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Wu Man: Tiny Desk Concert

Nobody wields a pipa like Wu Man, the reigning virtuoso on the ancient four-stringed instrument. Almost single-handedly, she has raised awareness of the pipa — sometimes called the Chinese lute — in the West through her collaborations with a broad range of musicians, from Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass to the New York Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.

Cradling her pipa, Wu Man holds 2,000 years of Chinese history in her hands. When her fingers start to fly, she can create scenes of cinematic grandeur or serene, moonlit moments.

Her first song, "Ambushed From All Sides" — also known as "Ambushed From Ten Sides" — tells the story of two warring armies in 202 BC. With the tune's violent strumming and percussive special effects, you can practically hear swords clash as troops advance.

"Night Thoughts," a reworking of a 9th-century Buddhist song with old-style tuning, is the complete opposite. Delicately, Wu Man plucks single notes, like applying graceful brushstrokes on a silk painting. She pulls strings over frets, bending the tones for maximum expression. This contemplative song appears on Wu Man's recent album, Immeasurable Light, on which she reconstructs ancient pipa melodies and mixes them with her own pieces. She says it took her years to figure out how to blend the two in a way "that would call up the ancient Chinese music spirits."

The closing number is a popular folk tune, "White Snow in Spring," which Wu Man says we might identify as "typical Chinese music." But nothing seems typical about her playing. Seated on the floor, just three feet from her, I marveled at the array of sounds she commands — from lovely rolling tremolos to metallic buzzes and bouncing harmonics. It all ends in a flurry of ecstatic strumming, like some ancient Chinese rock 'n' roll.

Set List
  • "Ambushed From All Sides"
  • "Night Thoughts"
  • "White Snow In Spring"
Credits

Filmed and edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Adele Hampton

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