Min Xiao-Fen: Prove, Improve, Improvise

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As a traditional musician I was trained not to make changes or play extra notes.
By Min Xiao-Fen

I still remember when I was ten years old, my father, Min Ji-Qian - a professor, educator and pipa* master at Nanjing Normal University in China - was teaching one of my classmates. He lent one of his pipas to her, and I immediately got so jealous. Ever since then, I wanted to learn pipa from my father. Seven years later, I passed an important audition with more than 60 other competitors and got a job with the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra. The orchestra sent me to music school to continue strict, full-time training with my father and other pipa masters. Mostly I learned traditional solo tunes and orchestral repertoire. Four years later, at 21, I became the principle pipa soloist. My life was simple - music, music, and more music. Then in 1993, looking for a new challenge, I moved to San Francisco.

My first experience with improvisation occurred during a concert with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith in San Francisco. I had just finished playing "Lake Biwa A Full Moon Pure Water Gold", his composition for solo pipa, and was in the middle of playing an ensemble piece with five other musicians including Wadada. Suddenly he nodded, indicating that he wanted me to jam with him. I had never really improvised before, and I didn't know how. I only remember that moment - my hands got stuck and my heart seemed to stop beating. I was completely lost.

I moved to New York City in 1996. Five months later, I played a solo set at the Knitting Factory's Alterknit Room. John Zorn was there. After the performance, he asked me if I might be interested in making a record for his label. He suggested a first recording of duet improvisations with Derek Bailey. Improvisation was a new thing for me, and I didn't really know much about it. I told John I wasn't comfortable improvising - I was afraid. But John encouraged me and gave me a few of Derek's CDs so I could listen and study.

I started listening to Derek's music. I heard sounds that I had never imagined before. In his hands, the guitar sounds metal and abstract. When I listened more closely, I felt sparks and colors in his music - like a Dali or Picasso painting. I even practiced by improvising along with his records. A week later, I called John and told him I would do it.

I met Derek at Clinton Studio and we started recording. I remember that my playing felt stiff at first, but I told myself to watch, listen and try to a have dialog with him and most importantly to follow my feelings. I still remember, during the middle of one track, Derek broke a string. I thought he might stop, but he continued playing, using the broken string to scratch on the frets. The results sounded incredible. Incredibly, our CD, Viper (Avant), was named one of The Wire magazine's "1998 Albums of the Year". Derek and I went on tour playing concerts in Berlin, Graz and other European cities. I learned so much from him. We released a second recording of duets called Flying Dragon (Incus) and Coda magazine listed it as "2003 Album of the Year".

In 1998, I was playing a concert in Atlanta, and by coincidence, Randy Weston was on the same bill. I watched in amazement as he played solo piano. After the concert, I was introduced to him and found out that we both lived in Brooklyn. He was curious about the pipa and interested in Chinese culture. Chinese food, too. A few days later, he invited me to his home. I brought my pipa and a huge book about the history of Chinese music. I played pipa for him, his daughter and his grandson, Niles. He gave me some books and I learned a lot about African culture from him. Later that year, I had the pleasure of recording Khepera (Verve) with Randy. For me, one special highlight was a duet piece that we composed together titled "The Shang", which refers to the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1050 B.C.). The main premise behind the composition was the influence that Africa had on early Chinese civilization.

In 2000, I worked with Wadada again. The concert was held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture and included his wife Harumi as narrator and Denardo Coleman on drums. And just like our concert a few years earlier in San Francisco, he did it again: in the middle of playing, he suddenly signaled me to improvise with Denardo. This time I was ready. At once, my fingers and my feelings all came together.

Without the help and encouragement of people like Wadada and John Zorn, I might never have known that I had the ability to improvise. They inspired me so much. John also produced my solo album Min Xiao-Fen with Six Composers (Avant), and I also participated on two of his "Filmworks" movie soundtracks, Shaolin Ulysses and The Port of Last Resort (both on Tzadik).

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