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Wu Man's Ancient Dances Will Bridge Chinese Centuries at Royce Hall

Liu Junqi

“I haven’t seen other pieces like that,” says Wu Man of Ancient Dances, the suite that will be the centerpiece of her concert Saturday at UCLA’s Royce Hall

Normally we’re dubious about such declarations. And given Wu Man’s career and credentials, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything she hasn’t seen, musically speaking. She’s arguably the world’s leading virtuoso of the pipa, the mind-bogglingly demanding Chinese lute. She’s certainly the most famous and wide-ranging practitioner of the instrument. 

No one is even close, given her collaborations with composers and artists including Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, the Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, jazz innovator Henry Threadgill and English folk guitarist Martin Simpson, to name a handful. Her 2010 album Immeasurable Light, featuring Kronos, mixes original, very modern classical approaches with intensely-researched reconstructions of tunes dating form the 8th to 12th century, uncovered in caves in Western China. In contrast, her 2005 album Wu Man and Friends she applied her towering talents to music from Appalachia and Uganda -- and various points in between, whichever direction you would go to make that trip.

Nonetheless, her statement about the multi-media Ancient Dances that she’ll be performing with percussionist Bob Shulz seems legit, the work having added new routes to her artistic trek.

“The whole evening will be a journey,” she says. “We will take the audience on a journey from ancient times to modern China. What the 8th century sounded like, and then music of the Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then now, the 2000s, what does an American-based composer write for this instrument?” 

In some ways it sums up Wu Man’s own journey from her upbringing in Hangzhou in the Yangtze River delta to Boston and more recently San Diego, her base for her myriad globe-spanning endeavors. Ancient Dances -- a gripping multi-media collaboration between her, Guangzhou-born/New York-based composer Chen Yi, percussionist Schulz and video artist Kathleen Owen -- draws inspiration from the 8th century Tang Dynasty poetry of Li Bai and ancient Chinese calligraphy, but also the 20th/21st century classical Chinese art of Wu Man’s own father. (See video, below, of the 2nd movement from a 2007 performance.)

“The three movements are all composed, none are traditional,” she says, noting each movement is titled for a Li Bai poem -- “Cheering,” “Longing” and “Wondering.” “But the material came from traditional music. The first movement, written by Chen Li, is very much her language with a little bit of Chinese folk music, very fast. The second movement which I composed, I wanted to go back to ancient pipa repertoire, very slow, meditative. The scale is something I took from an ancient tune, 9th century, discovered in Dung Huang Cave in western China, very close to Central Asia. And the third movement, Chen Li composed, again using some ancient styles, very lyrical and slow and percussive.” 

Behind the musicians, on two vertical screens images move and transform in Owen’s flowing program. The music and visuals are not meant to be synchronized as literal matches -- the music includes improvisational elements and the length and pace of the movements can vary from performance to performance. But they are aesthetically linked. 

“The piece starts very slow, the audience almost can’t recognize the screen is moving,” she says. “But the color of the music goes through the image.”

Throughout, Owen has incorporated paintings by Wu Man’s father, often birds and flowers done with ink brush. “I don’t know how Kathleen did it! They took my father’s birds and they can fly from one screen to another.”

Overall, this brings “new elements to the repertoire,” Wu Man says. “This is not standard. This is totally a new creation.  With the percussion, plus the images and poem, these elements are very classical Chinese art. I wanted to put it together, but use the high technology. That’s the idea.”

Wu Man is now continuing her journey, or perhaps completing her journey -- not that it will ever be finished.

“I’m working on a big project, ‘Wu Man Returns to the East,’” she says. “I’ve been here more than 20 years in the west. Now I always think about what is Chinese music, what is Asian music? I’ve had a chance to go back to visit many places, especially the countryside and rediscover so many incredible folk musicians. I just finished a CD with Central Asian musicians, Uygar musicians we found from a village, and a singer and setar player who are from Kazakstan. All plucked instruments, all are the pipa’s ancestors.”

For her, it all reinforces her distinct relationship with the music -- all the music she embraces -- and the cultures from which they spring.

“I grew up in China, learned Chinese music, classical Chinese music, and now I’m here in the west and have the chance to work with so many different musicians from so many cultural backgrounds,” she says. “Not many people have that chance in life. Interestingly, I go back to China and people look at me as a global person, don’t think I’m totally Chinese now. Here people don’t see me as totally American, but see the Chinese side. As a musician it’s quite a fortunate thing to have that experience and that’s why I want to do something always to push myself and go further.

“Always amazing to go back to China and people hear my concert and come up with different ideas: ‘How can you play that way? How can you have that idea?’ Especially the younger generation, they come up to me and wonder how they are going to go further with the instrumental music. I’m in a very good position as a global person.”