In Du Yun’s New Pipa Concerto, Wu Man is a Mic’d Up Diva and Improvisatory Narrator

 This interview has been edited for clarity.

Composer Du Yun recalls when she sat down to start writing her latest concerto with a specific performer in mind. “In the beginning, I was not thinking about the pipa,” she says. “I was literally imagining how Wu Man is going to sit on the stage. I’m looking at who she is and her energy.

Wu Man is the world’s foremost pipa player, and Du Yun told her in our recent conversation that she had been a “fangirl” for a long time before their first collaboration. Du Yun approached her in 2020 to contribute to a compendium of lockdown compositions, and from their quarantined locations in the United States and China, they created Every Grass a Spring for baritone, sheng, and a non-notated pipa part. Du Yun remembers thinking, “Next time I should write this down…” which became this new concerto.

Ears of the Book, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and The Philadelphia Orchestra, premieres with The Knights at Zankel Hall on Feb. 29. In writing a concerto for pipa and orchestra, Du Yun wanted to give her soloist the biggest possible vehicle. “Wu Man is a diva in the best possible way, so I wanted to write a diva piece,” Du Yun said while laughing. “Wu Man commands the stage. I wanted to bring out soloist moments, and you will hear a very long trio between pipa and the two orchestral percussionists…”

“…which is driving me crazy!” Wu Man said, jumping into the conversation. When she got the score, Wu Man said her immediate reaction was what is going on! She couldn’t imagine how the notation sounded until she asked Du Yun to sing it. “The rhythm [in this trio section] is more important than the notes, which are gestures to amplify the excitement of the dialogue with the percussionists,” Wu Man explained. “There is a lot of space for the player to create their own idea and put their artistry into the piece.”

Wu Man -- Photo by Gan Yuan

Wu Man — Photo by Gan Yuan

Wu Man explained that the pipa, sometimes called the “Chinese lute,” actually originated in Central Asia and is part of a large instrument family. Though the Chinese developed a specific pipa sound and technique, she says, “I never think, ‘I play a Chinese instrument.’” Her pear-shaped pipa has approximately 24 frets, and the four strings are usually tuned A-D-E-A. Although contemporary pipa tuning has different timbral and color options compared to times past, it can still be “quite limited in a way,” says Wu Man. “If you want to play a different style or a modern sound, sometimes a composer changes the tuning.”

Which is exactly what Du Yun did. “For me, this piece was not really about the harmony or changing the tuning,” Du Yun says. “It was really about the quality or nature of the fourth string so that it really vibrates and sings. You really hear it piercing throughout.” She wanted to lower the fourth string down to a D, but Wu Man cautioned that it would not produce enough sound; they settled on tuning the string to G. The slightly loosened string has a different timbre, and it vibrates the sympathetic strings differently, as well.

Du Yun is no stranger to dramatic narration, with her acclaimed operas Sweet Land, In Our Daughter’s Eyes, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel’s Bone. “When I approach operas,” she says, “I don’t actually think, ‘this is the exact fate of this character.’ It’s the complexity of human nature that drives the story.”

Similar ideas resonate in this concerto, but the framework for storytelling shifts when the soloist is a wordless and improvisatory narrator. The title of the piece, Ears of the Book, draws from a poetic description of ancient book binding practices, where small footnotes or inscriptions gave readers a sense of what each chapter was about. To create these “bookmarks” in the concerto, Du Yun settled on the idea of Polaroid-like titles. “With Polaroids, you have the freedom of not necessarily going [through them] in the right order. They can go into a bowl or a collection,” she says.

Du Yun--Photo by Zhen Qin, Makeup by Nina Carelli, Art Direction by SpaTheory

Du Yun–Photo by Zhen Qin, Makeup by Nina Carelli, Art Direction by SpaTheory

She also surprised Wu Man in our interview by revealing that she had recently changed the titles of all of the movements heading into the premiere. “It doesn’t really make a difference for you, Wu Man, but I feel like they’re better.” (Some titles: “A Mist,” “A Wild Beast,” “Fear of Cloud,” “An Infinite Well.”) “That’s very interesting in terms of traditional Chinese music,” Wu Man said, pondering the change. “In that tradition, we always have small titles. Each section is like a picture or small vision, and for many traditional pipa pieces, we have that — so actually that’s great!”

Although Wu Man originally trained in the regional Pudong style of pipa playing, she simultaneously learned many different styles, and her modern performances draw upon this wealth of flexible expression. “It’s how you understand the music and the flow,” she says. For example, she explained that the opening of the concerto, an extended solo based on Nanyin opera from the southern Fujian Province, is written in a narrative style: “It’s a kind of slow, singing-speaking material, and Du Yun gave me a lot of freedom. Basically, she just gave me notes without rhythm, so it’s how I treat those notes and my individual pipa expression. The challenge for me is how I make those choices with that amount of freedom of expression in each chapter of the piece.”

But the concerto is a technical challenge, too. The pipa is a solo instrument; its most unique tremoring sounds can’t compete with an orchestra, but Du Yun isn’t afraid of using a mic to amplify her soloist. “Having to be all acoustic is not in my language,” she says. “Wu Man is a narrator, like a punk singer-songwriter. No one would ever say, ‘Why is Bjork using a mic?’”

They also agree that amplification serves the audience, and Wu Man emphasized the communal experience of music-making. When she practices, she imagines not only her ideal sound, the audience, and the orchestra, but also the interactions she’ll have with the conductor.

Eric Jacobsen -- Photo by Shervin Lainez

Eric Jacobsen — Photo by Shervin Lainez

Eric Jacobsen, conductor of The Knights and Wu Man’s longtime friend, is excitedly anticipating this particular premiere. “I’ve worked with Wu Man as a soloist with numerous orchestras and repertoire, but now, getting to bring a new piece to life together is a new step in our musical journey,” says Jacobsen. “She is a rockstar, her interpretations and artistry are so inspiring, and I know the collaboration will be a beautiful one.” Jacobsen also counts himself lucky to have worked directly with Du Yun throughout the process, which has given him and the orchestra “a glimpse into a magical galaxy of creativity.”

It is clear that Ears of the Book is not any kind of “East meets West” event or exoticized curio piece. Rather, it is an experimental approach to sound that is pushing the capabilities of a centuries-old instrument. Wu Man hopes that the pipa’s unusual timbres can provoke the audience to listen and live more imaginatively. “It’s more than entertainment,” she says. “Something can change deeply inside of us.” Du Yun agrees, adding, “I wish that in America, we could exchange ‘entertainment’ with ‘enchantment.’ Spirituality is also in shared experiences and in these life moments. How often do we have exalted experiences that we can share? We really need each other for these deep moments.”

Ears of the Book premieres Feb. 29 at Zankel Hall with The Knights led by conductor Eric Jacobsen. Following the world premiere, Wu Man performs Ears of the Book with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on April 5–7, also conducted by Jacobsen. Additional performances, including with The Philadelphia Orchestra, to be announced.