Pipa virtuoso Wu Man explains the basics about the instrument

The pipa, a four-stringed, lute-like instrument introduced 2,000 years ago, has been popularized by Wu Man.

Put simply, Wu Man is the world’s best known and most respected exponent of the pipa, a four-stringed, lute-like instrument introduced 2,000 years ago. In addition to appearing as a founding member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s cross-genre Silk Road Ensemble, she tours worldwide on her own, performing with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet and Brooklyn Rider, and giving solo recitals. In 2013, Musical America named her instrumentalist of the year — the first performer of a non-Western instrument to be so honored.

The Chinese-born musician, who emigrated to the United States in 1990, likes to perform modern works written for the instrument. In a recent tour with the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, she served as soloist in Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with String Orchestra, to mark the centennial of the American composer’s birth. Harrison (1917-2003), who frequently drew on non-Western musical sources in his works, wrote the piece for her; its premiere in 1997 honored his 80th birthday.

Ahead of her tour, the celebrated pipa player discussed via email five facts that listeners might not know about the instrument:

How many pipa concertos have been written?

The pipa concerto is not a Chinese musical tradition; it is an innovation of Western culture. There have been more than a dozen pipa concertos written since the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The first pipa concerto, Little Sisters of the Grassland, by Wu Tsu-Chiang, was played by the Boston Symphony and conducted by Seiji Ozawa in 1979 in Beijing. Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with String Orchestra, which he composed for me in 1997, is the first pipa concerto written by a Western composer. But I have now commissioned and premiered over 10 pipa concertos with both Western orchestras and Chinese traditional orchestras.

Does the pipa have to be amplified during a concerto? Or can it produce enough volume on its own?

Yes, just like guitar, it does need amplification when performing with an orchestra, but it produces enough volume when it is played solo in a room or in small concert hall.

For people unfamiliar with the pipa, what would surprise them about the instrument?

Its colorful sound; the pipa can produce a multitude of different colors and sounds. Also the wide range of musical styles and the left-hand playing style of bending notes and creating vibrato.

How hard is it to tune the pipa?

The pipa has four strings, A-D-E-A, and it’s no more difficult than tuning a guitar.

What’s the most difficult aspect of performing on the instrument?

I must physically keep both hands, all 10 fingers, in good shape to be able to play well. Technically, the most difficult part is using a right-hand tremolo that has all five fingers continually strumming. Musically, it is important to have a deep understanding of the traditional “lyrical” and “martial” playing stylesAlso, there is quite a bit of improvisation in the pipa repertoire, and learning and understanding the elements of improvisation come with longtime musical experience.