Wu Man is a professional musician and educator who specializes in a musical instrument called the pipa. The pipa, which is similar to a lute has been part of Chinese music and culture for over 2,000 years. After being accepted to the China Conservatory of Music at the age of thirteen, Wu was the first person to obtain a master's degree with the pipa instrument at the conservatory. During her schooling, she attended a master class with Isaac Stern and this event persuaded her to move to America to embark on her professional career when she completed her studies. After settling in the New York, Tri-State area, Wu began to make trips to Chinatown every weekend to hone her craft with other musicians from China. This led to performances at local schools, churches, and civic establishments. Once a year, this group of musicians would play at Merkin hall to showcase Chinese music. Eventually, Wu met more musicians, composers and movers and shakers in the industry and she went on to perform at many of the world's most prestigious venues. Today she is considered an ambassador of Chinese music and culture. Wu Man works with world class, cutting edge composers, orchestras, and musicians, that cross musical genre's to bring the pipa instrument into the forefront of modern music while maintaining its ancient tradition. Wu has just released an album of folk songs of the world entitled "Our World in Song" with Luis Conte and Daniel Ho. She continues a rigorous world tour schedule and finds time to give back by performing to and instructing younger musicians. Watch for Wu Man to be performing in 2015 with The Silk Road Ensemble, The New York Philharmonic and others. I recently had a chance to speak with Wu.
R.V.B. - Hello Wu? This is Robert von Bernewitz from New York... how are you today?
W.M. - Hi Robert... how are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing good except we're having a rainy/snowy day here? How is it on your side?
W.M. - We have a sunshine day. Don't be jealous. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - Well I have to say I am a little jealous. (Hahaha). Were you recently on the road on tour?
W.M. - Yes, I just came back from Asia, before this week for a couple of weeks for an Asia tour.
R.V.B. - You're always traveling all around the world. Where do you find the energy?
W.M. - I'm still holding up. I enjoy it.
R.V.B. - How did you get started with the pipa? Did you come from a musical family?
W.M. - No. None of my family members are musicians. I'm the only one. My father is an artist and my mom is a teacher. They both really enjoy music and are both music lovers.
R.V.B. - Did you start right away with the pipa or did you try other instruments also?
W.M. - I started with a small version of the pipa. In Chinese we call it the "liuqin" which is very much like the mandolin. It's smaller, it has four strings with the plucking, with a plectrum play. It's shaped like a pipa but much, much smaller, and has a very high pitch. That was when I was nine years old. When I was twelve I picked up the pipa.
R.V.B. - I see you went to the Chinese Conservatory at age thirteen. Were you good at the pipa before you went into the school?
W.M. - Yes... when I was twelve, my liuqin teacher said "I can't teach you anymore... you learned all my material. You have to move to the bigger pipa instrument.". When I went to the music school in Beijing I was pretty much...
R.V.B. - You were pretty much prepared for it? There was no problem getting into the school?
W.M - Oh yeah, I was the first in the exam, and they also picked me as an example of the new students. They put me on a stage in a stadium in Beijing, to play for thousands and thousands of people. It was a big showcase in China, to show that we have talented kids, and mainly they played traditional instruments. This is our feature so I was one of them. (Hahaha)
R.V.B. - I see, so when you went to that conservatory of music. I presume you learned all about other areas of music such as western music along with traditional Chinese music?
W.M. - When you get into music school in China, all the kids have to learn piano. That's kind of basic training of music if you want to become professional. I played the piano for a couple of years which is required but pipa was my major.
R.V.B. - Now I see that you studied with some highly regarded teachers. Can you give me a brief description of them? For example, starting with Lin Schicheng.
W.M. - Yes, I had four teachers after I got in the music school in Beijing. Lin Schicheng was my last teacher when I was doing my master's degree. He's the master of Pudong School of playing, which is one kind of style outside of China... Pudong. That was the area that he learned his pipa with his master. First when I was thirteen in middle school my teacher was Kuang Yuzhong, and he was very good at basic training or the techniques. When I went to college level, I had one teacher who was really good at one kind of a style, Chen Zemin. Another teacher Liu Dehai is another famous, well known pipa player and performer on the stage. A lot of people know him. I started out with him in my college years. I had four teachers, and they were all top pipa teachers/educators in China.
W.M. - Yeah, this is the older version. We do have different regional styles. When you get into the conservatory, the training is very different. It's much more westernized, but the major pipa teachers still kept the older regional style. Talking about style... basically the repertoire is different. You have to study those different pieces. It's a different way to play.
R.V.B. - Now as far as the instrument itself. Are there any variations of the pipa in different regions or are they all essentially the same?
W.M. - It's all the same.
R.V.B. - Have you ever played on one that is very old and historic? Like from a museum?
W.M. - No, I don't have any old instruments. We play modern pipa's not older ones. Since the 19th century, the older version is very different then the modern version. We don't play older antique instruments. The strings and structure of the instrument is different. Right now we play the 20th century version.
R.V.B. - I noticed that you went to a master class with Isaac Stern. How did you find that experience?
W.M. - It was an amazing experience. He came to my school and gave a master class in the school's auditorium. I was in high school and sitting in the audience. To me the experience was shocking, actually. It was so different. I thought the interpretation of what it means being a musician, and what he said, was really different from my tradition. It was a dream to be a fourteen or fifteen year old, and listening to what Isaac Stern had to say. It's amazing to me... That's why I'm here.
R.V.B. - So when you came to the United States. Did you travel to Europe, or the surrounding area by China, before you came to the America.
W.M. - I first went to U.K. to the Aldeburgh Festival. That was my first experience traveling outside of China. Then a year later, I was picked to represent young artists and young musicians... to represent China, and I came to the States. I think we visited over ten cities, and played a concert. That was my second experience in the west... playing for a western audience.
R.V.B. - What did you think about the difference between America as opposed to where you grew up at the time? Was your school in China, very strict and very tough?
W.M. - Yes it was very tough... very strict. The training system was adopted from the Soviet Union. It was very intensive training. We had so many classes in music. In theory... as part of your major you have to learn ear training, piano... you have to analyze pieces, music history, Chinese music history, ancient history, and modern, so you know 20th century western music history, so yeah, it's really, really tough. I do remember that I never had anytime to play on the playground as a normal kid. In spare time I would just practice.
W.M. - After high school I went into the college level for another four years. After that four years, I got into a graduate school program which was another two years. I got a graduate degree, and a year later, I left in 1990 and came to the States.
R.V.B. - Did you come to the States with the intention of moving here? Why did you choose to come to America?
W.M. - Well again, you mentioned Isaac Stern gave a master class and that was a life experience for a young musician... a teenager at that time. It gave me some questioning... I questioned myself, "What knowledge would that mean to be a professional musician. What did that mean to me? What about musicians outside of China?. What do they do?". So that brought me the curiosity. That's the reason I left China in 1990.
R.V.B. - Did you move to the west coast?
W.M. - No, I moved to the east coast. The first city I landed was New Haven, because I have family and friends there. Every weekend I went to New York to play with an ensemble in Chinatown.
R.V.B. - Where did you meet your husband?
W.M. - In Yale. Some friends introduced me to him, and he was doing his PHD post doctoral program at Yale.
R.V.B. - With all the things that you do and all the travel that you do, your husband must be very supportive of you.
W.M. - Well, yes you're right. That also brings the cultural difference. My parents' generation... I grew up to see both my mom and my dad working all time. When I came to the States, I saw some wives staying staying home to take care of the kids. I was like "why?" (Hahaha). "Why don't you come to work?" For us it was familiar where we should both work. I think my husband and his friends grew up with the same kind of background. The wife has her own career, so yes, he's very supportive and understands very well.
R.V.B. - That's great... that sounds like a great relationship. So I gather when you were playing in Chinatown, you caught a couple of breaks and started playing regionally. Did you get a recording contract when you went there at an early stage?
W.M. - Hahaha... Wow, this is an interesting question. In Chinatown, there is a group that plays music from china in a basement of a dry cleaner store. We basically all gathered together as musicians, who were all from China... from Beijing, from Shanghai, from Guangzhou, or the music school. When we came to the States, most of us had a different job... maybe a taxi driver or working in a factory, but we still have this passion to be a musician... to play music, to train as a musician, so at the weekend, we gathered together to play and practice. It's all voluntary. We would put on a concert in New York City each year at Merkin Hall, and work with composers who are also from China. That was our mission or goal. To be keeping our music in our hearts. That's how I started, and of course you never know who's in the audience. Every time I played, someone afterwards would come up to me and say "Wow, can we work together? Can we do something?". That slowly started my music career.
R.V.B. - I see that you branched off pretty good because you went from Merkin Hall, to pretty much every major music hall in the world.
W.M. - (Hahaha) Actually I started playing at the church... I played high schools, nursing homes, in the Chinatown area, in the community... and that's also the way to gain the experience, or to understand what the reaction of the American, or the Chinese/American audience of my instrument... and the history of my music. That experience grew in the society.
R.V.B. - Now this group in Chinatown... Were you the only pipa instrumentalist? What other kind of players were there?
W.M. - No, I was not the only pipa player. There was another older master from Shanghai. He was of the older generation. We had a yueqin player, a dulcimer/yangqin, a liuqin player, a bamboo flute, percussion, and also an opera singer. All kinds of players. I not only played pipa, but I sometimes played different instruments. It was a really fun and happy time.
R.V.B. - What other instruments did you play?
W.M. - The liuqin... (hahaha) that's what I started with... the small pipa (Hahaha) The ruan... it's like a lower sound plucking moon guitar. It's shaped like a moon. I basically handled all the plucking string instruments.
R.V.B. - That sounded like a nice group and a lot of fun. You've obviously gone a long way. You seem to want to take this ancient instrument and bring it into a modern setting, to play along with modern instruments and meld them together. Was that a plan all along?
W.M. - A lot of people ask me if I planned things, and there was no plan. To me, it's just very natural to go to different directions... to preserve the instrument. I came from a school in China, and I came to New York City, and imagine with so many things happening in the city. There's downtown, there's uptown, there's midtown... people kept telling me downtown is experimental, and uptown there's Columbia University, with their academics, and there's midtown with Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, so I learned this culture. (Hahaha) I was like a sponge. I took in all the culture, and the music, and it was exciting. At the same time, I wanted to introduce my instrument. I thought the pipa was a very cool instrument... very demanding... but sound wise, the color, and the history. People should know this instrument. Anytime an opportunity came to me, I wouldn't say no. I always wanted to try to see if that worked. So to me, it's just natural and there's no plan of doing things today. I'm here.
R.V.B. - You've played a lot of prestigious places and venues. How did you feel about playing at the White House?
Oh (hahaha) I can't really remember my feelings but it was definitely different than playing in a concert hall. The audience was much closer to you. They were basically sitting right next to you. They can hear each mistake. (Haha) It's a different experience. Of course it was very exciting for me to have that life experience. There were lots of places in my musical life, for example Carnegie Hall, or the first time playing at The Great Hall in Russia, or the first time playing at Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. They had never presented the Chinese tradition of music with traditional instruments in that place.
W.M. - They were all very good. I'm not that picky, but definitely Wigmore Hall in London. It's perfect for a pipa recital. I played here this past summer. It has only five hundred seats. The Concertgebouw is a huge hall and you're surrounded by the audience. I remember the first time I played there, you have to walk down to the center of the stage and I felt "Wow, this is really different". I was proud of being a musician. It's all a different experience. In the early 90's, every time I passed Carnegie Hall, I saw the posters of the master musicians, my idols, my role models and I thought to myself "someday I will play there.". The someday came. I played there with the American Composers Orchestra. I will remember the first time. We played a concerto without amplification. It was amazing.
R.V.B. - I've seen a few a few shows there and even if there's only one violin playing, you can hear it perfectly... even up in the balcony... and it's kind of amazing. Now I see that you are the first ever musician in residence at the Huntington Library. What did that entail?
W.M. - Well the Huntington Library has a beautiful Chinese garden. The style of the garden looks like it came from my home town area. It's the same kind of garden that I grew up with, so of course I visited there. I took a lot of pictures, and sent them back to my friends in China, and I said "Guess where I am?". Nobody recognized that this was in Los Angeles. (Hahaha) They all thought it was in my hometown somewhere. I already had a special feeling about this place. I was amazed about the European collections at the American Huntington Library, but they had a beautiful Chinese garden, so when they asked me to be the first residence artist... this was definitely my dream. I put a program together with a Korean musician, and a Japanese musician... Three of us together gave a couple of concerts for the Huntington audience in the garden.
R.V.B. - So it was an open air concert.
W.M. - Yes it was open air. It was like my dream come true. It was beautiful sitting there in the garden, and surrounded by the trees in the mountains, and to hear the birds singing... and here I play the pipa, a traditional instrument.
R.V.B. - That sounds so beautiful.
W.M. - Yeah, It's supposed to be. The Japanese musician played shakuhachi, and the Korean musician played the janggu... the Korean drum. I remember that the audience just didn't know what to say. (Hahaha) The beautiful setting actually really makes sense to an entertainer. To me they experience it differently. We all play traditional music, but from three different countries. That gave the audience another level of experience in music.
R.V.B. - I see that you worked with the Kronos Quartet quite often, and you produced quite a few CD's. How does the process work of choosing what music to play on a CD?
W.M. - I collaborated with the Kronos Quartet for a long time, since 1992 when I barely spoke English. (Hahaha) The experience of working with Kronos was a turning point in my musical career. It gave me a totally different concept of being a musician and what a musician should do. For the recording process, we always had the pieces first. We had a commissioned piec,e and played it in a concert hall first, and then we traveled to San Francisco, and went in the recording studio. An early recording was Ghost Opera composed by Tan Dun. Later on, we did a lot of live recordings of concerts, and sometimes Kronos and I would have a discussion of what piece we were going to put on a record. A commissioned work always comes first. You play it a couple times on a stage... on tour... and then decide to have a recording.
R.V.B. - So you pretty much have it down through all the performances and rehearsals.
W.M. - Yes, it's more like a process.
R.V.B. - I see you take some chances and get away from traditional music and play more avant garde type music from composers such as Philip Glass. Do you find that more demanding or it's just another avenue to practice your art?
W.M. - To me, it's all about music. It's not that significantly different that I play traditional music or I play avant garde, Some people call it crossover. I did not grow up with that concept to say that this is avant garde. When I heard that word, I didn't understand it at all. (Hahaha) To me it's just different music, different style, different language, different interpretation, different expression. So when I play Philip's music, that's Philip Glass's style. I remember the first time he wrote for me... I went down to New York to his apartment, and I sat down next to him, and he played on the piano and I played on the pipa. We tried some passage or some notes to see if it works on my pipa. So when I see the music on the paper, all the notes, and there's nothing else... it's just like a piano piece. "How can I transfer those notes... that music... and make it pipa music?" We would decide in the state of composing. He's such a nice guy and he said "This is your job... you make this sound like a pipa...do whatever you feel... this is your creation.". Terry Riley or Lou Harrison are the same. They give me space... creative space... to put my own understanding, and my own language to their music. I enjoy it very much. It's just a different interpretation when I play a classical piece... Terry Riley's piece, or Philip's piece, are more rhythmically different than a Chinese traditional musical instrument piece. It's just a different music language.
R.V.B. - That leads us up the current album that you just completed. Again you're always trying something different. This time you took other traditional instruments from around the world and presented folk songs. Did you enjoy the collaboration with Daniel Ho and Luis Conte?
W.M. - I enjoyed it tremendously. "Our World in Song" is the title. I've been recording Chinese classical with Kronos, and with different ensembles, different musicians, and then I thought "What if I play Cielito Lindo on pipa." a Mexican folk song. "What if I play a mandolin piece or a Hawaiian song.". My pipa makes the interpretation different. So this is the basic idea, gathering all the folk songs from around the world. I just wanted to hear the recording and smile.
R.V.B. - I sampled a few of the songs, and I think that the instruments did work together. The Hawaiian song "Aloha Oe"... you have your pipa playing along with Daniel Ho's plucking instrument.
W.M. - Yes, on the album there are no bow instruments. It's all plucking instruments. We have guitar, Hawaiian guitar, ukulele, mandolin, Japanese sanshin, over fifteen instruments from all over the world... plus Luis Conte's percussion. The whole recording process was tremendously enjoyable for me. It was very different, and more like a pop music process. We would play one track and decide to add things.
R.V.B. - Did you guys collaborate together?
W.M. - Yes, Daniel and I chose the pieces. I chose the song from East Asia and he came up with Europe, American and English songs, so we kind of collaborated together. Some are actually based on improvisation... so he had the guitar, and I had the pipa, and we said "Ok, we want the drum here," so Luis Conte came last. He added his own touch.
R.V.B. - Now wit h all of this fame and notoriety that you are now receiving. Do you feel that there is any kind of world pressure on you now that you are sort of an ambassador to the Chinese pipa instrument?
W.M. - Well yeah, there's lots of media and information on that. My friends in China all mention that. I'm honored that people think that I'm an ambassador of Chinese music or culture. I look back at what I did... it was amazing. The other day I talked to my friends and they mentioned "twenty five years ago, you came to the States and you barely spoke English.". My English is still not too good. (Hahaha) "Now you are representing Chinese music as a Chinese musician in the west.". So when I heard that, I was honored to have that responsibility. The younger children in China really look up to me.
R.V.B. - Do you picture yourself settling down and becoming a master instructor some day?
W.M. - Yes, in China there are a lot of music conservatories that have invited me to be a teacher there... and be a professor, to give my experience to a younger generation. I'm considering it. I'm really happy to share my story and experiences with a younger generation... and younger pipa players.
R.V.B. - When you go back to China now, do you get treated like a celebrity?
W.M. - Oh (Hahaha) I wouldn't say like a celebrity with paparazzi, but definitely with respect as an artist and musician. I went back to my home town and the mayor of the city came to me and invited me for dinner. They respect my work.
R.V.B. - Do you play small concerts in your home town just for the heck of it?
W.M. - Yes, I actually gave a master class to my childhood music arts school in my hometown, and I gave a lecture workshop for all the musicians in that school. I give a lot of master classes actually to the younger generation in China.
R.V.B. - Well, congratulations on your career so far. It sounds like it has been a fascinating ride and you've accomplished a lot and you should be proud of yourself. I'm sure there's a whole lot more to learn and explore. Good luck on your new album "Our World in Song". It was very nice talking with you.
W.M. - Thank you so much Robert
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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Photo credits: Wind Music, Stephen Kahn, Huntington Library, Wigmore Hall
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