For the uninitiated, the pipa is the lute-like instrument one hears often when dining in Chinese restaurants. More twingy than twangy, the pipa has a much more supple, pliant sound than the guitar. It is a four stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body. Its short, bent neck has 30 frets which extend onto the soundboard, affording a 3-½ octave range. The pipa has been mentioned in ancient texts dating from the second century BCE. There is a considerable amount of pipa music extant that originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Since the Tang Dynasty (618- 907), the pipa has been one of the most popular Chinese instruments, maintaining its solo instrument and chamber appeal. Spectacular finger dexterity and virtuosi programmatic effects characterize effective performance technique, which often combines rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics and noises for dramatic effect.
The current, modern consideration of the pipa is no exception. Pipa virtuoso Wu Man combines the ancient and futuristic to produce music that is less of the Chinese restaurant and more of the opium den. From a Distance is populated with moody, dirge-like mantras that are rhythmic and harmonic musical trances. Her employment of sampling and turntablism jettisons the music deep into the 21st century. The Opening "Invocation" is perhaps the most traditional of the pieces, which, from there, become more challenging. Stuart Dempster’s didjeridu fills all space as it vibrates pieces like "Walking to the East." There, things become electrified. "Shanghai Blues" sounds as if it would fit very well on recent Jonas Hellborg offerings, with its mantra rhythms and plugged in instruments.
"Vincent’s Tune" uses a toy piano to introduce the pipa and banjos with the didjeridu providing the rich bottom of the tune, a beautifully strange fugue turned inside out and shaken really hard. The results are intoxicating and panoramic.