World Music Institute: Discover the Pipa

photo: WMI

The pipa (pee-pah) is an ancient Chinese instrument similar to a lute, with four strings, played almost vertically. Pear-shaped, it has four tuning pegs and about 30 frets, and modern ones have a small sound hole under the bridge. Its sound is haunting, like the sound of nature.

Its origins are debated, but it evolved as a combination of many instruments, the earliest a hand mallet drum to which animal gut strings were added. We first hear of it in documents of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 to 220 AD). Its master, Ruan Xian, lived in the fifth century. It was most important in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) and repopularized in the Middle Ages, during the Ming Dynasty. 

And it’s still played today - most notably in the hands of Zhou Yi, who’s been winning awards since childhood for her virtuosity. On November 20 she gave a marvelous concert at The China Institute in New York, Discover the Pipa, produced by The World Music Institute.

Her first piece was similar to a round - the last pitch of one section was the first of the next, reflecting the cyclical Buddhist philosophy of life. The second was a 20th-century piece. On the third she was joined by Yimin Miniao, himself a highly acclaimed musician, on the dizi (bamboo flute). The dizi is blown from the end and has an gentle, mysterious sound. Mr. Yimin joined her again later in the set with the dizi, and, for one song, with a hand drum.

One of the loveliest moments of the evening happened when Ms. Zhou, accompanying herself, sang, in a charming, delicate voice, a song based on Song of the Pipa, a poem by Bai Juyi (Tang Dynasty). It’s a lovely sad ballad reading in part:
Suddenly we heard a pipa across the water.
I, the host, forgot my return, the guest his journey on.
In the darkness we asked for the player.

The evening was educational as well as entertaining, with Ms. Zhou instructing us on the pipa. She showed us a score from the Tang Dynasty (which look like Chinese characters to the untutored) and modern “numbered notation” which looked unlike standard sheet music. She spoke in standard musical terms - “strumming”, “minor third”, “staccato”. 

The pipa imitates the sounds of nature specifically - its tremulo imitates breeze, its strumming the wave. It uses much sliding to reflect the four tunes of spoken Mandarin.

Pipa sheet music indicates melody, not rhythm, and musicians interpret freely. Using a pentatonic scale, it has two classes of song: a slow elegant style (Song of the Pipa) and a martial style heard in a song Ms. Zhou played called Ambushing from Ten Sides. Ms. Zhou even encouraged us to step up on the small stage and play the instrument ourselves. 

But the instruction was merely an addenda to the enchanting music itself. What a wonderful concert from Ms. Zhou, Mr. Yimin and The World Music Institute!

review

Steve Capra

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