“Thick strings clatter like splattering rain,
Fine strings murmur like whispered words,
Clattering and murmuring meshing jumble sounds,
Like pearls, big and small, falling on a platter of jade.”
The above is an extract taken from the Song of the Pipa, a classic poem written in the year 816 by the well-known Chinese poet Bai Juyi. One day when travelling down the Yangtze River on a boat, he suddenly caught a captivating pipa melody wafting from afar. Greatly moved, Bai tried to trace the music sound and then found the pipa player, who had been a court pipa player when she was young. Putting on a soul-stirring pipa performance, the player seemingly intended to tell all her joy in her prime and haplessness in the mid-life, which struck a chord with the poet who was then undergoing his own life’s bump. Greatly inspired, Bai penned the Song of the Pipa, which is now recognized as a masterpiece poem. The few lines from this poem provide an elaborate and vivid description of the abundant timbre of the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument.
The “King” of Chinese Folk Instruments
Pipa is a Chinese version of the European lute, with a history of more than two thousand years. Pipa made its first appearance in China during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), reached its peak of popularity in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and then became an indispensable element of Chinese folk music. Through the centuries, it developed as the “king” of Chinese folk instruments and remains an important instrument of Chinese music today. It can be played in orchestras or as a solo. There is a portfolio of pipa repertories which include such pieces as Ambush from Ten Sides and A Moonlit Night on The Spring River.
In addition to poems and songs, pipa has also been featured in many Chinese paintings. A typical example is the Dunhuang murals in the Mogao Caves in western China which are a cultural treasure of the ancient Silk Road. On many of the thousand year-old murals, celestial dancers are depicted playing pipa, indicating that similar musical entertainment must have been offered to travelers on the Silk Road back in the days the murals were painted. These murals reflect the cultural and historical importance of pipa as an instrument in ancient China.
A Broad Spectrum of Tones
Throughout its millennia of evolution, pipa has undergone continuous modifications in terms of its number of frets, the type of material it is made from, playing methods, and so on. A modern pipa has a pear-shaped wooden body, long and narrow neck, and a bent head with a carving at the end. The back of the soundboard is generally made of sandalwood, carved from one solid piece of wood, while most of the front side is made from two pieces of plane tree wood. The wood at the base of the instrument where the higher pitch notes are produced is thicker than that of upper area where the lower pitch notes are produced. As for the four strings, they are generally nylon-wound steel.
The pipa is well-known for its expressive sound, featuring a high volume and a wide range of tones. The timbre can range from being vibrant and lively to quiet and tranquil. The high-pitch tone is very bright, its middle-range notes are quite gentle, and its low-range tone is mellow. Its wide range of notes enables it to produce a rich variety of sounds. It can express sounds of war where the tones are forceful and intense as well as render gentle sounds of nature; it can create both scenes of epic grandeur and a serene moonlit night, covering a broad spectrum of tones.
A Guitar Brother Fancies “Manicure”
In contrast with other instruments, pipa is akin to the guitar in many ways, including its pear-shaped body, tone making, and playing techniques. But despite their similarities, guitars and pipas are considerably different in specific plucking skills: finger tips are generally pushed in an outward direction on pipa strings, while on a guitar fingers mainly pluck strings in an inward motion towards the palm of the hand. In addition, the pipa was originally held horizontally like a guitar, and its twisted silk strings were plucked with a large plectrum held in the right hand. Now they are held vertically when played with the bottom resting on the surface of the player’s lap and fake fingernails are used to pluck the steel strings.
Putting on fake nails is an essential step of preparation for pipa players for two main reasons. First, it protects the finger tips and natural nails from being broken or injured through repetitive strumming of steel strings. Second, artificial nails can produce louder and brighter tones.
The modern fake nails used when playing pipa are generally made of plastic and a special kind of adhesive tape is used to bind them onto the natural nails. As one of the steps in the production procedure, both the nails and tape are soaked in a special solution so that it can make a better sound when plucking the strings. The ingredients of the solution are a secret and only a few producers know the recipe, which is generally handed down in families.
Zhang Nu is a pipa professor at Minzu University of China. Growing up in a family with both parents being professional instrument players, he started playing pipa at a very young age. He took up pipa as a hobby in the beginning but soon became so captivated with it, that he studied pipa at China’s Central Conservatory of Music and pursued a career in teaching after graduation.
He has witnessed a Chinese cultural revival over the last several decades and sees it as an opportunity of boosting the popularity of traditional instruments among the younger generation. In recent years, he has also noticed a growing number of pipa lovers at various ages, having contributed to helping promote and pass on this important Chinese instrument to more people. Some of Zhang’s students have opened pipa studios, providing not only pipa performance but also lessons to attract many learners, especially children. In Zhang’s opinion, interest is the best motive for people to learn an instrument, as they’ll being prodded by their own eagerness to work hard and master the instrument. For children who play the pipa, Zhang indicated that happiness and relaxation should be the dominant feeling they get in the pipa performance.
Zhang is very glad to see a growing interest in pipa. In his words, “Pipa is an instrument that is able to bring joy and peace to people through its lively and expressive sound, and it is at the same time a medium for carrying Chinese culture and values.”