Pipa, composer (China) 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 over 2,000 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.
On December 6, 2012 Wu Man was named Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, the first traditional musician ever to receive this prestigious award. Gramophone magazine stated, “ A one-woman force of nature, she is a key figure not only for bringing Chinese traditional music to new audiences, but in becoming a muse for all manner of contemporary composers.”
During the 2012-13 season Wu Man toured to Taiwan and Hong Kong to premiere her new creative program titled “Wu Man and Aboriginal Friends from Taiwan”, an installment of her “Return to the East” project. She also 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.
Later this season she toured for solo recitals across the United States and will continue to tour with the Silk Road Ensemble. She was the featured soloist in a nine-city United States tour with New York City’s The Knights, with whom she premiered her own composition Blue and Green. Wu Man also performed at the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival in New Zealand both in a solo recital and together with the Kronos Quartet in a performance of their theatrical project, A Chinese Home.
In early 2012 Wu Man released her album Borderlands, the final installment of Smithsonian Folkways’ acclaimed ten-volume “Music of Central Asia” ethnographic series tracing the history of the pipa in China. With the support of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the project led her 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.
In September 2012 Wu Man released a documentary DVD titled Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China as part of her ongoing “Return to the East” project. In the film, Wu Man documents her most recent expedition through China’s remote regions as she unearths ancient musical traditions that are in danger of being lost among the more popular musical trends in the country today. Over the course of this independent project Wu Man interviewed family musical bands to expose musical rituals and lifestyles to audiences outside of China.
Brought up in the Pudong school of pipa playing, Wu Man became the first person to receive a master’s degree in pipa performance from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She is a frequent collaborator with the Kronos Quartet and was also the first artist from China ever to perform at the White House.
She has performed with major orchestras around the world and frequently premieres works by today’s leading composers including Tan Dun, Philip Glass, the late Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi. Since moving to the U.S. in 1990, Wu Man’s role as an ambassador and advocate for Chinese music has been recognized when she was made a United States Artists Broad Fellow in 2008 and also a Bunting Fellow of Radcliffe at Harvard University in 1998-99.