Renowned musician Wu Man, virtuoso of the pipa, will be visiting Utah on Thursday as part of the "BRAVO! Professional Performing Arts" series at Brigham Young University.
“It’s not a familiar instrument at all,” Man said in a phone interview Monday. “I think for most people in North America or Europe, at least 98 percent of the audience will have never heard of (the pipa). … Of course, if I go into China or Hong Kong or somewhere with a Chinese community, probably 99 percent would know about it.”
The pipa is a pear-shaped string instrument with origins in Central Asia. It is probably more than 2,000 years old, Man said.
“It’s much older than guitar or banjo," she said.
In Chinese culture, where the instrument’s style and sound were developed, the pipa has a long history.
“There are so many paintings about it, and poems that describe the instrument,” Man said. “There are also museums where you can see statues (of them).”
One of the most significant poems, penned by poet Bai Juyi, is called “Pipa Song,” and it describes the sound of the pipa in 97 lines of English translation.
“The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,” the poem reads. “The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers. / Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering, / As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.”
Man describes the pipa’s sound as a musical amalgam.
“People always say, ‘Wow, it sounds like a banjo. It sounds like a guitar. It sounds like a harp. It sounds like a mandolin,' ” Man said. “So that’s all a combination.”
The instrument itself is played with two hands: One pressing the strings to create chords like frets on a guitar, while all five fingers on the other hand are at full capacity playing individual strings at an often rapid pace.
“It’s quite a demanding instrument,” Man said.
The pipa’s sound has evolved over the centuries as has its physical form -- the strings used to be made of silk, but in the 1950s and 60s, pipas were built with steel strings. To accommodate that change, players no longer used their own fingernails, opting for special plastic fingernails on each finger.
An older pipa, made with silk strings, is on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Man said, but she has never actually played one.
Musically, Man’s solo concert at BYU will take the audience through the history of the pipa’s sound as it has changed over the centuries, playing pieces from traditional Chinese history to contemporary styles.
“I’m trying to show audiences the difference in the different languages of the instrument,” Man said.
Man has collaborated with musical greats like Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. She is a Grammy Award nominee and was the first player of a non-Western instrument to be named Musical America's 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year.
Thursday’s performance will mark Man’s first performance in Utah.
“I’ve been in Utah before, but mostly as a transfer at the airport,” she said.
However, it will not be her first experience with BYU, which she remembers from a visit by BYU performers when she was young, one of the first performances by a U.S. university group in China.
“I remember very clearly,” Man said. “It was very impressive. I was in high school in Beijing, and that’s why when the name came up (in the tour schedule), I said, ‘Oh yeah I know this school!’ ”
Man still remembers the impact of that performance by BYU students.
“It was a hit. It was really a hit,” she said.