One of the most characteristic sounds in classical Chinese music comes from the pipa. The pipa is a four-stringed lute that has a very distinctive pear shape to its form. Held vertically such that the base of the instrument rests in the performer’s lap, the pipa is played with both hands. The right hand plucks at the string along the neck of the instrument while the left hand does a variety of motions that strum across the base or wider part of the instrument. In some ways, the pipa is a bit like a smaller version of a bass without the bow.
Watching a pipa player is as impressive as listening to the music. The musician’s fingers move at lightening speeds with amazing dexterity. In addition, playing involves the whole body, embodying the emotions behind the composition being played. Recently, the music of the pipa has been heard in several popular movies. The music can be powerful and fast, like the racing of an epic battle. Or it can be calming as if in riposte. Or it can be sorrowful, invoking the passion of past loves.
The original pipa comes to us from the second century BC. Poetry and drawings depict an instrument held horizontally and named for the forward (pi) and backwards (pa) plucking of the strands. The instrument evolved over time to have four strings and twelve frets. It is believed that the design of the instrument was influenced by a Persian instrument called an “oud”, a popular instrument along the Silk Roads. Unlike the original pipa, the oud was played vertically. Today’s pipa appears to be a combination of the techniques of both original instruments to form its unique characteristics. The number of frets have gone up to around twenty, providing the artist an even wider range of sounds.
The pipa has a long history with the Chinese people. Compositions were passed from master to student over hundreds of years. While many of these compositions have been lost over time, several still exist to delight listeners today. As the Chinese people rediscover their history, so too has there been a reemergence in interest in classical instruments such as the pipa. Some contemporary performers have even started to also integrate the music with western sounds to create a new generation of pipa music.
For an example of a powerful pipa performance, one of the world famous artists, Liu Fang, had provided her fans with a YouTube video of her in concert.