Kronos’ Fifty for the Future Composers

Wu Man - China / USA

Website: http://www.wumanpipa.org
Download Score of Four Chinese Paintings   Download the PDF

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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 create this—my first work for string quartet.

Four Chinese Paintings is a suite consisting of four short pieces which, taken together, resemble a set of portraits of traditional Chinese culture. In Chinese traditional music, instrumental pieces often have poetic titles to express their content and style. I decided to continue this tradition with this collection.

“The inspiration for this suite came from styles of traditional music in China familiar to me, including Uyghur Maqam of Xinjiang province, a pipa scale from the 9th century, and the Silk-and-Bamboo music, or teahouse music, from my hometown of Hangzhou.

“The first two movements, ‘Gobi Desert at Sunset’ and ‘Turpan Dance,’ are adapted from the Uyghur Maqam ‘Chebiyat.’ In 2008, thanks to the Aga Khan Music Initiative, I had the opportunity to learn these pieces directly from the Uyghur musicians Abdullah Majnun and Sanubar Tursun. The third movement, ‘Ancient Echo,’ is based on a scale found among the oldest tunes for pipa. The fourth movement, ‘Silk and Bamboo’ is a variation on the tune ‘Joyful Song’ (Huanlege) from the collection of Silk-and-Bamboo music.

“I feel quite grateful to be able to bring these old styles of traditional music—Uyghur Maqam, Jiangnan Silk-and-Bamboo music, and ancient pipa music—into the repertoire of Western string ensembles. The left-hand portamento, or sliding, technique called for here are quite distinct from the types of expression found in Western music. I hope that audiences will come to better understand Chinese music through these four stories told in regional dialects.

“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 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.

To develop Four Chinese Paintings, Wu Man first recorded the piece on her own instrument, the pipa. After recording the first layer, she then created 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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