Min Xiao-Fen

 

COOKING WITH PIPA

Published August, 2008, GlobalRhythms.com by Charles Blass  >>>

 

VARIETY  IS  THE  SPICE OF LIFE  FOR  MIN XIAO-FEN

   
 

Wisps of smoke and fiery flashes of heat escape from the sonic cauldron of Min Xiao-Fen’s Asian Trio, at once ancient and timeless.

An entranced audience at New York’s downtown performance space The Kitchen ingests a feast of harmoniously contrasting musical dishes where flavors blend and blur, ranging from cool pointillism to tangy ornate embellishment and everything in between. On Min’s ever-adaptable palate, whispering acoustics give way to deep-fried electronics, and slashing, sour howls can segue into red-hot thrash improv.

“I like to cook, and I like arts, painting, calligraphy - this is all connected with my music,” says Min, who was drawn to the four stringed pipa, it seems, for more than just musical reasons. “When you cook, you add something flavored to the improvisation, too.”

While writing Chinese calligraphy, she also gets inspiration and ideas. “There are many styles - especially the Running Script, with eight standard strokes starting with points in different touches. Part of the ink is concentrating, and part of the ink is spreading in different directions, slowly changing the patterns and shading layer by layer.
Together they are making a harmony - music is just like that.”

 
 


For Min, “the pipa is an international instrument with no limits.” Whereas traditional Chinese music rarely crosses the line, Min’s tonal expeditions soar brazenly beyond it, dancing between hypnotic lullabies and razor shards of crackling tension. Min’s soft precision draws you into her world, on her terms: she paints hillside plum blossoms and sprays butterfly bullets and misty drops in distant pools, her cascading textures seductively jarring.

The Asian Trio is led by Min on pipa, vocals and electronics, and features Okkyung Lee on cello, and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion and electronics. Min’s vocal style is especially striking: you’ll hear whispers and squeals, mutated demons and hungry ghosts - one moment a little girl, a wizened sage the next.
Return Of The Dragon is a DVD commissioned and released in 2007 by The Kitchen, and early next year, Arts Nova /High Two will release the trio’s newly recorded album.

Min’s other working group is the Blue Pipa Trio, who made a studio recording in May, with Steve Salerno (guitar) and Dean Johnson (acoustic bass). Blending jazz and bluegrass with Chinese folk styles, they play Min’s original compositions and interpret standards, leaving out the electronics for a more gentle, pulsing feel.

American bluegrass and southern Chinese music, in fact, are linked rhythmically and melodically; both forms rely heavily on 4/4 rhythms and the pentatonic scale. “In an ensemble, we all play the same melody,” Min explains, “but each instrument can play its own ornamentation. Also, a lot of Chinese music resembles the blues, simply because of the pentatonic scale.” Of course, there are differences. “Bluegrass style includes a lot of improvisation; Chinese folk music doesn’t, but we do have ornamentation.”

Min Xiao-Fen is a master of the pipa, and a living bridge between classical and modern eras and cultural hemispheres, harmonizing disciplined introspection with a whirlwind of sound. She started at age 10 under the guidance of her father, Min Ji-Qian, also a pipa master, and after years of exams and academy training, she became a soloist with the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra. “When I was young, I had almost no time to play,” she recalls. “Now I’m glad.”

She remained in the orchestra for 10 years, touring and playing essentially the same repertoire. After 20 years as a professional musician in China, she had grown increasingly stifled by the routine, which prompted a move to San Francisco in 1992. “I felt like a little fish swimming to the big ocean,” Min says. “Just swim and see what’s going to happen.” She was exposed to abstract music-combinations of Eastern and Western instruments, minimal melody, and shifting tempos, meters and scales. “I had a lot of culture shock. I almost gave up.” Fortunately, the Chinese community was extremely supportive - the composers Chen Yi and Zhou Long in particular.


“It took me a little while (to get into improvising).
For the first six years, I didn’t enjoy it 100 percent.
Now I’m 100 percent sure I love it!”


Min’s first brush with improvisation turned out to be a disaster - “I never forgot that moment,” she says. Composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith had invited her to join his group for a concert in San Francisco. Smith’s score indicated notes but no tempo, and she tried to follow faithfully. When he suddenly switched gears and nodded for her to jam, “I almost had a heart attack,” she says, laughing. “I totally lost the whole piece.”

Undeterred, Min felt the magnetic pull of New York City. “Even in China, everyone knows New York is a center for arts, and especially for music,” she says. “After I received my green card [for extraordinary ability in the arts], I decided to move to New York in 1996. I knew it would be a risk, but worth a try.” Six months later, John Zorn caught her half-trad, half-modern concert at the Knitting Factory. She didn’t know who he was, but soon realized his influence when he introduced her to many local musicians. “John changed my career. He’s one of my heroes.”

Zorn suggested a collaboration with guitar-improv godfather Derek Bailey; Min played along with his albums for a week and agreed to try. The duo recorded for three hours straight - blithely blissful sounds, conjuring images of hang-gliding over canyons, spelunking in dark caverns or doing somersaults through wildflower meadows. Min was astounded when Bailey broke a string and kept playing, using it to scratch and rattle. They recorded two acclaimed albums-Viper and Flying Dragons - with Zorn producing. “Derek was always smiling,” Min recalls. (Bailey passed away in late 2005.)

Zorn’s Avant and Tzadik labels have been home to several of Min’s albums, including two film scores of Zorn’s. She has also teamed up with Marc Ribot, Leroy Jenkins, Randy Weston, Ned Rothenberg (on a live DVD recorded for Roulette TV in New York), and more recently, her old friend Wadada Leo Smith. Years after her initial encounter with Smith, Min says she is “much more confident.”

In 2003, she created Blue Pipa, Inc. to “present music without boundaries” - the company offers multiple programs annually, and this year commissioned Carl Stone’s Ghost Karaoke project. Also this year, Min performed with tabla master Samir Chatterjee and koto player Masayo Ishigure in concert with mime artist Yass
Hakoshima. “I always enjoy working with dancers,” Min says. “My music is connected easily with each pause, phrase and gesture.”

And in an encounter with stardom far more pop than avant-classical, Min was invited by Björk to join the sessions for “I See Who You Are,” from her 2007 album Volta, placing her in elite company with such artists as Timbaland, Konono No.1 and Toumani Diabaté. “Björk is a kind, thoughtful, intelligent, energetic, and strong person,” Min says reverently. “She respected me and gave freedom to her musicians, and always offered encouragement.” Min later performed with Björk at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and The Apollo Theater.

In the musical landscape of Min Xiao-Fen, the inks of different cultures run together and form new patterns, new languages. While she visits China frequently, and appreciates the traditional music even more today (next year, she brings her father to the U.S. for a project based on Nanjing), she plans to bring her new sound to a younger Chinese generation when she performs in Nanjing this October. Of course, she still loves New York for its freedom, and expands her sonic palette by drawing on its energy. “New York City changed my life and my career,” she says, noting that she was cautious at first when it came to learning the invented language of improvised music. “It took me a little while. For the first six years, I didn’t enjoy it 100 percent. Now I’m 100 percent sure I love it!”
 

By CHARLES BLASS

 

 

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