Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t really know anything about the pipa. But that changed in late August this summer when I attend the Silk Road Ensemble concert at Ravinia. Wu Man performs pipa in the ensemble and she performed a solo piece during the encore of the concert.
For those who don’t know anything about the pipa, the following is taken from Wu Man’s website:
The pipa is a lute-like instrument with a history of more than two thousand years. During the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C. – 220 A.D.), instruments with long, straight-necks and round resonators with snake skin or wooden sound boards were played with a forward and backward plucking motion that sounded like “pi” and “pa” to fanciful ears. Hence, all plucked instruments in ancient times were called “pipa”. During the Tang dynasty, by way of Centre Asia, the introduction of a crooked neck lute with a pear-shaped body contributed to the pipa’s evolution. Today’s instrument consists of twenty-six frets and six ledges arranged as stops and its four strings are tuned respectively to A,D,E,A. The pipa’s many left and right hand fingering techniques, rich tonal qualities and resonant timber give its music expressiveness and beauty that are lasting and endearing.
Wu Man is credited for introducing the traditional Chinese instrument to the western world. And now she is prepared to release a recording that explores lost music from ancient China and Japan. Immeasurable Light combines reconstructed ancient pipa melodies with Wu Man’s own contemporary compositions, will be released on the Traditional Crossroads label on September 15.
The seeds for this recording project were sewn 12 years ago when Wu Man first met University of Arkansas Professor of Ethnomusicology, Dr. Rembrandt F. Wolpert. One of Dr. Wolpert’s areas of expertise is music manuscript scrolls discovered early in the 20th century in the Mogao Buddhist Caves in Dunhuang in the Gansu province of Central Asia that contained a set of 25 pieces notated in tablature for pipa (a lute-like stringed Chinese instrument). Another is lute versions of music dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that had been preserved in Japan.
“It took me years to think through how I could interpret the historical material and combine it with my own compositions in a way that would call up the ancient Chinese music spirits, and at the same time, allow the listener to discover a new, different pipa music,” says Wu Man.
For Dr. Wolpert, meeting Wu Man meant he could hear how this ancient tablature sounded for the first time. The tablature of these ancient manuscripts shows the finger-markings and how to play the notes, rather than the notes themselves.
Dr. Wolpert describes the process of building new tunes from the ancient roots for Immeasurable Light as similar to an archeologist restoring artifacts. To this end, he and Wu Man adhered to Article 12 of the Venice Charter of the International Council on Monuments that states: “Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.”
Working together, they translated the ancient tablature to create base tunes, some existing of just a few notes. Wu Man then built upon these to create fuller tunes, with the aim of retaining the spirit of the original fragment. She also composed her own works for this recording. Although built around musical echoes from the past, all of the tunes on Immeasurable Light are newly created.
“The old tunes and my own pieces are inspired by each other here, and hopefully in a small way this recording both preserves and extends the extraordinary pipa repertoire,” she says.
The 14 tracks demonstrate the pipa’s extensive history, with melodies spanning from the 6th to 12th centuries to Buddhist mantras, centuries-old shadow puppetry scores and ancient dances. Wu Man was also inspired by her personal musical passions and partnerships.
In addition to exploring and expanding the pipa repertoire, Wu Man also experimented with the pipa’s sonic capabilities on this recording. Techniques she used included: layering multiple pipa tracks; bowed pipa; “prepared” pipa (inspired by John Cage’s prepared pianos, she attached paper plates, paper clips and pencils to the strings to simulate the sound of a temple bell); using special effects on the pipa to imitate the sound of the Chinese Qin, an ancient seven-string zither; and playing two pipas on one track with the instruments set to higher and lower octaves.
Wu Man performed all the pipa parts on the recording and also performed percussion and vocals on various tracks. On two tracks, The Round Sun and Crescent Moon in the Sky and Namu Amida (Homage to the Buddha of Immeasurable Light), Wu Man is joined by her frequent collaborators, the Kronos Quartet. The first track, arranged by Jacob Garchik, is a joyful rendition of a wild ancient folk song taken from the shadow puppetry repertoire of the northern region, while the second track is based on the Buddhist mantra, Namu Amida, which is itself set to the melody of Birds of the Qin River, a piece that dates from the Sui Dynasty (580-618).
Following the release of “Immeasurable Light”, Wu Man will begin the 2010-11 season with performances in Mexico as part of the Philip Glass Ensemble performing Orion, a seven movement collaboration with Glass and five other world musicians. In January 2011 Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet will present A Chinese Home at the Sydney Arts Festival in Australia and in February 2011, Wu Man will perform as pipa soloist with the all-Chinese instrument Taipei Chinese Orchestra in three concerts in the U.S.
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