The pipa is one of the many instruments depicted in wall paintings at the cave temples of Dunhuang. But what did this music sound like? Pipa virtuoso and Silk Road Ensemble member Wu Man explores the origins of the instrument and discusses her efforts to recreate the ancient music inspired by fragments of musical notations from the site’s Library Cave (Cave 17).

Wu Man spoke with Helen Rees, professor of ethnomusicology and director of the World Music Center at UCLA.

Wu Man at the Getty Conservation Institute

Wu Man at the Getty Conservation Institute, June 14, 2016. Photo: Sarah Waldorf. © J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved

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Helen Rees: How do you see the pipa and the music of the pipa in the Chinese music world today, in the second decade of the 21st century?

Wu Ma: I think the pipa instrument itself and the music is still very lively in China in the modern society right now, today. In terms of the music, it definitely, I think, over all those years, it starts with the Qing Dynasty which is maybe 500 years ago, to modern to now, 21st century. They’re definitely switched. They changed. In some ways, they have a lot of difference from older days.

Although the right now the today’s pipa, the version of the pipa, it is very much a Qing Dynasty version, 500 years ago version. If we push back more than 500 years, the pipa, not like this, today’s version, much smaller, sound much softer and uses silk strings and uses natural fingernail to play, and the starts the Qing Dynasty, even later, 20th century, we use steel strings, use plastic fingernails. So that’s all the difference.

And musically, we have, later 19th century and Master Li Fangyuan He notated down 13 pipa works, with pipa pieces, daqu they call in Chinese. And so basically right now, we call traditional pipa repertoire, or classical pipa repertoire, it’s all based on those 13 pieces. We all play basically, there was 13 pieces. So this is the only pipa literature we have.

So how old are those pieces? We don’t know. Before that, it’s oral tradition. And who wrote those pieces? Nobody knows. I think, a lot of folk tunes. A lot of it from local folk music. But modern days, right now, we definitely have composed music. Pipa sometimes plays other, like a guitar piece, you know?

And 21st century, I think, pipa, I don’t know if is it positive, or that feeling? I feel like pipa very much goes to be kind of show the virtuosity, to show how fast, or how loud, like any other instrument, you know everyone want to show how fast or how loud. But it’s for a younger generation. So kind of like merging to that direction for the instrument.

So basically, because pipa existed in China over 2,000 years, very old instrument, so I’m still kind of fascinated to see the old, old, old roots of the pipa and it came to today, and the modern 21st century pipa, how those—what it’s called, revolution or something? The difference now, in—

Helen Rees: In that context, you produced a very interesting CD project called Immeasurable Light, in which you went back to some old pipa scores and then created compositions based around them. Could you talk a little bit about how you got inspired to do that, and what the process was?

Wu Ma: Yeah, as I mentioned, because I feel like today, everyone’s kind of busy and, musically, also to me it’s just to—my goal, my personal feeling, I want to go back to search those, what pipa, in the older days, sounded like. Although not probably exactly the same, but I’m trying to show to find the other side of the pipa, which is lost.

So the project, Immeasurable Light I worked with Dr. Rembrandt Wolpert for eight years. And his specialty is on early pipa music. So when he showed me all those old manuscripts, old pieces—very short, like sometimes only 10 bars, those materials or the scale, I thought, god, it’s so different than today’s pipa music.

It’s so, to me, so ancient. And the tuning is also different. It’s much deeper, to me, very much more towards the Central Asian music. So when I started this project, I really wanted to find out to the roots of the pipa. So that’s why I told him, I said, I want to do it. Let’s try to give me music. I wanted to play. I wanted to see how they sounded like. What is the spirit behind?

Helen Rees: So where did he find these pieces?

Wu Ma: I think he has a, I don’t know, how many pieces, how many little short fragments of those tunes. He told me, he said, he a lot of material manuscripts still exist in Japan and also in Paris. I think a lot of pipa literature, they collude from the Dunhuang cave which is a discovery in the 19 century, or early 20th century, in that library cave, that cave. And we know there are thousands poems, paintings, including music, including pipa music.

And he traveled to Japan. I think he took a picture, the original manuscript, he took a picture, and he sent it to me. Very interesting, there is no notation. There it’s different. There is all what it’s called? Tabla—?

Helen Rees: Tablature.

Wu Ma: Tablature. Yes. So very much skeleton notes. So he translated it to the modern notes, to the western notes. And he told me, from his experience, or his research, how the intonation would be sound like. What’s the style could be.

A lot of, actually, very much like Indian music. It’s a very interesting. A lot of Indian music. Give you very basic open string tuning. And then you can improvise from those tunings. And then they go into very simple notes, skeleton notes, kind of like a song or a piece, maybe ten bars. And then let you improvise again, finish.

But between those ten bars, also you could improvise. But how? What notes could you use for those main themes? And Rembrandt told me, based on his research. So that’s the Immeasurable Light. That’s how I started to have my interpretation of that piece.

Helen Rees: So your final compositions that are on the CD are the result of your own improvising on the basis of the material that Rembrandt was able to give you?

Wu Ma: Yes. For that particular project, the Immeasurable Light, that recording, of that CD, I think, half of the pieces, I did not touch any different notes. I played exactly the notes on the paper he gave to me. And then, based on that, I probably had four or five pieces inspired by those old scores. And I did my own piece, composed or improvised.

Helen Rees: It’s very interesting to hear the pipa sound. It’s very different than the modern pipa. And people think, oh, Chinese music is pentatonic. Only five notes.

Wu Ma: Yes, we do have a five notes, but not always. We have seven. We probably have 20. There is a lot of different notes between. It’s hard to compare to based on Western music, based on piano, you say, you’re in tune or you’re not in tune.

A lot of countries, like India, like Persian music, also Chinese music, we are totally different than the Western system. So we think that’s in tune probably for Western ear, they say not in tune. It’s very fascinating to see that because of the different language. So for those pieces, those old pipa pieces, a lot of that kind of between the tuning, to me, it’s very, very beautiful.

Helen Rees: Have you tried playing historical reconstructions of old ancestors to the pipa?

I actually did it try to play Uyghur music, muqam music, which is very much the musical form from the Islamic world, muqam that kind of form. I actually learned from a musician from Central Asia. And their instrument, like tambur, dutar that’s all pipa‘s ancestors. And also like Kazakhstan’s dombra. So I played their traditional piece, their folk tunes on the pipa.

It was very interesting. It’s beautiful. To me, it really makes sense for pipa to have that part of the world, that part of the language.

Helen Rees: So your work with the Silk Road Ensemble must have given you many opportunities to get to know musicians from Central Asia playing these different lutes?

Wu Ma: Yes, since 2000, I think, since 2000 I start work with the Silk Road. And the ensemble, we have many musicians from the Central Asia. And we get a chance to meet together, to work together, to create, together, music. It’s very interesting sometimes. We are always joking.

Like I sit next to a musician from Iran, maybe, and I ask, like, do you know what is a pipa means in that language? The name of the pipa, because we Chinese understand from an old book—there is a historical book that mentioned the pipa.

The name came from that right-hand plucking motion. So you when you pluck that note, it sounded like a “pee” and a “pah”. So like pee-pah, pee-pah. So basically that’s your plucking. So that’s where the name came from.

Now all Chinese knows, all the pipa players know, oh that’s where the name came from. But pipa itself, that name doesn’t mean anything in Chinese language. So I asked a musician from Iran. I said is there any old language you know what it means, pipa?

And they look at me, and look at instrument. Oh yeah, of course, we have an old ancient instrument called barbat. It’s a lute. It’s a oud, but an older version. And that’s the one, barbat, traveled to China through the Silk Road trade.

So I said, that makes sense. And it become very “Chinglish.” We call it pipa. And they call it barbat. So a lot of that kind of exchange of ideas. And also, when we play, or they introduce their instrument to me, or I play something very central Asia slash China kind of a style, and they will immediately react, musician from India, and they say, wow, this is something. I touched them.

So I think that the project, the work with the musicians from all over the world, it’s kind of like, to me, not only I understand more about the pipa, more about in the whole history, musical history, of Central Asia or China, that deep background. But as a musician, I think I am a much better musician than 20 years ago. We talked about the musical language, the knowledge. Definitely, to me, it’s kind of a benefit.

Helen Rees: Is it easy to play together, do your tuning systems merge well, or do you have to learn to deal with each other’s tuning systems?

Wu Ma: When I play with the different musicians from different cultural backgrounds, for example, if with a Silk Road musician, because we have mixed with a Western musicians, western string players, we have different other instrument from different countries, the most challenging, it’s not the tuning. It’s the intonation, the style.

If we play Indian music, or if we play Japanese music, so the style and intonation, that the most challenging. But for me, if I’m familiar with that, technically, my left hand just bend the notes or do some vibrato so to match that. But if they play Chinese sort of style, Chinese language, we always—it’s like a learning process. I have to teach them to sing, to tell them what’s the story behind. And so that’s the process of learning.

The sound balance, especially with the Western classical instruments, because my instrument, pipa, it’s not built for big halls, big concert halls. It’s a pretty kind of elegant acoustic instrument. A lot of details, when you play, your left hand, a lot of subtlety. That’s the Ming style.

But sometimes, in a bigger hall, you’re lost. So normally we use amplification for the concert, so you can hear that for the audience. But Western classical music— I remember the first time I played with Yo-Yo Ma, Mr. Ma. His cello, of course, I don’t know, 300 years antique instrument, and a big voice. Very European, the way he plays. A big voice.

And I’m trying to, how do I do the balance of those two instruments? I remembered the first time we played a pipa and a cello duet. And first rehearsal was awful. I felt like I couldn’t hear myself. And I think for him, too, we have to find the middle point of how are we going to play music together but also, for audience to hear both of us and also in the right style. That’s kind of very challenging.

And then next, we get together again, he totally changed the way he played the bow. The angle of the bow, how he bowed, he changed differently than play say, Dvorak or Bach. It’s more towards to sound differently, the color. And for me, also, both hands, how do I project the sound to listen carefully.

So you know, that took 16 years to get used to know each other, the music. And now, after 16 years, I think we are very comfortable. We know the music. It seems we all learned, each of the members of the ensemble all learned each other’s different cultures. So we handle different styles. I would say, yes. We are getting there. We are very close.

Helen Rees: How do you see the pipa and the music of the pipa in the Chinese music world today, in the second decade of the 21st century?

Wu Ma: I think the pipa instrument itself and the music is still very lively in China in the modern society right now, today....