It began for me like this, in 1989 or thereabouts, I was flipping through channels on the telly and happened upon the tail end of a documentary on China. I remember little of the program, save the ending. As the credits rolled a young Chinese woman was playing a stringed instrument that I thought at the time was a samisen (gives you an idea how long it had been since I'd seen one of those). I know now it was a pipa. Her performance was strikingly virtuosic. I was amazed at both her amazing technique and equally, the wonderful sounds she was coaxing from this unique instrument. Though I could see the pipa was lute-like, its sound reminded me of the guitar and the banjo, but with a level of sonority that dwarfed both. The player executed what American musicians would call trills and minor bends on the strings that gave the instrument an aural tactile quality that was quite haunting. I was blown away.
Flash ahead 17 years.
I was walking through the Xavier University Library near the magazine section and happened upon an issue of World Literature Today. Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma was on the cover and there was a blurb about his Silk Road Project. Being a fan of Ma, I decided to pull the mag and check out the article. On one of the pages there was a picture of Yo-Yo Ma, and two other musicians, one of them, a woman, playing a pipa. When I saw the instrument I immediately flashed back to the closing of the documentary 17 years before. The woman playing the pipa was Wu Man. Later, I came here to seek the Silk Road recordings for samples, then on a whim clicked on the link to Wu Man, saw pipa: from a distance, listened to samples and was instantly hooked.
Pipa from a distance is a remarkable recording. Wu Man manages to give the listener a taste of tradition and the contemporary, and at times the surreal. The pipa is the lute of China, with a history spanning two millennia. Its unique voice is not unlike the American banjo at times, but the pipa's dynamic range is far greater. Wearing artificial nails taped on all fingers of the right hand, a master pipa player can coax all manner of sounds from the instrument; individual notes can burst from the instrument in a staccato cascade, picking patterns that sound like rainfall, strings are sometimes trilled as in Blues, chords can be either delicate or thunderous. In capable hands, the pipa can be a formidable means of self expression, and Wu Man conjures the magical on this breathtaking recording.
The blend of musical forms is adventurous and amazing. There is the tranquil first track, "Invocation". Man wafts over the sounds of bells and e-bowed electric guitar, with the use of sound manipulation, the piece is both meditatively traditional, yet bordering on the mildly psychedelic.
"Dancing" is a joyous tune. This piece includes banjo and it compliments the pipa well. Their voices are similar, yet so different, as they call back and forth. The didgeridoo is used to good effect here and elsewhere on the recording.
"Journey" displays the lyrical side of the pipa. Lilting and graceful, yet powerful, Wu Man glides through the piece like a bird in flight. Tabla samples, shaker and didgeridoo provide gentle accompaniment. This is one of my favorites on the CD. I often leave it looped to bask in the beauty of it.
"Hangzhou Blues" was quite a surprise. Wu Man plugs in, connecting her pipa to a wah wah pedal and into an amp. I had this image of her sitting next to a Marshall stack, pipa induced feedback rising behind her. You'd think this wouldn't work, but it exceeded my expectations. The sound is otherworldly, and massive. I had to remind myself she was playing a pipa. This track stands out from the others in sheer daring. She doesn't overplay her hand, and her technique transferred well to the electric context. Hendrix would have loved it (of course, the pipa acoustically would have stunned him).
"Vincent's Tune" is another favorite. The piece slowly builds to a climax that made me think of Meredith Monk, the screeching "toy" used at the end comes very close to sounding like a human voice. The piece exudes an almost overwhelming exuberance.
The last track I'd like to comment on is one of the solo pipa pieces, "Ambushed Again" The pipa alone is incredible. As a solo instrument one can hear how versatile the pipa can be in the right hands. Wu Man bears down on the instrument, drawing out its subtleties and its thunder. Any rock guitarist could appreciate the edgy chordal passage of "Ambushed Again". Man's rhythmic sense shines through on this piece; darting back and forth like a boxer, until the pipa sounds like its being shaken to pieces.
This recording is a great place to start for the novice to pipa music. Here it is very accessible and beautifully produced. Still, one should not overlook the classical pipa music of China. Wu Man has a two disk set of this traditional music. "From A Distance" clearly shows how well she works in collaboration, but alone she is a wonder to behold. I can only hope I get the chance to see her live.