Pipa, a Touch of the Orient

One of the most characteristic sounds in classical Chinese music comes from the pipa. The "pear-shaped" Pipa is a leading Chinese orchestral and accompaniment instrument as well as a distinctive solo instrument. It is a powerful four string Chinese lute sometimes referred to as the “Flamenco guitar of China”. 

The Pipa has a history of over 2,000 years spanned from the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty. The most common pipa has a body with a short neck and a wooden belly. There are 19 to 26 bamboo frets called Xiang on the neck. The Xiang are either made of wood, jade, or elephant tusks. A pipa traditionally had 4 silk strings mostly with common tunes of A, D, E, and A.

With the pipa held vertically in the lap, the player plays it using imitation fingers. This allows more freedom for the player to perform various techniques on the four strings. The range of techniques that can be used are the widest among all of the Chinese plucked-strings, making it the most expressive instrument in the plucked-string section.

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 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.

Source: www.bellaonline.com
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