© 2021 Boise State Public Radio
WebHeader_3.png
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Reporting from McCall – here are some of the stories you wanted told.
Music

The Traditional Chinese Pipa Meets Guitar In Min Xiao-Fen's 'White Lotus'

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "GASSHO (PALMS TOGETHER)")

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

You're hearing Min Xiao-Fen, one of the world's greatest virtuosos, playing the pipa. It's a pear-shaped, guitar-like instrument from China with a history that goes back thousands of years. Min's inventive playing has sparked collaborations with New York jazz players and pop stars such as Bjork. Her new album, "White Lotus," is an original soundtrack she wrote for "The Goddess," a classic 1934 silent film from the Golden Age of Chinese cinema.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "GASSHO (PALMS TOGETHER)")

FADEL: Min Xiao-Fen plays with guitarist Rez Abbasi on "White Lotus," and they join us from Asheville, N.C. Welcome.

REZ ABBASI: Thank you for having us.

MIN XIAO-FEN: Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: So the movie tells this tragic story of a prostitute who desperately tries to shield her son, give him a good education. She's robbed by a gangster, ends up in prison for killing him. But a kindly school principal promises to raise him. And the film ends on this hopeful note for her son's future. Why did you decide to create a soundtrack for this film, Min?

MIN: You know, I always interested around the middle of the 1970s, the Shanghai so-called Golden Age - music, arts, film - just so colorful. Also, I like this film because it has a strong influenced-by-Hollywood style. The story itself - the mother tried to save her money to support her child and send her young son to get education. And she has such a big heart.

FADEL: You know, there's some beautiful interplay between the pipa and guitar. Let's listen to the second track, called "Seed."

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "BIJA (SEED)")

FADEL: Rez Abbasi, when did you first start working with Min? And were you surprised that the pipa and the guitar would make such a good combination?

ABBASI: Well, we - yeah, we met a few years ago. And, you know, I always love plucked stringed instruments.

FADEL: Yeah.

ABBASI: So when she asked me to do this, I had no reservations. And in the piece that you heard there, you know, that's a little bit more chilled. But there are other areas in the film or in the score that we really rev it up and play very rhythmically and texturally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "HATHA (SUN AND MOON)")

ABBASI: And there is that scene where the principal comes to visit the mother and son. And we both dig into kind of the blues or fully the blues...

FADEL: Yeah.

ABBASI: ...Into that scene. And so it's like a blue pipa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "HATHA (SUN AND MOON)")

MIN: It's like a - a little bit like the swamp kind of idea, so behind it, because, you know, Chinese has a blues, too.

ABBASI: Yes.

MIN: You know, so we always use pentatonic scale and the use of 44Bs (ph). And so that's why I feel this American style for blues swamp and the perfect match with the Chinese blues.

ABBASI: Yeah. I mean, Chinese opera's drenched in the blues, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: You know, I'm going to step away from this album for a second and go back a little bit, Min. You came to the U.S. in 1992, eventually met avant-garde composer John Zorn, who encouraged you to improvise and explore jazz. And you became interested in the music of this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "ASK ME NOW")

FADEL: Thelonious Monk. And this is how you interpreted his music on your pipa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN PERFORMANCE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "ASK ME NOW")

MIN: Thelonious Monk - you know, I feel he's, of course, America's most influential jazz pianist and composer, you know?

FADEL: Yeah.

MIN: So angular. And the melody was, you know, dissonance. So I felt he influenced me to really find my instruments.

FADEL: And you found that the pipa works well for jazz.

MIN: Well, it take me years, actually. It really probably take me 10 years. I'm finally comfortable to play free improvisation. And, of course, because, also, I work with many, many downtown jazz musicians in New York, so I think of myself as a downtown musician, avant-garde musician now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAITH")

MIN: (Vocalizing).

FADEL: Earlier this week, you performed "White Lotus" there in Asheville, along with the film. It can be seen on YouTube. So, Rez and Min, how'd it go? What was the reaction?

MIN: Wonderful, wonderful experience.

ABBASI: Yeah.

MIN: Yeah. So we have a...

ABBASI: Beautiful.

MIN: ...Lot of audience. And everyone seemed to really appreciate it, too. Everybody say, play more, play. And...

FADEL: Wow.

MIN: Yeah, after show, we just talked to the audience like - almost like hours, right? Everybody don't want to leave. They just talk about - they said never see this kind of event and that they're so happy we were there.

ABBASI: Yeah, and after the pandemic, after not playing for a while.

FADEL: Right.

MIN: Yeah.

ABBASI: It's interesting to play for a film because I realized just the other night how the notes take on a life of their own via the film. You know, they're same notes that I play all the time on my couch or in everybody's bands and stuff, but here, we have this film leading us the whole way, moment by moment. And we're mirroring it all the time.

MIN: Yeah.

ABBASI: It's like the same notes are no longer the same notes. It's very magical, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "JORIKI (POWER OF THE MIND)")

ABBASI: You know, with this film particularly, the subject matter to me is - you know, it's essentially a microcosm of gender inequality and, you know, how women's rights have been severely undermined throughout history. So that allows this opportunity for us to delve into, you know, a range of creativity and a range of feelings. And it's very different than playing music for music's sake. I mean, this is really almost a novel experience every time you do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "JORIKI (POWER OF THE MIND)")

FADEL: Min Xiao-Fen - her album "White Lotus," featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi, is out now. Thank you both.

MIN: Thank you.

ABBASI: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIN XIAO-FEN'S "JORIKI (POWER OF THE MIND)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.