The pipa is a Chinese lute, and its sound is surprisingly spry and agile, with sounds that hit and bounce off the ears like tiny springs. Watching Wu Man’s hands fly on and off the instrument’s fretboard is like watching a pianist’s escalating frenzy as his hands climb the keyboard. This is not coffee-shop-worthy new age music. If it were, you might spill your espresso.

Brian Merlos
(PHOTO COURTESY OF WU MAN)

“It’s a very demanding instrument,” Wu Man said. “It’s both-handed, and the sound can be very, very beautiful, elegant, quiet, and also can go the complete opposite – extremely exciting and fast and dramatic.”

Wu Man will be performing Sunday at 4 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium, accompanied by the Bay Area Shawm Band.

Wu Man is internationally renowned for her musical abilities with the pipa, a 2,000-year-old traditional Chinese instrument. She was the first person to receive a master’s degree in the pipa from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and she has worked for and collaborated with composers and musicians like Philip Glass, Bright Sheng and Yo-Yo Ma.

The pipa is most commonly used for Chinese folk music, but Wu Man plans on covering a variety of musical styles during Sunday’s performance.

“The evening will have music from ancient times, folk music and countryside music and then contemporary,” she said. “I will start with a collection of pieces, which are considered the pipa repertoire. It’s like a Beethoven concerto for the piano – every pianist will play that piece. Every pipa player will play these pieces.”

The Bay Area Shawm Band, that plays the shawm, a loud reed instrument used in Chinese folk music, will be accompanying Wu Man on stage.

“A shawm band is mainly the wind instrument and the percussion and they mostly played in the countryside, in the funerals, in the weddings, in the gypsy groups in China,” Wu Man said. “And they traveled from village to village and they played.”

The band provides a distinct aural contrast to the fast articulations of the pipa, accentuating the pipa’s light sound with the loud, droning notes of the shawm and sharp percussion. “To combine those two, how they work together is very interesting. That’s why I wanted to put this concert together,” she said.

Wu Man’s performance is part of her four-day residency at the University as a part of the University Musical Society’s spotlight on Asian artists. For Wu Man, the most important part about the performance is presenting her unique pipa music to audiences who may not be familiar with traditional Chinese culture.

“People’s minds are much more open now,” Wu Man said. “People want to know different things besides the things that they grew up with. They are willing to learn about a lot of the differences,” she said.

And this open-mindedness is something that has changed drastically over the last few decades for the better, especially for pipa music. “For me, twenty years ago, I can’t imagine I would have this kind of a concert for a Chinese traditional instrument. And in America, just not possible,” she said. “I think this is the time.”

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