Jill: Well I know for instance, I interviewed Wu Man when she was here. She had a piece written for her by Lou Harrison who is an American composer and we do play on the station a piece called Yellow River Concerto which is a kind of westernized Chinese version of a rather impressive piano concerto with an impressive pipa part in it and I must say I don’t think any of us knew about the pipa until we started playing that concerto so it’s rather odd to find you, a Philadelphia born musician and accomplished pipa musician.
excerpt from Crossover with Jill Pasternak w/ David Cohen WRTI January 2007
Pipa Master Sun Li had been in America for a few months when I started my study with her. It took a long time to find someone who would teach me. I was walking into a new culture and did not know the pipa was considered a female instrument. At the time the pipa was nonexistent in Philadelphia even in the Chinese community. The request from and American male from Philadelphia traveling to Manhattan on a regular basis wasn’t taken seriously. Master Sun Li (pictured left) needing to create an income base took the chance; I was her first student in America.
At one point the school where she taught was going to be closed for a three week period. We both didn’t want to lose weeks. She invited me to Chinese Queens to continue the instructions in her home.
The period of time my study took place in the aftermath of 9/11. My instructions started in the first week of Manhattan being reopened. The backdrop and smells from ground zero were ever present. Being in a vehicle with one passenger I wasn’t able to drive into Manhattan. Out of the many options I chose to drive to the Highland’s in New Jersey to take the Wall Street Ferry into Manhattan. From there I walked to my lesson in Chinatown or took the Chinese bus when the lessons were in Queens. Travel time was five hours from my front door to the school, going into Queens was an extra thirty minutes (non rush hour).
I had a New York minute to make the next LIRR to get back into Manhattan after one of my lessons in Queens. In my rush I turned a corner to smack right into a women head on. Two strangers bumped into each other and we both apologized. The woman knowing what was in the case I carried asked, “Oh, you play the pipa? In China it’s a female instrument.” She identified herself as a pipa musician and explained that she was coming back from the printer with programs for her upcoming tour of the United States and Canada. She handed me a program; I knew who this woman was, I had one of her CD’s and was using one of the pieces from it to practice against.
She asked to see my pipa, my rush to make the train ended. I pulled my pipa out of the case on the busy Queens avenue and in the process she saw the transcriptions I was using. Seeing that I was learning Chinese notation and real Chinese classical music she affirmed, “Oh, you really are a pipa player! She told me of her recent return from China with a pipa that was made for the tour. Her luthier had extra material and made a duplicate pipa for her to “take back to America for the pipa player she will meet.” My eyes widened with interest as I stroked my chin with thumb and index finger. She continued, “You need a new pipa, this one is for children.” Interesting timing! Both Sun Li and myself were looking for a “real” pipa for me. I had outgrown the beginner pipa I was using in addition to it starting to warp.
The words she spoke of the pipa being a duplicate were true. The only difference was the design of artwork in the headstock. Her’s was custom designed dragon, my soon to be pipa had a lotus flower. The sale took place a week later on a brutally frigid February morning the day before the Chinese New Year. I took it all as a good sign. After the purchase that took place in Queens, I met a friend in Manhattan for lunch before my journey home. Our waitress with a thick Jamaican accent upon seeing my pipa case asked, “Do you play the pipa?” She told us of her study of the Chinese pipa when she was a little girl in Jamaica. My friend shaking his head in disbelief stated that stuff like this only happens to me.
More and more I see male pipa players performing. It was explained to me that traditionally men taught the pipa and for aesthetic reasons women performed in pubic. I am a guest in a culture, I listen, observe and learn.