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An ancient instrument, plucked from obscurity

The pipa is a four-stringed, pear-shaped lute that reached China from India or central Asia more than 2,000 years ago through trade along the Silk Road.

The name comes from the way the instrument is played -- “pi” (pronounced pea), or plucking the strings forward (to the player’s left), plus “pa,” or plucking backward (to the player’s right).

Like most instruments, the pipa underwent a series of modifications before reaching its present form. Originally, the body could be either round or pear-shaped. Some versions had four strings, others five. The strings were made of gut; now they’re steel.

The neck was straight. But after a few centuries, the top became bent back.

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The instrument first was held in a horizontal position and played with a wooden pick. About 1,000 years ago, it began to be held upright and played with the fingernails.

Today, pipas have a short, bent neck and 30 frets, which are made of ivory, buffalo horn or wood on the neck and of bamboo on the body. The frets extend onto the soundboard, allowing a range of 3 1/2 octaves in a complete chromatic (12-tone) scale.

For centuries, composers and players used various notational systems, combining symbols for pitch with abbreviated characters for finger techniques. Now Western notation also is used.

Although many pieces were created for the instrument, most have been lost. A cache of scores found in Gansu province in northwestern China about 1900 remained a mystery until they were decoded by a Shanghai Conservatory scholar in the early 1980s. A few pieces have survived over the centuries, passed down from teachers to students.

Pipa technique is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and virtuosic programmatic effects. Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics and vocal noises often are combined into extensive tone poems vividly describing famous battles or other exciting scenes.

One such piece, called “Ambush,” describes a decisive battle in the 2nd century. No one knows the composer.

The instrument also is capable of more lyrical effects in pieces inspired by poetry, landscapes and historical themes. One example is “Song From the Other Side of the Border,” circa 200 BC to AD 200, the lament of a noblewoman compelled to marry a barbarian prince.

The pipa also has transcended its geographical origins. American composer Lou Harrison wrote a Pipa Concerto for Wu Man in 1997 (Wu and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra premiered it at Lincoln Center in April of that year).

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Tan Dun’s Pipa Concerto and other works for the instrument will be played during the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival, “Tradewinds From China,” Feb. 28 to March 21.

-- Chris Pasles


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