Sunday, February 05, 2006

Wu Man: Live in Fayetteville

I got to see Wu Man, the pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso, perform last night at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville.

I was introduced to the work of Wu Man by my ethnomusicologist colleagues Rembrandt Wolpert and Elizabeth Markham, who run the Center for the Study of Early Asian and Middle Eastern Music at the U of A. They brought her here a couple years ago, and she performed at the celebrated Mildred B. Cooper Chapel, designed by renowned architect Faye Jones, in Bella Vista.

What I particularly admire about Wu Man is her ability to move easily between the classical Chinese pipa (pronounced 'pee-puh') tradition and the Western avant-garde. At the Cooper Chapel she performed music from the Tang Dynasty (7th and 8th centuries), recovered by Rembrandt Wolpert. On her album Pipa from a Distance (Naxos, 2003), she performs both the classical repertoire as well as wailing like Hendrix on electric pipa ("Shanghai Blues"). She has collaborated with Philip Glass, the Kronos Quartet, and Yo-Yo Ma. She even shows up on anarchist theorist Hakim Bey's album T.A.Z. (The Temporary Autonomous Zone), where he reads passages from his book of the same name.

Wu Man's concert last night similarly ran the gamut from the classical tradition to the avant-garde. In the avant vein, she performed a composition by Eric Moe, "The Sun Beats the Mountain Like a Drum," with a taped "electroacoustic sound" accompaniment.

Most amazing though, in a concert with NO low points, was "Ancient Dances," written by composer Chen Yi (commissioned by the Walton Arts Center) in collaboration with Wu Man. It's inspired by three poems by the famous "drunken" Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. Wu Man performed this piece accompanied by John Hanks (of Duke University) on percussion and with a video by Catherine Owens (who has worked with U2, among others), based on Chinese calligraphy and artwork, playing in the background. The effect of the music and video was magical and almost overwhelming. (Given my lack of background in Chinese and avant-garde music, I'm left incapable of offering any kind of meaningful account of the music.)

I'm not a big fan of the Waltons, to put it mildly, but I really like the fact that the Walton Arts Center has recently begun commissioning works like "Ancient Dances." Wu Man will perform "Ancient Dances" at Carnegie Hall, New York City, April 6-8, 2006.

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