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Min Xiao-Fen- Musical Odyssey (New York Times)



The Musical Odyssey of Min Xiao-Fen


Published: March 3, 2005

Min Xiao-Fen has become known for crossing musical boundaries 

In his well-known Norton lectures at Harvard in 1973, "The Unanswered Question," Leonard Bernstein asked, "Whither music in our time?" The influences of Schoenberg and Stravinsky were duly pondered; the question remained unanswered. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the answer is all around us. The future is global. Non-European and popular music, not 12-tone rows and Neo-Classicism, are what have refreshed and expanded the musical traditions Bernstein held dear.

Composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams, none of whom can be called classical musicians, are one part of "postclassical" music. And legions of young conductors and instrumentalists have broader, less Eurocentric worldviews than their elders.

The Chinese, whose Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 sent Westernized musicians into the countryside, have carved a special place in this transitional moment. Steeped in their own traditional and folk music and equally schooled in Western practice, composers like Zhou Long and Bright Sheng have forged a hybrid idiom remarkable in expressive range and sophistication of timbre. And by finding new ways to write for pipa, erhu and zheng, they have catalyzed a generation of Chinese instrumentalists scarcely less remarkable.

Min Xiao-Fen, who performs at the BAM Cafe tomorrow, is a pipa player like no other. When she speaks the language of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, the results are not ersatz but transformational. In her trio, Blue Pipa, with guitar and double bass, the lutelike pipa becomes a super-banjo. With orchestra, she performs concertos by Zhou Long, Tan Dun and Bun-Ching Lam in which a Western concert genre acquires new foreign accents.

Ms. Min's fretted string instrument is itself unusually versatile. Its four strings and heavy rosewood body traditionally invite sharply contrasted "martial" and "lyric" performing styles. The martial, connecting with depictions of battle, is harsh, noisy and percussive. The lyric, connecting with nature, is fragrant: with quivering vibrato, the pipa here imitates the human voice.

Ms. Min's rendition of Monk's "Ask Me Now" is a cross-cultural tour de force. The skittery repeated notes that bind and shape the long lines, the twanging sustained tones, the interpolated pentatonic riffs, the dry precision of every sound, all intended to connect equally with Monk's quirkiness and with centuries-old Chinese practice. The bent notes Monk idiosyncratically simulated on his piano are, on the pipa, truly and idiomatically bent. If jazz is America's most influential "classical music," the Monk-Min idiom is a postclassical signpost to the future.

Ms. Min also sings. In her performances, the cool, sauntering thirds of Miles Davis's "All Blues" are a pipa accompaniment to a breathy vocalise. Her "Satin Doll/Shanghai Doll" bilingually combines Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Satin Doll" with the 1930's Chinese pop song "Night of Shanghai"; here the vocal embellishments variously derive from scat singing and Beijing opera. (This number, Ms. Min says, is especially appreciated in Taiwan, where audiences know both tunes.)

Her bluegrass style, as in "The Red-Haired Boy," incorporates flicked inflections of timbre and melody that banjos, with their lower frets, cannot manage.

At 43, Ms. Min has traversed a sweeping musical odyssey. She comes from a family of musicians and visual artists. Her father, a pipa master in Nanjing, was her first teacher. Her sister is a prominent virtuoso on the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle). Her brother conducts an orchestra in southeast China.

"Of course we heard Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, all the famous European composers," she said in a recent interview. "Our neighbors played violin, cello, piano. Every day after dinner we all made music. The Cultural Revolution was not yet over. Everyone was a little afraid of being called to the countryside, and if you could play music, you could get a better job."

Chinese universities were still closed - a legacy of the Cultural Revolution - when Ms. Min graduated from high school in 1979. At 18, she auditioned successfully for the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra, with which she performed as a soloist for more than a decade. The orchestra gave about 80 concerts a year and toured widely in Europe.

Meanwhile, Ms. Min began singing in Chinese clubs, backed by saxophone, electric guitar and drums. Sudden exposure to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and other American pop stars was ear-opening. Though Ms. Min had been trained by her father to sing Beijing opera, her voice proved adaptable to cooler Western styles. Some of her father's colleagues were not pleased.

In 1992 she felt the need for something new and moved to San Francisco. It was in the Bay Area that she first encountered nontonal concert works by immigrant Chinese composers. "That was challenging," she said, "all kinds of new rhythms and meters. I had to practice a lot, sometimes eight hours on a couple of measures."

Ms. Min moved to New York in 1996. (She now lives in Forest Hills.) Months after arriving, she played at the Knitting Factory. The composer-saxophonist John Zorn was there, and he invited her to make a recording with the guitarist Derek Bailey. The entire CD, produced by Mr. Zorn, was to be improvised.

"I said, 'I don't know how to do it,' " she recalled. "In China that kind of individualism was not encouraged. I always needed someone to tell me what to do. In traditional music you could improvise some ornaments, and that was it. John said I should listen to Derek's recordings and decide.

"Derek made guitar sounds I had never imagined. I felt sparks and colors - like a Dalí or Picasso painting. I even practiced by improvising along with his CD's. A week later I phoned John and said, 'O.K., I can do it.' "

In 2003, Ms. Min was invited by Jazz at Lincoln Center to perform a 30-minute solo set of Thelonious Monk compositions.

"At first, I thought he was actually a monk," she said. "Little by little, I started to like his music. It reminded me of different styles of Chinese calligraphy: standard script, clerical script, seal script and especially the running script, a very fast, very free style with a little improvisation involved. And my contact with his music felt physical. Even though I had a year to prepare, I honestly wasn't ready for this engagement. But the feedback was so positive that I wanted to continue."

Moving on to works by Davis and Ellington, Ms. Min conceived a mission to build a bridge between American jazz classics and Chinese tradition. She also wants to explore the music of Mr. Zorn and of the venerable pianist and composer Randy Weston, whose explorations of African music she finds inspirational. And she is eager to expand the range of Blue Pipa, whose other members, the guitarist Stephen Salerno and the bassist Mark Helias, are practiced jazz and classical musicians.

The variety of settings in which Ms. Min has performed, from clubs to concert halls, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and other American orchestras, tells the story of her versatility. Her repertory with orchestra includes "Two Poems From Tang" by Zhou Long, whose unsurpassed gift for combining Chinese and Western instruments parallels Ms. Min's intermingling of Chinese and Western genres. She also toured Europe in Peter Sellars's version of the Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion," with music by Tan Dun.

Her concert tomorrow, with the cellist Okkyung Lee and the drummer Susie Ibarra, will include solo and ensemble versions of various Monk, Davis and bluegrass numbers.

Central to all these activities is the pipa itself, which originated 2,000 years ago. The body acquired its present pear shape in the fifth century, influenced by the Middle Eastern oud. Partly because of its considerable weight, it gradually evolved from a horizontally held instrument to one held vertically. Today, there are more than 70 playing techniques, many of which were devised only over the last century.

"I want to show that this instrument, which so far not too many people know, has no limit," Ms. Min said. "I want to tell the world that there are no boundaries. I can say I'm an avant-garde musician, right? I'd like to go in this direction. I like this kind of feeling. I feel free."


Min Xiao-Fen performs at the BAM Cafe, 30 Lafayette Avenue, at Ashland Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, tomorrow night at 9. (718) 636-4100.

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