When Wu Man, the great virtuoso of the four-stringed pipa (a k a Chinese lute), went to China in 2007, she was on a mission. In preparation for programming a festival of traditional Chinese music at New York’s Carnegie Hall, she went all over China, searching for the most exciting musicians from every imaginable genre. Her most spectacular find of that research trip was the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, a group of farmers from Shaanxi province in northwestern China. On Thursday, March 8, UCSB Arts & Lectures brings Wu Man and this group of musicians and puppeteers to Campbell Hall as part of the band’s second visit to America.
A mainstay of village life all over its native Huayin county, the band traces its history as a touring unit back 300 years. Although its shadow plays depict rivalries from as long ago as the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), its wild, percussive music sounds brash and contemporary — closer to Western jazz or even punk than to the ethereal lyricism of the pipa.
Wu Man loves this raucous art form and relishes the challenge of performing with the Huayin Band and its shadow puppets. For her, it’s an opportunity to get away from the fixed dynamic between performers and the audience that’s typical of the concert-hall setting. “I was fascinated by shadow puppets when I was little,” she told me by phone last week, “and I love that the music is so different from everything else.” Moved to attempt a musical collaboration, Wu Man probed for some way to connect the pipa to what these players were doing on the erhu, yueqin, banhu, and sundry gongs and clappers. “They’re all plucked instruments, or fiddles,” she said, “so I knew there had to be a connection.” The aha moment came when one of the musicians’ fathers showed up and said that, yes, they had at one time employed a pipa in the group, but then they got too expensive.
Thanks to Wu Man, the pipa is finally back in the band. She plans to perform two traditional pipa solos, “Flute and Drum Music at Sunset” in the lyrical style and “Ambush from 10 Sides” in the martial style, plus one of her immensely absorbing on-the-spot improvisations. This will occur in the course of an evening that also includes battling shadow puppets in an opera and a man whose instrument is a wooden bench. There will be new duets and ensemble works based on folk songs, and the Huayin musicians will sing in a variety of voices, from lusty to innocent and from bass baritone to the highest Chinese operatic falsetto.
As one of the founding members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and through her own efforts with other collaborators such as the Kronos Quartet, Wu Man has been a central figure in the thriving world/classical music scene for three decades. A Grammy Award winner and multi-time Grammy nominee, Wu Man is in constant demand among the world’s top symphony orchestras thanks to the many pieces written expressly for her by such well-known composers as Lou Harrison, Tan Dun, and Philip Glass. In a career marked by confidently radical experimentation, this may be Wu Man’s wildest group yet.
Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band perform Thursday, March 8, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.