“It’s like falling in love with someone and the other person doesn’t know you exist.” This was how Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Music and Culture Mei Han described her feelings toward the five-time Grammy nominated pipa player and composer Wu Man when she introduced her this past Sunday evening. The pipa is a Chinese lute that is over 2,000 years old and came to China by way of the Persian Empire, but Wu Man has brought new life to the instrument by her energy and talent in performing traditional Chinese as well as modern music.
“I have been wanting to play with Wu Man for 10 years,” Han said to a packed Brandi Recital Hall before Wu Man’s performance. In fact, many audience members were forced to stand at the room’s edge and sit in the aisles during the performance.
At age 13, Wu Man earned a place at the Central Conservatory in Beijing to study pipa. The piece that won her that place was a non-traditional pipa folk-tune, “Dance of the Yi People.”
“The following year, all of the pipa players played this song to get into music school,” Wu Man said before she treated the audience to a special rendition of the piece. Written in the 1960s, “Dance of the Yi People” carries with it the same jaunty twang that is present in western songs like the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” or “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
Though the themes in Wu Man’s songs bare similarities to those of western culture, this style of Chinese music is far from familiar. Silence is just as important as sound in pieces such as “Flute and Drum Music at Sunset,” the first piece of the concert. Each song was separated into smaller sections by long pauses and subtle tones, invoking an image of misty mountains and ancient springs, and each song reverberated with an intensity that western music cannot replicate.
Han also took the opportunity to interview Wu Man in front of the audience. “What could you say to students who want to learn about other cultures?” she asked. Wu Man responded, “Enjoy it. I think for your life if you know about more than one culture it is the best opportunity. … Enrich yourself and enrich your life.”
Aggie Eydenberg ’18 said that experiencing Wu Man’s performance helped expand his openness to music. “It increased my willingness to look into [Chinese music] more,” she said.
The concluding pieces were collaborations between Han, Wu Man, Visiting Instructor of Music Randy Raine-Reusch and Adam Reed ’15. The first, a duet between Han and Wu Man, was put together only an hour before by the two musicians. “Don’t tell them that; otherwise they won’t do their homework until the hour before,” Han said after Wu Man revealed the time spent in preparation. The energy and musicianship onstage was palpable during the group’s performances of “Forest Rain” and “Dragon Dog,” both composed by Han and Raine-Reusch.
While “Forest Rain” was full of darkness and smoky jazz undertones, “Dragon Dog” was fiery and wild. Raine-Reusch explained the origin of “Dragon Dog” as a chronicle of his relationship with Han; the title is derived from the pair’s combined astrological signs. “These are the two signs that should never get together,” Raine-Reusch said. “They are two volcanoes waiting to happen. … We turned that volcanic energy into music.” Everyone present could feel the volcanic energy as “Dragon Dog” came to a close and the audience stood to give the group a standing ovation. The applause lasted long after the musicians left the stage, and persisted until Wu Man returned for an encore performance of “White Snow in a Sunny Spring.”