8 Aug 2019

HARRISON: Pipa Concerto

From Music Alive, 8:02 pm on 8 August 2019

Californian maverick composer Lou Harrison was inspired by the unique expressiveness of the Chinese pipa – the result is surprisingly rock'n'roll.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Performed by Wu Man the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Tung-Chieh Chuang.

Wu Man and her Pipa

Wu Man and her Pipa Photo: photo by Stephen Kahn supplied

The Chinese pipa bears a resemblance to the Western lute, and has a history that stretches back over more than two thousand years. The four-string, pear-shaped instrument was originally held horizontally and played using a triangular plectrum – much like the modern guitar. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), the neck developed a crook and the body developed its pear-shape; musicians started to ditch the plectrum, instead using their fingernails to pluck the strings and hold the instrument in a more upright position – the technique still used today.

The pipa’s varied left and right hand fingering techniques, its rich tonal shadings and resonant sound give its music a unique expressiveness and beauty. It was this that Lou Harrison wanted to celebrate in this concerto, which he wrote expressly for Wu Man. She encouraged him not to insist too much on the traditional repertoire, but to create a piece that exploited the idiom and effect of the pipa with Western sounds and his own styles.

Lou Harrison was an American original, at once eclectic and unique. He was a quintessential creative Californian, absorbing the multicultural influences so prevalent on the West Coast and channeling them in highly original ways from his eccentric home removed from the bustle of the artistic centers.

He was fascinated by Asian music already during his student days at San Francisco State College. He became a regular visitor to Chinatown, developing a degree of connoisseurship through constant attendance at Chinese opera performances. In the early 1960s he finally visited the Far East, making trips to Japan and Korea in 1961 and to Korea and Taiwan in 1962. He plunged himself into hands-on study of the music of those regions; and although he never developed a deep affinity for Japanese music, the repertories of China, Korea, and especially Indonesia, became evergreen inspirations.


  • The wonder of Wu Man and the Pipa
  • Programme note by Kevin Keys

    Recorded by RNZ in Auckland Town Hall, 8 August 2019
    Producer: Tim Dodd; Engineer: Rangi Powick

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