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What it’s like to be the world’s only pipa hero

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Wu Man is one of those rare musicians who became globally successful in spite of the fact that most people have never even heard of the instrument she plays. The pipa — a pear-shaped stringed instrument with a history that goes back thousands of years — is probably unrecognizable to a majority of concert-goers outside of East Asia. Nonetheless, Wu Man has built a career where Philip Glass and Terry Riley write music for her, and she performs with the likes of Yo-Yo-Ma and the Kronos Quartet.

But, there are a couple of things you should know before you peg Wu Man as one of music’s crazy anomalies. Firstly: the pipa is far from universally obscure. It’s a big deal in China. Wu Man grew up hearing it on the radio. Her parents made her learn it — like any number of violinists on this side of the world. When she auditioned for China’s Central Conservatory at the age of 13, she was one of 800 pipa players vying for the available spots.

And secondly: Wu Man practices a lot. Even when she was very young, she would practice seven hours a day. She's kept it up — when we called to interview her for this piece, we interrupted her practice routine, which we feel slightly awkward about. The point is, if there was ever going to be an international pipa sensation, that person was always going to be someone who works as hard as Wu Man.

Wu Man is in Vancouver this weekend for a concert with the Shanghai Quartet. We took the opportunity to find out what it’s like to be the world’s only pipa idol.

You’ve been playing the pipa since you were nine. Did you ever have any aspiration to do anything else?

Well, at nine years old, I had no idea what I was going to do. But, my talent was in music. Besides music, I probably can’t do anything. I’m definitely not a scientist. (Laughs.) But, the pipa is quite popular in China. I saw it played, and I was fascinated by all of the fingers moving so fast. That was my first impression of this instrument.

Of course, my parents thought, it looks elegant and beautiful, the shape of the instrument. So, it would be good for a girl to play. And, of course there are a lot of old poems about the instrument, a lot of old paintings. It’s part of the culture. But… so difficult. And it’s so boring for the first couple of years. But once I had the ability to play a little piece, and not only scales, then I found I could sit there and practice for hours and hours.

Does the instrument still challenge you?

Oh, every day. Every day there’s something new I discover from this instrument. You have to have very good technique to control the instrument, the sound, the colour. Every day I have to keep it up. Otherwise, the audience can tell.

How do you have to change your approach when you perform with people who play Western classical instruments, as opposed to when you play the traditional music for the pipa?

Well, I grew up with the traditional repertoire. I can close my eyes when I play it; I don’t need to look at any music. It’s already in my body and my mind. In some ways, the traditional music is very free-form. There’s improvisation. You can stretch the music longer or shorter, depending on today’s mood.

But, if I play a composed piece, by someone else, it’s all written down on paper in detail. So, I have to follow what the composer wanted, but I also have to show the language of the instrument. I’m not playing piano. I’m not playing violin. I have to show what the pipa language is. When I play, I do slides. I bend notes. I do harmonics. That’s not in the score. Composers don’t write down that part. I need to recreate it specifically for the pipa.

Are there any frustrating misconceptions about the music or instrument that you play that you play that you’d like to see corrected?

I just don’t want to sound like a guitar. (Laughs.) You know, I’d say 90 percent of the people at my concerts in North America have never heard the pipa. Or, they’ve never heard it live. And afterward, they always come to me and say “Wow, that piece sounds a little like a banjo! Or, a mandolin! Or a guitar!” But, I want them to hear what the pipa sounds like! (Laughs.) Each instrument has its own individual style; its own sound; its own language.

You’ve lived in the United States for over 20 years. I wonder, what sort of reactions do you get from Americans when you have your instrument in public?

It’s funny: 20 or 25 years ago, if I walked around in New York’s subway, people would come up to me and say, “Oh, a cello!” But, just last week I was at the airport and some people came up to me and asked “Is that a pipa?” It was amazing! Obviously, it’s a huge change. Maybe it’s not that strange anymore.

And on the flip side, Western classical music is an increasingly huge deal in China right now. A lot of young people are learning it. I wonder if that makes you concerned at all for the future of traditional Chinese music?

I’m glad you brought that up. Yeah, lots of kids in China are learning Western classical music, as we know from newspapers — how many millions of kids are learning piano in East Asia. I’m happy to see that because it means that people have open minds, and they’re not all tied up with their own stuff.

But at the same time, I do worry about keeping the tradition. There are a lot of traditional arts and music that are fading away, now. Soon they’ll be disappearing — Buddhist music, Taoist music... a lot of countries’ folk music. Still, there are a lot of kids, huge numbers, learning pipa. But, they treat the traditional instrument in a very different way. I don’t know if that’s positive or not. I don’t want people hearing the pipa like the guitar. And I see that direction.

Do you think that there’s anything that can keep Chinese traditional music from disappearing?

People need to realize and understand what the identity of this culture is; what treasures it has. This whole globe has so many different kinds of music and instruments. If people realize that, I think it’ll keep us going.

Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet are playing at the Chan Centre in Vancouver this Saturday, May 9, at 8:00 p.m.

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