Getting to Know Wu Man
Wu Man is one of the world’s leading advocates and virtuosos of the pipa, the spiky, ancient Chinese lute which has enjoyed a renaissance over the last fifty years. Last night at Symphony Space presented an opportunity to get to know her a little and hear a little music as well. She hails from the city of Hangzhou, where she was born into a family of traditional music fans who encouraged her to pursue her passion: as she told it, by the time she was eleven, she’d envisioned a professional life as a pipa player. In a coolly melodious voice, she took her time contemplating the challenges and rewards of someone playing an instrument and a repertoire that are both vastly different from what they were a thousand or even two thousand years ago when Iranian traders first introduced an early version of the tar lute to China.
As one would expect from such a fiery, technically skilled player, Wu Man is a gearhead. She took care to emphasize how the instrument – once limited to the range commonly employed by the viola or even the cello – expanded upwards, particularly since the 1930s, along with its repertoire. She’s very particular about craftsmanship: her pipa has ivory – recycled, she took care to note – on the lower frets and bamboo in the upper regions. Depending on the repertoire and the tuning involved (as with the guitar, there’ve been plenty of pipa tunings over the centuries), she’ll vary her choice of strings. This time out, she was using nylon, rather than steel or gut, to match the downstairs theatre’s intimate sonics.
Though she’s an expat, politics weren’t discussed – although she did admit to being hassled by Chinese cops while trying to film her recent crowd-funded half-hour documentary, Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, which explores a handful of the nation’s rapidly vanishing folk styles. Looking back, there’s no doubt that like many conservatory students throughout the world, she felt cloistered: her recent immersion in ancient folk traditions seems to be an attempt to make up for lost time. That theme comes to the forefront on her most recent album, the starkly beautiful, eclectic Borderlands, released earlier this year by Traditional Crossroads.
Much as it was interesting to hear her perspective, Wu Man speaks more eloquently through her instrument than any words could possibly express. She played about half a dozen short pieces, the highlight being a trio of Ukrainian and Chinese folk songs where she duetted with Ukrainian bandura lute virtuoso Julian Kytasty. As Ukrainian or Russian speakers would quickly realize, Kytasty comes from a family with roots in the China trade, and he is cognizant of them, explaining that these days he “looks to the east” for inspiration. The two hadn’t played together in at least a couple of years (he’s a big part of her hit album Wu Man and Friends), so this was a heartwarming reunion of sorts and it wasn’t long before sparks were flying, particularly on an old Ukrainian tribute to a fallen warrior that wound gracefully from a stately, resonant elegy to a volcanic ending driven by Wu Man’s feral tremolo-picking. A bit later on, solo, she also played a traditional dance that was her (successful) audition piece for the conservatory, a jaunty number that can be heard throughout many subway stations in lower Manhattan, played by a new generation of musicians who no doubt look to emulate her achievements.
This particular mix of meet-and-greet and concert was assembled under the auspices of the World Music Institute, who’ve been staging memorable concerts from a global cast of characters here for literally decades.
No comments yet.