Recognized as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso and leading ambassador of Chinese music, Grammy Award-nominated musician Wu Man has carved out a career as a composer, soloist, and educator giving her lute-like instrument – which has a history of two thousand years in China – a new role in both traditional and contemporary music. Through numerous trips to her native China, Wu Man has premiered hundreds of new works for the pipa, while spearheading multimedia projects to both preserve and create awareness of China’s ancient musical traditions. Her adventurous spirit and virtuosity have led to collaborations across artistic disciplines allowing Wu Man to reach wider audiences as she works to break through cultural and musical borders. In May 2012 Wu Man released her album Borderlands, the final installment of the acclaimed ten-volume “Music of Central Asia” ethnographic series, produced by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Culture Heritage, that traces the history of the pipa in China. The Borderlands project led Wu Man to the outskirts of the country to collaborate with musical cultures along the Silk Road including Tajikistan and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. The result is a DVD and sound recording of folk musicians who would not otherwise be heard outside these regions, and who represent the very beginnings of the pipa’s musical tradition. Musicians featured on the album include Abduvali Abdurashidov, Sirojiddin Juraev, Ma Ersa, Abdulla Majnun, Hesenjan Tursun, Sanubar Tursun, and Yasin Yaqup. Wu Man traveled to Singapore in June 2012 to collaborate on a theatrical project by TheatreWorks’ artistic director Ong Keng Sen called Lear Dreaming. Based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the work presented an Asian-inspired interpretation of the drama that culminated in two sold-out world premiere performances during the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival, and required Wu Man to both act and play the pipa.
Having been brought up in the Pudong School of pipa playing, one of the most prestigious classical styles of Imperial China, Wu Man is now recognized as an outstanding exponent of the traditional repertoire as well as a leading interpreter of contemporary pipa music by today’s most prominent composers such as Tan Dun, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi and many others.
Adamant that the pipa does not become marginalized as only appropriate for Chinese music, Wu Man has striven to develop a place for the pipa in all art forms. Projects she has instigated have resulted in the pipa finding a place in new solo and quartet works, concertos, opera, chamber, electronic, and jazz music as well as in theater productions, film, dance and collaborations with visual artists including calligraphers and painters. Wu Man’s role has developed beyond pipa performance to encompass singing, dancing, composing and curating new works. These efforts were recognized when she was made a 2008 United States Artists Broad Fellow.
Born in Hangzhou, China, Wu Man studied with Lin Shicheng, Kuang Yuzhong, Chen Zemin, and Liu Dehai at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa. Accepted into the conservatory at age 13, Wu Man’s audition was covered by national newspapers and she was hailed as a child prodigy, becoming a nationally recognized role model for young pipa players. She subsequently received first prize in the First National Music Performance Competition among many other awards, and she participated in many premieres of works by a new generation of Chinese composers.
Wu Man’s first exposure to western classical music came in 1979 when she saw Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing in Beijing. In 1980 she participated in an open master class with violinist Isaac Stern and in 1985 she made her first visit to the United States as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe. Wu Man moved to the U.S. in 1990 and was selected as a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University. In 1999 Wu Man was selected by Yo-Yo Ma as the winner of the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize in music and communication. She is also the first artist from China to have performed at the White House.
Performances and collaborations
Wu Man continually collaborates with some of the most distinguished musicians and conductors performing today, such as Yuri Bashmet, Dennis Russell Davies, Christoph Eschenbach, Gunther Herbig, Cho-liang Lin, Yo-Yo Ma, David Robertson, Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Zinman. She is a principal member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and performs regularly throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia with Mr. Ma as part of the project’s ensemble. Since 1993, Wu Man has also regularly performed and recorded with the Kronos Quartet, their most recent work together being the multi-media work, A Chinese Home directed by Chen Shi-Zheng. This work was inspired by a visit Wu Man made to Yin Yu Tang, the reconstruction of a Chinese village homestead at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts and is a musical and theatrical journey through different time periods of Chinese history performed with film accompaniment. In addition to playing the pipa, Wu Man worked with David Harrington on composing the music for this piece. She also sings, acts and plays percussion and an electric pipa when performing A Chinese Home.
Other recent projects have seen Wu Man rediscover, embrace and showcase the musical traditions of her homeland, projects she has dubbed “Wu Man’s Return to the East”. In September 2010 Wu Man released a new solo recording, Immeasurable Light, on Traditional Crossroads that combines reconstructed ancient pipa melodies with her own contemporary compositions. The project was a collaboration between Wu Man and University of Arkansas Professor of Ethnomusicology, Dr. Rembrandt F. Wolpert. One of Dr. Wolpert’s areas of expertise is music manuscript scrolls discovered early in the 20th century in the Mogao Buddhist Caves in Dunhuang in the Gansu province of Central Asia that contained a set of 25 pieces notated in tablature for pipa. Another is lute versions of music dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that had been preserved in Japan. Working together, they translated the ancient tablature to create base tunes, some existing of just a few notes. Wu Man then built upon these to create fuller tunes, with the aim of retaining the spirit of the original fragment. She also composed her own works for this recording and performed all of the layered pipa parts, in addition to singing and playing percussion.
In 2009 Wu Man was asked curate two concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of the ‘Ancient Paths, Modern Voices’ festival celebrating Chinese culture. Wu Man and the artists she brought to New York from rural China for the festival also took part in two free neighborhood concerts and a concert presented by the Orange County Performing Arts Society in Costa Mesa. Wu Man’s travels in China to find the musicians were documented on a film, Discovering a Musical Heartland – Wu Man’s Return to China and she was profiled on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The experience of visiting rural China and working with these artists, and the threat of these musical traditions disappearing, has resulted in a Wu Man forming long-term artistic relationships with the musicians.
Wu Man has performed as soloist with many of the world’s major orchestras, including the Austrian ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Moscow Soloists, Nashville Symphony, German NDR and RSO Radio Symphony Orchestras, New Music Group, New York Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Her touring has taken her to the major music halls of the world including Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Great Hall in Moscow, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Opera Bastille, Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls and the Theatre de la Ville. She has performed at many international festivals including the WOMAD Festival, Bang on a Can Festival, Festival d’Automne in Paris, Henry Wood’s BBC Promenade, Hong Kong Arts Festival, La Jolla Summerfest, Le Festival de Radio France, Lincoln Center Festival, Luminato, NextWave!/BAM, Ravinia Festival, Silk Road Festival, Sydney Festival, Tanglewood, Wien Modern and the Yatsugatake Kogen Festival in Japan.
Wu Man has recorded for various labels, including a recording of Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera with the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch, a solo recording, Wu Man – Pipa From a Distance for Naxos, and two recordings with the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma for Sony Classical. Recent recordings include: Off the Map with the Silk Road Ensemble on World Village and In A Circle Records; Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic with the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch; Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago featuring Wu Man’s Grammy-nominated performance of Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the CSO Resound label; and the Grammy-nominated recording of Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto with Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists on Black Onyx. Wu Man has also released a CD of world music entitled Wu Man and Friends on the Traditional Crossroads label that blends Chinese, Ukrainian, Ugandan and Appalachian music; and she is featured on a recording of Orion with the Philip Glass Ensemble for the Orange Mountain label. In 2005 Nonesuch released an homage to the composer of classic Bollywood songs, Rahul Dev Burman featuring the Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, singer Asha Bhosle and tabla player Zakir Hussain called You’ve Stolen My Heart, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album.
- 1991 - The Overlord Removed his Armour - Wu Man Solo Pipa (China Record Co.)
- 1993 - Wu Man, Chinese Music for Pipa (Nimbus)
- 1996 - Wu Man and Ensemble - Chinese Traditional and Contemporary Music
- 2000 - Wu Man - Chinese Traditional and Contemporary Music for Pipa & Ensemble (2 disc) (Nimbus)
- 2000 - Sola Liu: Spring Snowfall (The Orchard)
- 2003 - Wu Man Pipa - From a Distance (Naxos)
- 2005 - Wu Man and Friends (Traditional Crossroads)
- 2010 - Immeasurable Light (Traditional Crossroads)
- 2012 - Borderlands (Smithsonian Folkways)
With the Kronos Quartet
- 1997 - Tan Dun: Ghost Opera (Nonesuch)
- 1997 - John Dowland: Early Music (Nonesuch)
- 2005 - You've Stolen My Heart (Nonesuch)
- 2008 - Terry Riley: The Cusp of Magic (Nonesuch)
With the Silk Road Ensemble
- 2002 - Silk Road Journeys - When Strangers Meet (Sony)
- 2005 - Silk Road Journeys, Beyond the Horizon (Sony)
- 2007 - New Impossibilies (Sony)
- 2008 - Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago (CSO Resound)
- 2009 - Off the Map (World Village)
- 1994 - Sola Liu: Blues in the East (Axiom/Island Records)
- 1994 - Zhou Long: Nature and Spirit (CRI)
- 1995 - Henry Threadgill: Carry The Day: Work by Henry Threadgill (Sony)
- 1997 - Music for the Motherless Child with Martin Simpson, guitar (Water Lily Acoustics)
- 1998 - Music for Airports (Philips)
- 1998 - Bun-Ching Lam: The Child God (Tzadk)
- 2001 - Terry Riley: In C (Cantaloupe)
- 2001 - Aki no Yugure (Autumn Dusk) with Yoshio Kurahashi, shakuhachi flute (Sparkling Beatnik Records)
- 2002 - Bright Sheng: The Silent Temple (BIS)
- 2003 - Posture of Reality with Tatsu Aoki, bass (Asian Improv Records)
- 2004 - Lou Harrison: For Strings with The New Professionals Orchestra and Rebecca Miller (Mode Records)
- 2004 - Xiaogang Ye: Pipa Concerto (Wergo)
- 2005 - Philip Glass: Orion with the Philip Glass Ensemble (Orange Mountain)
- 2006 - Shih-Hui Chen: 66 Times with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Albany Records)
- 2008 - Tan Dun: Pipa Concerto with Moscow Soloists and Yuri Bashmet (Onyx Classics)
- 1993 - The Wedding Banquet (Rock Records and Tapes)
- 1994 - Eat Drink Woman (Rock Records and Tapes)
- 1989 - An Anthology of Classic Pipa Pieces (China Record Co.)
- 1994 - World Music Sampler II (Nimbus)
- 1996 - China Collage - Sola & Wu Man (Avan)
- 1998 - China: Time to Listen (Ellipsis Arts)
- 2002 - The Silk Road - A Music Caravan (Smithsonian Folkways)
- "Real Musicians" Dialogue Talk.