Wu Man on Making Music from the Borderlands

The Huffington Post interviews pipa player Wu Man, whose new CD explores the origins of her instrument, Central Asia. On the CD, Borderlands: Wu Man and the Master Musicians of the Silk Route, she performs with two Uygur musicians:

“My instrument, the pipa, has a long history in China. It’s quite popular,” she explained. As a child, she was taught to play traditional songs on the pipa in school, and while she fell in love with the instrument, she soon found that she’d exhausted the possibilities of the 20-25 pieces in the traditional repertoire. She was the first recipient of a master’s degree in pipa from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. “When I was in school in Beijing, I was already interested in all sorts of things,” she says. “Then the question was brought up, so what’s next?”

It was musical curiosity that led her to explore styles beyond the traditions she knew. “That’s what brought me here 20 years ago,” she says of her move to North America and its unique position as the crossroads of world cultures.” After 20 years in the West, I’ve been involved in many collaborations, including Western music and world music.” She’s worked with the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma, and now plays as part of his Silk Road Project. She has played with the New York Philharmonic and The Boston Symphony Orchestra, among many others. When the City of Toronto awarded the Glenn Gould prize in 1999 to Yo-Yo Ma, he selected Wu Man to receive the Glenn Gould Protégé Prize.

The impulse to experiment has been a constant in her career. “I wanted to see, as a musician, what else I could do.” Modern music and that of cultures other than her native China would enlarge the repertoire, but eventually, she was led back to the very origins of the instrument. “I’m looking for my own roots,” she explained of the Borderlands project. “The pipa is not regionally from China, it’s from Central Asia.” The pipa made its way to China some 2,000 years ago over the well-travelled Silk Route or Silk Road, as it’s sometimes called, a network of trade routes that once linked Europe and Asia.

Watch a Smithsonian video about the making of the CD:

And see Wu Man in an earlier video performing for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert:

Additional videos of Wu Man’s performances can be found on YouTube. Read more about Wu Man via CDT.