The stunning battle scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” films are accompanied by a huge orchestra fit for a Wagner opera. But long ago, a Chinese composer needed only a single instrument to evoke earthshaking combat.
The sound of that instrument, according to one scribe in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), was “as if thousands of warriors and horses are roaring on the battlefield, as if the earth is torn and the sky is falling.”
In another piece of music, poet Bai Juyi wrote, the instrument “hummed like a hushed whisper.”
And those are just some of the possibilities of the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute thousands of years old. Or so says Gao Hong, who will be the soloist with the Pasadena Symphony on Saturday in composer Tan Dun’s Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa.
“A horse trotting, flowing water, a woman singing, a Chinese gong, a drum, people talking -- the pipa has so many sounds,” Gao said recently from her adopted home in Burnsville, Minn. “That’s why I fell in love with it.”
Gao, 39, first encountered the pipa when she was a young girl and the Cultural Revolution had torn her family apart in her native city, Luoyang.
“My father was a government official and landowner, so he became blacklisted,” she said. “He was sent to a rural area to learn from the peasants. My parents divorced.”
Gao’s cash-strapped mother, forced back on her own resources, turned to teaching music. Although she didn’t play the pipa, she nevertheless taught her daughter to do so.
“She just read out of a book,” Gao said. “After a couple of years, she saw I was pretty good, so she sent me to the capital of the province, some 400 miles away. After four years there, I became a professional when I was 12.”
Joining a troupe of touring musicians and dancers helped Gao bring in desperately needed money for her family, but it didn’t turn out to be fun and games for her.
“I had a hard time,” she said. “I was too young. I didn’t even know how to comb my hair. I couldn’t stand it when I saw anyone with their parents. I cried and cried.”
Restricted to playing banal Communist Party songs and folk tunes over and over, Gao started hiding in a furnace room to advance her technique and explore more challenging music. The other troupe members teased her, calling her “little black kitten” because of all the soot she picked up.
A solo career
But her dedication paid off. Four years later, she went back to school, and six years after that -- when she was 22 -- she passed the entrance exams at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she would graduate with honors.
“It’s like Juilliard,” she said, “but more difficult because only two pipa players out of the whole of China could get in.”
At the conservatory, she met her pivotal teacher, Lin Shicheng, who made her realize how inadequate written notation of pipa music was.
“If you don’t have a master teacher on the style -- if you just look at the score -- you won’t get it really right,” Gao said. “In China, it’s important to study with a master in person.”
Though it looks like a guitar, the pipa is played differently.
“When you play guitar, you pluck toward the inside, toward yourself,” she said. “When you play pipa, you pluck to the outside, which is unnatural for any human being. Also, each plucked note must be connected to the next, and it’s really difficult to get the fingers even in [terms of] strength. It takes about 10 years to get the fingers even and exact. The index finger is strong. The little finger is weak.”
After graduation, Gao became a soloist with the Beijing Song and Dance Troupe. The group appeared throughout China and also toured to Tokyo, where a Japanese booking agency asked her to return as a soloist.
That launched a new career. She went on to perform in Europe, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland in solo concerts and with orchestras and other groups. In 1999, she played for a worldwide tour by the Lincoln Center production of the 16th century Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion.” By then, she had been living in the U.S. for five years, having decided during an earlier tour not to return to China.
“At that time, I couldn’t speak much English,” she said, “and not many people knew about the pipa. One person even said, ‘Why should I go hear someone playing a teapot?’ But many people were touched when I played. People said: ‘You make me cry. You can hear cannon shots. You could hear the woman was crying.’ I never thought Americans would have such great acceptance of the pipa.”
The Tan Dun concerto Gao will play with the Pasadena Symphony is more pure music than narrative, although it is based on the composer’s earlier “Ghost Opera,” in which, according to a program note, “shamans speak with spirits of the past and future.” The first movement, in Tan’s words, “depicts a discussion between Buddhist monks, J.S. Bach and Shakespeare.”
The work premiered in Sapporo, Japan, on July 16, 1999, with Tan conducting the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra and pipa soloist Shao Rong.
“Chinese music is more melody than harmony or rhythm,” Gao said. “In general, it’s a single melodic line that goes up and down. In the Tan Dun concerto, he uses one of the Chinese folk tunes called ‘Little Cabbage,’ about a cabbage who lost her mother when she was 3 and was very sad.
“It’s a very simple, pure line he combined with a Western tune which has a similar melody. He didn’t change a note. But he also made use of a lot of rhythms.”
Because the 15-minute piece is played with an orchestra, Gao will use amplification. “If I play by myself,” she said, “I don’t need it. But an orchestra is so big I do.”
Since coming to the West, Gao also has appeared with many nontraditional groups to reach greater audiences.
“I’ve played with a jazz group or with Indian sitar or [Japanese] shakuhachi, sometimes even with an early music group,” she said. “I’ve tried everything, because I want people to get to know the pipa. You have to be open to other audiences.
“Maybe people won’t even come in the door if you play only traditional music. But if they see this concerto or this jazz band and there’s a pipa, people will say, ‘Wow, what’s that instrument?’ They’ll become fascinated. It’s opened a lot of doors for me.”
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena
Contact: (626) 584-8833