"Sometimes I don't think of myself as a pipa player," says Wu Man, the world's leading pipa player. "I don't want to limit myself; the pipa is just a tool to me. I want to be a musician."
Wu Man could never be accused of limiting herself. She and her pipa, a traditional Chinese lute-like instrument with a history going back more than 2000 years, have appeared with a dizzyingly diverse range of artists from avant-jazz saxophonist Henry Threadgill and English folk singer Martin Simpson to Appalachian banjo player Lee Knight and tabla master Zakir Hussain.
She has played on more than 40 albums, too, which include two recordings of Lou Harrison's Concerto for Pipa With String Orchestra, the most recent of them accompanied by the Chicago Symphony conducted by former Auckland Philharmonia music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
Wu Man teams up with the APO on Thursday (with Tung-Chieh Chuang on the podium instead of Harth-Bedoya) to give Harrison's concerto its New Zealand premiere. The work was written for her, and requires Wu Man to play in an eclectic mix of styles, drawing as it does on Russian balalaika music, Neapolitan mandolin thrumming and mediaeval dance forms, and containing a section comprised entirely of percussive finger taps. Wu Man hears still more influences.
"To me it's a very Californian, Pacific style" she says. "It's not Chinese, not American, not European, not [Indonesian] gamelan; it's something mixed.
Mixed and hard to play, according to Wu Man.
"It's a basic melody but damn difficult. Not technically but because it's so simple, just a beautiful melody of single notes. Harrison gave me the music and it had lots of long notes, which I couldn't play because I don't use a bow. I asked, 'How can I make this sound like a pipa?' He said, 'That's for you to decide.' So there's a lot of my own interpretation and improvisation in there."
Traditionally, 80 to 90 per cent of pipa music was improvised but by the middle of the last century, with the introduction of pipa at conservatories that focused on composed music, that skill started to wither. Wu Man, the first person to receive a Master's performance degree in pipa, only learnt to improvise when she moved to the United States in 1990.
"I realised what my generation had lost, so I started gradually to improvise. Now it comes very naturally and I love it.
America introduced Wu Man to other musical perspectives she never experienced in China, notably contemporary Western composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley, both of whom she met through her work with Kronos Quartet. Wu Man considers playing with the adventurous San Franciscan string group a turning point for her as a musician.
"In 1992, when I met them, I barely spoke English," she says. "It was my first time playing with Westerners and I wondered why these strange guys wanted to play with me. But the audience went crazy and gave us a standing ovation, and that's how my cross-cultural playing started, because I realised I could collaborate with many other types of musicians."
Although Wu Man seems to accept she is considered an important figure in world music, she says that was never her aim; she just wanted to keep herself interested.
"It's not intentional. It happened in a very organic way. I wanted people to hear and understand the pipa, and perhaps through the instrument people can know about Chinese music and Chinese traditional culture. Every project I do, each composer, we always have a deeper conversation and think about whether a piece makes sense: pipa with string quartet – why? What sort of piece, who's the composer? I want to do something meaningful, and it doesn't matter if it's East or West, or pipa and strings, pipa and guitar."
Wu Man's highest profile – and arguably most meaningful – collaborations have been with cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, of which she is a founder member.
"Silk Road has opened a door for me and all the musicians involved," she says. "I've played with people from Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, India. We all sit down and talk about music and culture, but music is so direct that we don't have to speak, we can simply play, jam together and it's just: Wow! And then we become friends."
What: APO - Reimagined, featuring Wu Man
Where and When: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday August 8