Wu Man, born in 1963 in Hangzhou in southern China, is a master of the pipa, a pear-shaped lute, with four strings, twenty-six frets and six ledges serving as stops, that is plucked, in what is known as the Pudong school of performing on this classical Chinese instrument. The Pudong tradition dates to the 1700s and from an area within Shanghai and Wu Man received her instruction from such masters at Lin Shicheng (1922-2006). She studied with Lin at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and was the first person to receive a master's degree in pipa studies and performance. In 1989 she was awarded the first prize at the National Academic Competition for Chinese Instruments.
The following year she went to the United States to study English and remained a resident. She has had many honors, won a great number of awards and prizes and has played with an impressive and eclectic list of performers and ensembles, including the Kronos Quartet, Henry Threadgill (both featured here), Philip Glass, and Yo-Yo Ma's acclaimed Silk Road Project.
Wu Man's first recording was issued by the Nimbus label, which has issued many excellent world music and classical albums, in 1993 and is called Chinese Music for the Pipa. The seven tracks include five traditional pieces and two modern ones (one composed in 1929 and the other just two years before the recording.
Pieces reflect certain modes of performance, such as martial and civil or combinations of the two. This latter is endemic to the final and most modern piece, Dian (The Points) which displays Wu Man's astonishing technique and skill, while also evoking the great emotion, especially the kuyin (or weeping tones) style. There are also significant variations in tempo, from the faster folk-infused Denghue jiaohui that opens the album to the reflective Chen Sui, the fourth piece.
The liner notes by the artist and Stephen Jones give excellent information on the instrument and how it is played, the use of scores for the pipa, and summaries of the seven works on the album. Three years after this debut, Wu Man worked with an ensemble on a second Nimbus release, Chinese Traditional and Contemporary Music, which further explored her interest in exploring and presenting the classical music of her country with modern expressions based on earlier styles and forms and this album will be featured here someday.
Wu Man: Chinese Music for the Pipa (Nimbus Records, 1993)
1. Dengyue jiaohui (Lanterns and moon competing in brilliance) 5:21
2. Wulin yiyun (Ancient melodies of Wulin) 14:17
3. Bawang xie jia (The tyrant removes his armor) 10:27
4. Chen Sui (Chen and Sui dynasties) 12:12
5. Xu lai (Sounds of nature) 6:28
6. Yue'er gao (The moon on high) 13:31
7. Dian (The Points) 8:56