Kronos’ Fifty for the Future Composers

Wu Man - China / USA

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About Four Chinese Paintings

Video: Wu Man demonstrates and discusses key techniques in her Fifty for the Future piece, “Four Chinese Paintings.” Participating quartets, Ligeti, Argus, and Friction Quartets, perform excerpts as part of the Kronos Quartet Workshop presented by the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall.

Notes on I. Gobi Desert at Sunset begin at 4:03
Notes on II. Turpan Dance begin at 5:20
Notes on III. Ancient Echo begin at 6:26
Notes on IV. Silk and Bamboo begin at 7:40

Four Chinese Paintings Videos

Program Notes

About Four Chinese Paintings, Wu Man writes:

“After two decades of collaborating with the Kronos Quartet, I am finally beginning to understand Western string instruments. With the group’s encouragement and support, I was able to write this—my first composition for string quartet.

"Four Chinese Paintings is a suite consisting of four short pieces. In traditional Chinese music, there is often a poetic title that serves as a prompt foundation for musical content and style. I decided to continue this traditional form in this piece by presenting four traditional Chinese paintings.

"The inspiration for these paintings came from several styles of Chinese folk music, including Uyghur music (western China, border of Central Asia) and tea-house music from my hometown of Hangzhou. My wish is for the audience to experience—to ‘see’—the Chinese landscapes, and to hear each of the four stories in their local dialects. More importantly, listeners will experience Chinese culture.

"Writing a piece for string quartet was a great challenge for me. Though I have written and improvised countless works for the pipa, composing for Western string instruments was a brand new experience. My creative process began with improvising on the pipa, building layer upon layer until I had all four instrumental parts composed. I then worked with Danny Clay to arrange the piece.

“I’d like to thank Kronos for their trust and encouragement, for letting me be a part of their Fifty for the Future project, and for giving me this opportunity to share my musical culture with young string quartets around the world!”

Composition Process

Wu Man initially developed the framework of Four Chinese Paintings in traditional Chinese musical notation (the numbered system), as seen here in her original score for the fourth movement, “Silk and Bamboo.”

  • Numbers 1–7 correspond to the seven notes in a diatonic major scale

  • A dot above a note raises it one octave, while a dot below a note lowers it one octave

  • A plain number represents a quarter note, and each underline halves the note length. (i.e. one underline = eighth note; two underlines = sixteenth note; etc.)

Learn more about Chinese musical notation here.

For the composition of Four Chinese Paintings, Wu Man first recorded the piece on her own instrument, the pipa. After recording the first layer, she then improvised three more layers, one on top of the other, resulting in the four-part pipa tracks here. The recording was then transcribed and arranged for string quartet by Danny Clay into the string quartet arrangement. Hear Wu Man’s original pipa recordings here.

About Wu Man

Recognized as the world’s premier pipa virtuoso and leading ambassador of Chinese music, Grammy Award–nominated musician Wu Man has carved out a career as a soloist, educator, and composer, giving her lute-like instrument—which has a history of over 2,000 years in China—a new role in both traditional and contemporary music. Through numerous concert tours, Wu Man has premiered hundreds of new works for the pipa, while spearheading multimedia projects to both preserve and create awareness of China’s ancient musical traditions. Her adventurous spirit and virtuosity have led to collaborations across artistic disciplines, allowing her to reach wider audiences as she works to break through cultural and musical borders. Wu Man’s efforts were recognized when she was named Musical America’s 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, the first time this prestigious award has been bestowed on a player of a non-Western instrument.

Orchestral highlights of the 2014–15 season include a performance of Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto with The Knights, as well as Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2 with the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. In recital, Wu Man takes a new program, “Journey of Chinese Pipa,” to London, Sydney, and Dortmund. The solo recital explores the history of pipa repertoire, ranging from traditional folksongs to original compositions by Wu Man herself. After her first collaboration with the Kronos Quartet in 1993, Wu Man has since worked frequently with the group for over 20 years. She rejoined the Kronos in 2015 at Cal Performances to perform Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic, which was composed on the occasion of the composer’s 70th birthday. This performance marked the work’s 10th anniversary, as well as the Riley's 80th birthday. A principal member of the Silk Road Ensemble, Wu Man performed with the eclectic group in a concert with the New York Philharmonic.

Born in Hangzhou, China in 1963, Wu Man studied with Lin Shicheng, Kuang Yuzhong, Chen Zemin, and Liu Dehai at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa. Accepted into the conservatory at age 13, Wu Man’s audition was covered by national newspapers and she was hailed as a child prodigy, becoming a nationally recognized role model for young pipa players. In 1985 she made her first visit to the United States as a member of the China Youth Arts Troupe. Wu Man moved to the U.S. in 1990 and currently resides with her husband and son in California.

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