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Bridging a Cultural Divide with Music
A talented young musician breathes new life into traditional Chinese music
By Ding Ying | NO. 14 APRIL 6, 2017
 Ma Lin with a pipa (COURTESY OF MA LIN)

When Ma Lin rushed out of the New York subway for her interview appointment with Beijing Review with a heavy backpack on a cold and windy afternoon in March, she seemed more like an energetic college student than an elegant musician.

One of China's top 10 young pipa (Chinese lute) performers, this musician is pursuing her second master's degree, in art and culture management, at New York's Pratt Institute, a renowned college especially for design and fine arts established in 1887. Nine years ago, she got her first master's degree from China's best music college, the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing for her outstanding skills and theories of music. She is also the first Chinese pipa performer to hold a special Chinese folk music concert at the UN Headquarters in New York City.

Having performed in dozens of countries during the past decade, Ma came to the conclusion that it's not enough to introduce China's traditional folk music to other peoples of the world in a musical way.

"I hope more and more people in the world can enjoy my music and also our traditional folk music. I think it might be more effective to do it through a standard business way," she explained. "New York City has not only the world's top-level musicians and artists, but also the most successful commercial performance management models. So, here I am."

A merger of styles

Several days ago, Ma performed a special concert at the China Institute, the oldest non-profit organization in the United States solely dedicated to advancing a deeper understanding of China, which was founded in 1926. Apart from traditional Chinese folk music, she also chose to play several pieces from her 2016 albums in strong Western styles.

"This is a very fresh experience. I never thought the pipa could be played that way. It's surprisingly pleasant!" Zeppa Chang, a young Chinese student at New York University, told Beijing Review.

In her album New Age (or Xinqinmantan in Chinese), Ma demonstrated the pipa's perfect expression as a musical instrument in two Western-style pieces. In Dance Floor Banter, a Viennese waltz, the pipa plays the part of a shy lady who is invited to dance by a gentleman, played by the piano, telling a sweet and interesting love story. In the other piece, The Eight Drunken Immortals, the pipa's powerful expression together with the piano and the cello creates a swordsman-themed magnificent musical play effect.

"This is an interesting collaboration between a traditional Chinese folk musical instrument and Western musical instruments," Ma said. She explained that her professors and classmates at Pratt can gain a better musical appreciation of the pipa through these two pieces than through other pieces of traditional Chinese style.

"To most foreigners, it will be hard to understand the special cultural atmosphere of our traditional folk music, which is based on our thousands of years of civilization. Comparatively, discovering the beauty of an exotic musical instrument in a familiar way is easier," Ma said. "But it doesn't mean they cannot appreciate our traditional folk music." A piece entitled The Misty Rain of South China, representing Ma's outstanding skills in folk music, has earned over 6 million hits on websites at home and abroad. Bathing in her gentle tremolo performance in Stroll by the West Lake, people can almost feel the breeze on a quiet spring night.

"What an incredibly perfect synthesis of harmony and relaxation," a U.S. member of the audience said to Ma after her performance at the China Institute. "I'm not talented in literature, but I like to express my feeling about such beautiful things."

"Ma Lin's music is very creative and open-minded. This is a successful venture combining the pipa together with Western musical instruments and Western musical styles," Yong Ho, supervisor of Chinese language programs for the UN, told Beijing Review. He also highly praised Ma's recent performance at the UN Headquarters.

"We started to cooperate with Ma Lin in late 2016. She is widely accepted by both Chinese audiences and others of different nations. Audiences with Chinese backgrounds can appreciate her outstanding musical skills. Those who are not familiar with Chinese culture can enjoy the lovely music created by an exotic musical instrument," he explained.

In May, Ma will release a new album that is full of this "new-style" folk music combining Chinese and Western musical instruments and musical styles in New York City. Ma said she had pleasant and successful cooperation in her last album with young Chinese composers and musicians living in New York City, who are also her partners in her new album. "I hope New Yorkers will like my music. They are the audience with the pickiest ears in the world because they are already spoiled with the best musicians in the world," she said.

Commercial performances

To Ma, studying art and culture management is also an important approach for realizing her ideal of introducing China's folk music to the world.

Currently, China's folk music is mainly introduced to other countries and regions in government-organized activities as part of cultural exchange programs. "We encountered cultural clashes during our performances in other countries," Ma recalled. "In China, if you sign a contract to perform at a theater, all you need to do is to perfect the performance. In some countries, you also have to pay for electricity and lighting and sound equipment." Ma believes her study at Pratt will enable her to master the regulations and tricks of Western commercial performances and help other Chinese musicians stage concerts through commercial channels, which will be a good supplementary approach to the current government-backed method.

According to Pratt, its art and cultural management program can provide the strategic leadership skills to enable participants to manage, market, innovate and run creative enterprises, to examine trends and global challenges, to use technology to advance dialogue and engagement, and to lead the development of thriving cultures.

"I love the pipa. I have spent decades on perfecting my performance skills. Now I am willing to try any endeavor to let more people experience the special beauty of this musical instrument," Ma said. "They don't have to sit in a music hall or a concert. I will be very glad to know they have had a good time listening to my music."

Ma started to practice the pipa when she was 3. Her parents, both engineers, believed that practicing the complicated finger movements needed to play this musical instrument could help brain development. "I never went to a movie theater, zoo or any field trip outside school. There was always a hole in my winter sweater because I held a pipa in the same position for hours every day," she recalled. "It was hard for a child to maintain a daily life like this, but I wanted to be the best player." When she was around 10 years old, Ma won a folk music performance contest in Tianjin and decided to choose music as her lifelong career.

While studying and performing in New York City, Ma still performs in China and other countries. "Maybe I will establish a studio of my own in the future as an attempt to manage my performances in a commercial way and to teach children the pipa," she said. "As long as it will help to introduce this musical instrument to more people."

Quick Facts About the Pipa (Chinese lute)

The pipa is a traditional Chinese musical instrument belonging to the category of plucked instruments. The name "pipa" is made up of two Chinese syllables, "pi" (琵) and "pa" (琶), which refer to the two major hand postures when the instrument is played: "Pi" is to strike the strings outward with the right hand, and "pa" is to pluck the strings inward toward the palm of the hand.

The pipa, also called the Chinese lute, is one of the most popular Chinese instruments and has been played for almost 2,000 years in China. The instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with four or five strings. The earliest record of the pipa in China's history can be dated back to the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.).

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a very important period for the development of the pipa, which became extremely popular during this era and was a primary musical instrument in the imperial orchestra. It was also during this period that the pipa was introduced to other Asian countries like Japan, Korea and Viet Nam. In the Tang Dynasty, the strings were played using a large plectrum, which has now been superseded by the fingernails of the right hand, although finger-playing techniques existed as early as the Tang Dynasty. It was not until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that the five-stringed pipa disappeared.

The pipa is renowned as the "king of China's folk musical instruments" due to its delicate and passionate expression of music. Generally speaking, a qualified pipa performer must master over 50 different kinds of fingering skills. Bai Juyi (772-846), a famous Tang Dynasty poet, wrote a long poem about the pipa, describing the music thus: "The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain; The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers. Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering; As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall."

                                                                                              (Reporting from New York City)

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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