For acclaimed pipa soloist, vocalist and composer Min Xiao-Fen, the avant-garde is much more than a genre in the art world; its imperative of experimentation has been the foundation of her artistic life. While rooted in Far Eastern traditions, including those of her native China, she has long sought something beyond classical Chinese music.
Hailed by the Village Voice as an artist who “has taken her ancient Chinese string instrument into the future,” Ms. Min is a master of the pipa, a four-stringed, pear-shaped lute with a 2,000-year history. Known for her virtuosity and fluid style, Min has expanded her instrument’s possibilities as an element for contemporary composition, tacking fluidly between the extended techniques of free improvisation, jazz, full-on noise and contemporary classical vocabulary. More recently, she has begun to present her own wide-ranging explorations.
On her latest solo set, “Mao, Monk and Me” (2014), Min investigates the deep and unexpected connections between the jazz standards of Thelonious Monk and Chinese music. Born in the ancient capital of Nanjing, Min was a little girl during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The reformed Beijing Operas and folk songs she heard from the many regions were dedicated to the workers and soldiers. After moving to the United States in 1992, she discovered jazz and soon realized that Monk’s music was ripe for musical reinvention.
In 2013-14, Min brought to life the work of American jazz artist Buck Clayton, a leading member of Count Basie’s Old Testament orchestra, and Li Jinhui, the father of Chinese popular music. Blending and combining their music in all sorts of exciting ways, the end result was her composition “From Harlem to Shanghai and Back,” performed by her Blue Pipa Trio.
Her 2012 recording, Dim Sum, spotlights Min’s poise and melodic reach as a composer. Inspired by the quotidian street sounds that she had heard growing up as a child, this duet with percussion offers a sublime combination of delicate plucked sounds and sweet, eerie textures. Min describes it as “six musical dishes meant to touch the heart.”
Not every musician could do this so effortlessly.
Born in the ancient capital of Nanjing, Min learned to play the pipa from her father, Min Ji-Qian, a respected professor and pipa master. At the age 17, she was selected by the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra of China and spent over ten years as its principal pipa soloist. She won first prize at the Jiangsu National Pipa Competition in China and eventually become considered a first class artist in China.
Min has recorded traditional Chinese repertoire with many of the world’s leading symphony orchestras and has performed at a number of international festivals. She has been a featured soloist with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, San Diego Symphony, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, Stanford Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, San Diego Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Macao Orchestra, Third Angle Ensemble, Amiens Chamber Orchestra (France) and Nieuw Ensemble (Holland), among many others. Min premiered Tan Dun’s opera “Peony Pavilion” with director Peter Sellars in 1998, Anthony De Ritis’ pipa concerto “Ping Pong” with the Taipei Chinese Music Orchestra in 2004 and Huang Ruo’s “Written on the Wind” for Meet the Composer in 2008. She has also premiered the works of such noted composers as Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam and Philip Glass.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Min recorded and performed with Derek Bailey (Viper, 1998; Live At Tonic, Volume I, 1999; and Flying Dragons, 1999), John Zorn (The Port of Last Resort, 1997; Filmworks VIII and Shaolin Ulysses, 2002; Filmworks XII), Randy Weston (Khepera, 1998), Ned Rothenberg (Ghost Stories, 1999), Leroy Jenkins (The Art of Improvisation, 2004), Billy Martin (Socket, 2005) and Wadada Leo Smith (Mbira, 2011).
She has worked with trombonist George Lewis, saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom and Ned Rothenberg, guitarists Marc Ribot and Elliott Sharp, violinists Regina Carter and Jason Kao Hwang, bassist Mark Dresser, pianists Jon Jang and Daniel Kelly, sound artists Carl Stone and DJ Spooky, as well as sound and visual pioneer Christian Marclay.
Even contemporary rock is not alien to Min, who made an appearance on singer Björk’s album Volta in 2007. Following its release she was invited to perform with Björk as a special guest at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.
Min’s solo recordings include The Moon Rising (1996), Spring, River, Flower, Moon, Night (1997), With Six Composers (1998) and her DVD release, Min Xiao-Fen – Live, a performance at Roulette in New York City (2002).
Min has been featured at the New York Guitar Festival, Geneva Music Festival, Utrecht International Lute Festival, Berlin Chinese Music Festival, Lincoln Center Festival, Macao Arts Festival, Shanghai Spring International Music Festival, Great Mountains International Music Festival (Korea), San Francisco Jazz Festival, Festivalgerie, the Undead Jazzfest, Beijing Modern Music Festival, Christian Marclay Festival at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Gas-Festival in Gothenburg (Sweden).
As a composer Min received a commission in 2007 for “Return of the Dragon” from The Kitchen in New York, followed by a performance with her Asian Trio. She performed her solo piece “Blue Pipa” as a featured composer for the American Composers Orchestra Composer OutFront Series, and her composition “Ghost Masks” was commissioned and performed by Min–Wu–Xu at the Glatt & Verkehrt Festival in Krems, Austria in 2008. She premiered and performed “Dim Sum” at Interpretations in 2010, the Undead Jazzfest 2011 and WQXR-FM/New York Public Radio in 2012. Min has been a curator at John Zorn’s venue The Stone and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City.
She has received awards from Meet the Composer, Asian Cultural Council and The Peter S. Reed Foundation.
Min has taught many master classes and has been an artist-in-residence at schools and universities across the United States and Europe, including the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Boston Conservatory, The New School, Columbia University, Haystack Mountain School of Arts & Crafts, James Madison University, Wellesley College, University of California at San Diego, Brooklyn Friends School, Amsterdam Conservatory and University of Gothenburg.
She is the founder of Blue Pipa Inc. (www.bluepipa.org) and currently lives in New York.