The Chinese pipa player talks about life on the road with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project

Gramophone Magazine

When the Silk Road Ensemble celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, it seemed remarkable to me that I had been a part of this group for a whole decade.  But when I think about all the concerts we have played together, it seems equally remarkable that we could have done so much in just ten years!  By the time this is published our two-week Asian tour will be over, but as I write this I am looking forward to performing in South Korea, Macao, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore.

I would estimate that the Silk Road Ensemble has made around two dozen tours over the past decade.  We generally do two tours a year and those have taken us all over Asia, Europe, Central Asia, India, Egypt and America.  As we all gather together to embark on a new journey, it feels like a homecoming, even though we will be travelling constantly during that time.

Travelling in a group is the most exciting thing for me.  We travel a lot by bus and in many cases we will perform a concert, get on the bus and drive through the night to reach the next city for the following day’s concert.  I can tell you that these bus journeys are not quiet!  Everyone is still excited and hyped up.  The staff will have food and drink for us, Yo-Yo will start telling jokes and soon the laughing starts!

Touring is also a time to share ideas, talk about our families and really find out about our fellow musicians’ lives and cultures.  To me, this is what is so unique about the Silk Road Ensemble compared to the other things I do – meeting musicians from so many different backgrounds.  These relationships are reflected in the music.  We’re basically constantly collaborating.  After rehearsals we might get back together and improvise on a piece, talk about our different cultures and try out different things.  Often the original score does not include pipa, especially some of the non-Chinese traditional pieces, so I will join in on stage and adapt my sound to the piece.  When we do an encore, usually one person starts playing a solo and the other musicians join in spontaneously.

As a pipa player I have strived throughout my career to introduce my instrument (a traditional stringed Chinese instrument that resembles a lute, just in case you didn’t know!)  to other cultures and composers.  The music style of the pipa can be very elegant and lyrical, or very percussive and dramatic, but the traditional Chinese repertoire is limited.  So my goal has been to expand my musical language as well as the repertoire for the pipa.  I want to make the pipa part of a global musical language.  As well as working with Chinese composers, I have been fortunate to work with many great contemporary composers such as Philip Glass, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley who have embraced the pipa’s capabilities.  In many cases it has become a cultural chameleon in their hands.

Two works that we will play on the Asian tour and that are on our Off the Map recording – Evan Zipporyn’s Sulvasutra and Gabriela Lena Frank’s Ritmos Anchinos – show this.  Both pieces have different voices.  Evan’s piece is very influenced by India, and the tabla is the solo instrument.  The pipa basically tries to sound like a sitar – it’s like a metronome providing the heartbeat across the whole piece.  It reminds me of when I play Philip Glass’s music.  The concentration required is quite challenging.  Gabriela’s piece, on the other hand, is very different – it’s like her personality (she talks fast and laughs loud!).  For this piece the pipa mimics a plucked instrument from South America with vividness and great humour.  This is especially true in the last movement, and the dramatic shifts in expression make the music really enjoyable to play.

Every project with the Silk Road Ensemble is approached by those involved with an open heart, an open mind and open ears.  I remain inspired by the wonderful musicians I get to travel, eat and joke with, and these experiences feed into my other projects, whether I’m creating new works, performing with the Kronos Quartet, concentrating on my solo work or playing with an orchestra.  I am happy to be part of such a lively musical conversation and hope that this year’s tour extends the dialogue.