In his well-known Norton lectures at Harvard in 1973, "The Unanswered
Question," Leonard Bernstein asked, "Whither music in our time?"
The influences of Schoenberg and Stravinsky were duly pondered; the question
remained unanswered. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the
answer is all around us. The future is global. Non-European and popular
music, not 12-tone rows and Neo-Classicism, are what have refreshed and
expanded the musical traditions Bernstein held dear.
Composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, none of whom
can be called classical musicians, are one part of "postclassical"
music. And legions of young conductors and instrumentalists have broader,
less Eurocentric worldviews than their elders.
The Chinese, whose Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 sent Westernized musicians
into the countryside, have carved a special place in this transitional
moment. Steeped in their own traditional and folk music and equally schooled
in Western practice, composers like Zhou Long and Bright Sheng have forged
a hybrid idiom remarkable in expressive range and sophistication of timbre.
And by finding new ways to write for pipa, erhu and zheng, they have catalyzed
a generation of Chinese instrumentalists scarcely less remarkable.
credit: Jack Vartoogian
Min Xiao-Fen, who performs at the BAM Cafe tomorrow, is a pipa player
like no other. When she speaks the language of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington
or Miles Davis, the results are not ersatz but transformational. In her
trio, Blue Pipa, with guitar and double bass, the lutelike pipa becomes
a super-banjo. With orchestra, she performs concertos by Zhou Long, Tan
Dun and Bun-Ching Lam in which a Western concert genre acquires new foreign
Ms. Min's fretted string instrument is itself unusually versatile. Its
four strings and heavy rosewood body traditionally invite sharply contrasted
"martial" and "lyric" performing styles. The martial, connecting with
depictions of battle, is harsh, noisy and percussive. The lyric, connecting
with nature, is fragrant: with quivering vibrato, the pipa here imitates
the human voice.
Ms. Min's rendition of Monk's "Ask Me Now" is a cross-cultural tour de
force. The skittery repeated notes that bind and shape the long lines,
the twanging sustained tones, the interpolated pentatonic riffs, the dry
precision of every sound, all intended to connect equally with Monk's
quirkiness and with centuries-old Chinese practice. The bent notes Monk
idiosyncratically simulated on his piano are, on the pipa, truly and idiomatically
bent. If jazz is America's most influential "classical music," the Monk-Min
idiom is a postclassical signpost to the future.
Ms. Min also sings. In her performances, the cool, sauntering thirds of
Miles Davis's "All Blues" are a pipa accompaniment to a breathy vocalise.
Her "Satin Doll/Shanghai Doll" bilingually combines Duke Ellington and
Billy Strayhorn's "Satin Doll" with the 1930's Chinese pop song "Night
of Shanghai"; here the vocal embellishments variously derive from scat
singing and Beijing opera. (This number, Ms. Min says, is especially appreciated
in Taiwan, where audiences know both tunes.)
Her bluegrass style, as in "The Red-Haired Boy," incorporates flicked
inflections of timbre and melody that banjos, with their lower frets,
At 43, Ms. Min has traversed a sweeping musical odyssey. She comes from
a family of musicians and visual artists. Her father, a pipa master in
Nanjing, was her first teacher. Her sister is a prominent virtuoso on
the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle). Her brother conducts an orchestra in
"Of course we heard Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, all the famous European composers,"
she said in a recent interview. "Our neighbors played violin, cello, piano.
Every day after dinner we all made music. The Cultural Revolution was
not yet over. Everyone was a little afraid of being called to the countryside,
and if you could play music, you could get a better job.
Chinese universities were still closed - a legacy of the Cultural Revolution
- when Ms. Min graduated from high school in 1979. At 18, she auditioned
successfully for the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra, with which she
performed as a soloist for more than a decade. The orchestra gave about
80 concerts a year and toured widely in Europe.
Meanwhile, Ms. Min began singing in Chinese clubs, backed by saxophone,
electric guitar and drums. Sudden exposure to Michael Jackson, Whitney
Houston and other American pop stars was ear-opening. Though Ms. Min had
been trained by her father to sing Beijing opera, her voice proved adaptable
to cooler Western styles. Some of her father's colleagues were not pleased.
Bay Area that she first encountered nontonal concert works by immigrant
Chinese composers. "That was challenging," she said, "all kinds of new
rhythms and meters. I had to practice a lot, sometimes eight hours on
a couple of measures."
Ms. Min moved to New York in 1996. (She now lives in Forest Hills.) Months
after arriving, she played at the Knitting Factory. The composer-saxophonist
John Zorn was there, and he invited her to make a recording with the guitarist
Derek Bailey. The entire CD, produced by Mr. Zorn, was to be improvised.
"I said, 'I don't know how to do it,' " she recalled. "In China that kind
of individualism was not encouraged. I always needed someone to tell me
what to do. In traditional music you could improvise some ornaments, and
that was it. John said I should listen to Derek's recordings and decide.
"Derek made guitar sounds I had never imagined. I felt sparks and colors
- like a Dalí or Picasso painting. I even practiced by improvising along
with his CD's. A week later I phoned John and said, 'O.K., I can do it.'
In 2003, Ms. Min was invited by Jazz at Lincoln Center to perform a 30-minute
solo set of Thelonious Monk compositions.
"At first, I thought he was actually a monk," she said. "Little by little,
I started to like his music. It reminded me of different styles of Chinese
calligraphy: standard script, clerical script, seal script and especially
the running script, a very fast, very free style with a little improvisation
involved. And my contact with his music felt physical. Even though I had
a year to prepare, I honestly wasn't ready for this engagement. But the
feedback was so positive that I wanted to continue."
Moving on to works by Davis and Ellington, Ms. Min conceived a mission
to build a bridge between American jazz classics and Chinese tradition.
She also wants to explore the music of Mr. Zorn and of the venerable pianist
and composer Randy Weston, whose explorations of African music she finds
inspirational. And she is eager to expand the range of Blue Pipa, whose
other members, the guitarist Stephen Salerno and the bassist Mark Helias,
are practiced jazz and classical musicians.
The variety of settings in which Ms. Min has performed, from clubs to
concert halls, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and other American orchestras,
tells the story of her versatility. Her repertory with orchestra includes
"Two Poems From Tang" by Zhou Long, whose unsurpassed gift for combining
Chinese and Western instruments parallels Ms. Min's intermingling of Chinese
and Western genres. She also toured Europe in Peter Sellars's version
of the Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion," with music by Tan Dun.
Her concert tomorrow, with the cellist Okkyung Lee and the drummer Susie
Ibarra, will include solo and ensemble versions of various Monk, Davis
and bluegrass numbers.
Central to all these activities is the pipa itself, which originated 2,000
years ago. The body acquired its present pear shape in the fifth century,
influenced by the Middle Eastern oud. Partly because of its considerable
weight, it gradually evolved from a horizontally held instrument to one
held vertically. Today, there are more than 70 playing techniques, many
of which were devised only over the last century.
"I want to show that this instrument, which so far not too many people
know, has no limit," Ms. Min said. "I want to tell the world that there
are no boundaries. I can say I'm an avant-garde musician, right? I'd like
to go in this direction. I like this kind of feeling. I feel free.
By JOSEPH HOROWITZ