The Queen of the Pipa
The pipa is a four-stringed Chinese lute with antecedents going back more than two millennia. Formerly used primarily to accompany voice, the pipa developed a virtuoso solo style in the 19th century, and is now the leading traditional Chinese instrument of female musicians.
Wu Man first picked up the pipa at age nine. At an event for area Chinese scholars at Amherst College yesterday, I asked her at what age she knew she was good at the pipa. The answer came without hesitation. "Twelve."
That's when, in a manner similar to Chinese athletes, scholars and other high achievers, she was identified as exceptionally talented, and left home to attend the Beijing Conservatory. There, she took classes on music theory and ear training, and practiced the pipa for eight hours each day. "I had no toys, no time for play," she said yesterday, holding up her pipa. "This was my play."
And play she did at yesterday's event, holding the pipa straight up-and-down in her lap as her hands played on its strings with motions as graceful and varied as the music that emerged from it. Now 48 and a U.S. resident since 1990, Wu Man was in town for the lead-up to a concert she's performing at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center this Wednesday evening. In addition, her documentary film "Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man Returns to China" will be screened Tuesday evening at 7:00 at Amherst College's Stirn Auditorium.
While she still plays the traditional Chinese folk melodies and classical compositions she mastered as a youth, Wu Man has branched out musically since her emigration, and now regularly collaborates with Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet, folk and popular musicians from all continents, and classical composers such as the late Lou Harrison, Tan Dun and Chen Yi. Chen's Ancient Dances, a multi-media based on three poems by Li Bai, will be the centerpiece of Wednesday's concert -- check out an excerpt here.