China and the western part of China, so more Central Asia: very different culture, language, religion, very different from majority Chinese. What I learned, first of all, [was] the different voice of pipa and different approach, and I learned their tradition. And in the documentary film, you’ll see we’re joking with each other that his instrument and pipa are brother and sister who have lived apart for 800 years and they’re now back together. [The speaker] was kind of joking, but that’s actually kind of true, in some way. And I learned the format of music is very different than what I learned for Chinese pipa. They have lot of improvisation, and I have the written down-music for pipa that I learned.

You’re talking about the standard 20 pieces for pipa?

Yes, it’s all written down. But originally, in 19th century, and later-19th century, pipa masters notated it and all later generations follow those notes, those scores, so it became more set. Before that, it’s all aural tradition and very different. You have to learn from a master and the master sings for you or plays for you and you have to imitate. But I found out that Uyghur music still use that way, so every time if I look at the music score, and try to follow, I always get lost! Every time, they play it differently.

It seems that one of your favorite questions is, “What next?” So I want to ask you, what’s next? You’ve collaborated with so many amazing musicians and composers, Kronos Quartet, Phillip Glass — who are you collaborating with next?

I don’t have a plan: I always follow my feeling of the moment. Right now I’m in Santa Rosa and tomorrow night I’m going to play with the Santa Rosa Symphony and it’s a pipa concerto by a Chinese composer commissioned by a Western symphony [orchestra], and this is another passion: I want to bring the pipa in a different setting with a different audience to experience that kind of music.

Would you like to give the reader an idea of what they can expect at your concert at Cal Performances on Jan. 26, at Hertz Hall?

It will be a recital, only myself; the whole stage will be only me! [Laughs] No piano, no voice. I really want to bring the audience with me to experience with me a journey. I will play many centuries of pipa music, which is very classical and different styles. What the original voice is. Then we’ll bring it to the ’70s and ’80s, what happened to traditional Chinese music, Revolutions songs we’ll play, then bring into today. When I came to the States the music changed again. I’ll play improvisation, my own music, and also [from] different parts of China, ancient China, western China, and my hometown, which is the Shanghai area, teahouse music. So kind of travel like a tour book — is that the word? At the same time, you experience how this one single instrument could speak how many different languages. Also, that week of the 26th will be Chinese New Year week: the year of the horse.

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