“Wu Man and Friends” usher in lunar new year on campus

by Mia Russo | 1/24/20 2:00am

In celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Hopkins Center is hosting globally renowned Chinese musician Wu Man tomorrow in a one-time performance titled “Wu Man and Friends: A Night in the Garden of the Tang Dynasty.”Wu Man is best known for her revolutionary work with the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument similar to the lute. Through the pipa, she is able to masterfully blend time periods and cultures, from ancient to modern and East to West. 

“[The Lunar New Year] is a significant event in the world recognized by the Asian countries and diaspora” said Rebecca Bailey, the publicity director at the Hopkins Center. “It’s a significant time of year where there’s a lot of celebration and family coming together traditions.”

The shared experience of celebrating the Lunar New Year transcends physical location and is encapsulated by the universal language of music. This is reflected in the concert through the combination of two unlikely genres: ancient folkmusic and modern composition. Listeners can expect to hear this blending of culture and tradition at the performance, as Wu Man has assembled a group of master musicians including Yazhi Guo on suona and percussion, Kaoru Watanabe on taiko and Japanese flute and Tim Munro on Western flute.

Wu Man said that this grouping of instruments, though initially thought to be unconventional, makes the concert all the more intriguing to the listener. 

“During New Year in the northern part of China we always play with those wind instruments, so we’re bringing a lot of Chinese folk tradition and folk tunes” Wu said. “The whole concert is kind of a telling of our story and a journey taking you through the early years in Japan as well, as we play Japanese folk tunes and also early European flute music from the same time.” 

Wu plays the pipa, the main instrument of the evening, alongside the wind instruments and percussion. This selection of instruments will not just be a new experience for viewers, but for Wu too, as she said that she has not performed with this grouping before.

“Somehow I want to believe that that big contrast to the listener — the instruments of the East and West, the ancient music to the modern — will illustrate how we tell the story using those instruments,” Wu said.

Often unheard of in the West, the pipa is a very common instrument in China, with a strong base in traditional Eastern repertoire. Though similar in appearance to a lute or guitar, the pipa only has four strings and is played upright instead of on its side. Wu has been playing the pipa since she was 12 years old. She was trained in classical Chinese conservatories but later moved to Boston. Upon coming to the United States, Dartmouth was one of her first stops, sparking a long friendship with music professor Theodore Levin. 

“[The pipa] is like a boisterous child,” Levin said. “It has emotions. It can be loud and arrogant. It can whine, it can cry, it can be sharp. It’s an extremely expressive instrument. It can be funny, because there’s a lot of humor in some of the sounds and some of the techniques and it can also be meditative, contemplative.” 

The pipa has such a moldable sound that it is able to cross many different, seemingly distinct musical genres with ease. This allows the instrument to tell many different stories. Wu Man takes advantage of this in her concerts and repertoire as she performs transcribed manuscripts from thousands of years ago as well as pieces composed last month. In this particular concert, the pipa functions as the narrator of the ‘story’ while the other instruments serve as characters in the ‘plot.’

 “What [Wu’s] really made her name on is creating this world of pipa music that brings elements of traditional Chinese music into contemporary musical languages using, and at the same time expanding, the techniques of the pipa, to make it into what is essentially a contemporary musical instrument,” Levin said. “She’s single handedly inspired a large new repertoire of music for pipa by contemporary composers. She moves effortlessly between the worlds of this contemporary music and the classical pipa repertoire.” 

When discussing her upcoming performance at Dartmouth, Wu said that the title of the performance reflects the poetic, story telling nature of the show. Though exploring music from around the world and across time periods, it is appropriately centered around the Tang Dynasty, which is known as a period of cultural revival. 

“The Tang Emperors had elaborate courts and they had a need to offer entertainment,” Levin said. 

Levin described this need as creating a demand for foreign musicians and dancers. These artists gradually became absorbed into the Tang Dynasty culture, bringing with them new genres of music.

“So Tang dynasty music became a kind of melting pot that fused very old traditions of Chinese music… combined with other kinds of music from Persia, from ancient Iran, thus creating a very lively and utterly original court culture of music and dance that flourished during this dynasty,” Levin said.  

Attendees can expect this fusion through an immersive auditory experience. Bailey said she hopes that everyone enters with an open mind, as the concert emphasizes sounds that are commonly unheard of to Western listeners. However, she said this makes commemorating the Lunar New Year to be all the more authentic and valuable.

“I hope [viewers] would come just with their sensors ready to be fired,” Bailey said. “The sounds are going to be there. They’re beautiful. They’re a little different to the ear, and they kind of take you to a different place.”

“Wu Man and Friends: A Night in the Garden of the Tang Dynasty” will be performed on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m. in Spaulding Auditorium.