Min Xiao-Fens’ Biography
One of the key instruments in Chinese music, the pipa has a rich and storied legacy stretching back nearly two thousand years. Few artists have done more to both honor and reinvent that history than renowned pipa soloist, vocalist and composer Min Xiao-Fen. Classically trained in her native China, Ms. Min was an acclaimed traditional music soloist before relocating to the United States and forging a new path for her instrument alongside many of the leading lights in modern jazz, free improvisation, experimental and contemporary classical music.
In Ms. Min’s music, east and west, tradition and innovation, discipline and spontaneity, ancient past and unexplored future all flow together like streams joining in one vibrant river. NPR Weekend Edition lauded Ms. Min as “one of the world’s greatest virtuosos” and JazzTimes hailed her as “a pioneer in integrating her ancient instrument with modern jazz and improvised music.” The New York Times raved that her singular work “has traversed a sweeping musical odyssey.” Min’s expressive, uncategorizable voice has found her collaborating with such inventive luminaries as Wadada Leo Smith, Derek Bailey, Randy Weston, John Zorn, Christian Marclay and Björk.
While she remains an in-demand interpreter of traditional Chinese repertoire, recording and performing with many of the world’s leading symphony orchestras, Min has found particular inspiration in discovering new settings for the ancient pipa. Min’s acclaimed new album White Lotus (2021) is her original score to the 1934 silent film The Goddess, long thought lost but recently rediscovered and restored. Min’s eclectic score pairs her with acclaimed guitarist Rez Abbasi, who brings together influences from modern jazz, progressive rock and South Asian music.
Min’s Blue Pipa Trio, with guitarist Steve Salerno and bassist Dean Johnson, offers a fresh perspective on a little-known history that predates her own. Taking legendary jazz trumpeter Buck Clayton’s influential tenure in China as a point of departure, the trio commingles Kansas City swing with the music of Li Jinhui, the “Father of Chinese popular music.” The project, titled From Harlem to Shanghai and Back, is a compelling blend of seemingly unrelated musical traditions, into which she also stirs influences of classic jazz and bluegrass.
Min’s 2012 album Dim Sum, her first release to focus solely on her own original compositions, spotlighted the staggering range and bold scope of her musical vision, with “musical dishes meant to touch the heart” inspired by the street sounds that she heard growing up in China. Her latest release, Mao, Monk and Me, is a deeply personal exploration of the music of Thelonious Monk, combined in fascinating ways with Chinese folk tunes and children’s songs remembered from her childhood in the ancient capital of Nanjing. The New York Times lauded the project as “a cross-cultural tour de force” and “a postclassical signpost to the future.”
In 2018, she premiered Alan Chan’s Moon Walk for pipa and Jazz Orchestra. That major event followed a fruitful 2017, when – in addition to releasing Mao, Monk and Me – Min served as artist-in-residence with the Sound of Dragon Society at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and was a guiding artists for the Creative Music Studio in New York, performing with founder Karl Berger and his CMS Improvisers Orchestra in the fall.
In May 2016, she was the principal soloist with Washington D.C.’s PostClassical Ensemble for the world premiere of Daniel Schnyder’s Concerto for Pipa & Orchestra, written expressly for Min by the Swiss-American composer. Author and concert producer Joseph Horowitz said the piece “seamlessly, ingeniously, and wittily transgresses boundaries of style and genre,” hailing Min as “a demonic virtuoso [who] deserves to be known and celebrated in every concert hall of consequence.”
Min came of age during the last years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), surrounded by a family of musicians and artists. Her father, Min Ji-Qian, was a respected professor and pipa master who trained his young daughter on the instrument, a four-stringed, pear-shaped lute with a uniquely striking and versatile sound. A gifted prodigy, she was chosen at only 17 to become principal soloist of the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra, winning the Jiangsu National Pipa Competition and becoming world-renowned as one of the principal proponents of traditional Chinese repertoire.
After more than a decade spent playing with the intense rigor and discipline of Chinese traditional music, Min decided to seek out new challenges and moved to the U.S. in 1992, living briefly in San Francisco before settling in New York City. With no concrete plans or connections and toying with the notion of giving up music for the visual arts, Min soon found herself crossing paths with some of the leading lights of avant-garde jazz and improvised music.
Min’s trial by fire came via a daunting graphic score written for her by Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer Wadada Leo Smith, the initial performance of which she describes as disastrous but exhilarating – presenting her with an entirely new approach to music that she’s spent the ensuing decades delving into.
Within a few years she began recording with such visionary musicians as guitarist/improviser Derek Bailey, prolific and anti-idiomatic saxophonist/composer John Zorn, African music-influenced jazz pianist/composer Randy Weston, Medeski Martin & Wood percussionist Billy Martin, and in Wadada Leo Smith’s extraordinary trio Mbira. In addition, she’s worked in a variety of contexts with a stunning array of forward-looking artists, including trombonist George Lewis, saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, T.K. Blue and Ned Rothenberg, guitarists Marc Ribot and Elliott Sharp, violinists Lero Jenkins, Regina Carter and Jason Kao Hwang, bassist Mark Dresser and Alex Blake, pianists Jon Jang and Daniel Kelly, sound artists Carl Stone and DJ Spooky, sound and visual pioneer Christian Marclay, percussionists Fast Forward and Satoshi Takeishi, global artists Jin Hi Kim, Maalam Hassan Benjaafar, River Guerguerian, Xu Fengxia, Wu Wei and Susie Ibarra. Idiosynractic singer Björk enlisted Min to play on her 2007 album Volta and later invited her to perform as a special guest at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.
Still a world-renowned performer of traditional Chinese repertoire, Min has been a featured soloist with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Amiens Chamber Orchestra (France) and Nieuw Ensemble (Holland), Third Angle New Music, among many others. She premiered Tan Dun’s opera Peony Pavilion with director Peter Sellars in 1998, Anthony De Ritis’ pipa concerto Ping Pong with the Taipei Chinese Music Orchestra in 2004 and Huang Ruo’s Written on the Wind for Meet the Composer in 2008. She has also premiered the works of such noted composers as Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bun-Ching Lam and Philip Glass.
Min received a commission in 2007 for Return of the Dragon from The Kitchen in New York, while her composition Ghost Masks was commissioned and performed by Min–Wu–Xu at the Glatt & Verkehrt Festival in Krems, Austria in 2008. She has received awards from Meet the Composer, Asian Cultural Council and The Peter S. Reed Foundation, and served as curator at John Zorn’s venue The Stone and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City.
Min has taught master classes at the Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Boston Conservatory, The New School, Columbia University, Yale University, P.S. 130 The Parkside School, Brooklyn Friends School, University of Oregon, Amsterdam Conservatory and University of Gothenburg, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, Brevard College, among many others.
Min Xiao-Fen’s Biography (short)
Few artists have done more to both honor and reinvent the 2000-year history of the pipa than soloist, vocalist and composer Min Xiao-Fen. Classically trained in her native China, Min was an in-demand interpreter of traditional music before relocating to the United States and forging a new path for her instrument alongside many of the leading lights in modern jazz, free improvisation, experimental and contemporary classical music. NPR Weekend Edition lauded Ms. Min as “one of the world’s greatest virtuosos” and JazzTimes hailed her as “a pioneer in integrating her ancient instrument with modern jazz and improvised music.” The New York Times raved that her singular work “has traversed a sweeping musical odyssey.”
Min’s acclaimed new album White Lotus (2021) is her original score to the 1934 silent film The Goddess, long thought lost but recently rediscovered and restored. Min’s eclectic score pairs her with acclaimed guitarist Rez Abbasi, who brings together influences from modern jazz, progressive rock and South Asian music. From Harlem to Shanghai and Back, Min’s Blue Pipa Trio commingles legendary trumpeter Buck Clayton’s Kansas City swing with the music of Li Jinhui, the “Father of Chinese popular music.” Min’s 2012 album Dim Sum spotlights the stunning scope of her original compositions, while her 2017 release Mao, Monk and Me is a deeply personal exploration of the music of Thelonious Monk combined with Chinese folk tunes and children’s songs remembered from her childhood in Nanjing.
Min’s projects have been performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York Guitar Festival, ELLNORA Guitar Festival, 100 Years of Monk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Shanghai Jazz Festival, Glatt & Verkehrt Festival in Krems and many others. Min was a curator at The Stone and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York. She also served as artist-in-residence with the Sound of Dragon Society for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival and was a guiding artist for the Creative Music Studio and the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts.
The pipa is a plucked string instrument, it existed in China during the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206BC). It has been played for two thousand years. At that time, the shape of the instrument was a round soundbox with a long handle and stretched strings. The word “pipa” is made up of two Chinese syllables, “pi” and “pa.” These are the two most common ways of playing the instrument. “Pi” is to push the right hand of first finger striking down. “Pa” uses the thumb striking up, making a sound like “pi-pa.”
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), a pear-shaped wooden body pipa was introduced to China from central Asia. At that time the pipa only had 3 or 5 frets, was held horizontally and they used a plectrum. During the Tang Dynasty, the pipa became a principal musical instrument in the imperial court and it was played solo or with an orchestra.
The pipa I use now is a vertical and modern version. It has a total of 30 frets, 6 large frets on the fingerboard, 24 frets on the sound box. The pipa uses the chromatic scale with more than 70 techniques, it’s tuned A-D-E-A using five fingerpicks on the right hand to perform. One of the other main techniques for pipa is the five fingers strum, like a flamenco guitar.
Ruan is four stringed moon shaped lute with a straight neck and 24 frets, date back to the Qian dynasty. As a member of the pipa family, ruan mostly used for local opera and also for Chinese Orchestra.
Sanxian is one of the ancient Chinese plucked instruments, it has three strings, a fretless long fingerboard and a round soundbox. It has been widely used in folk art forms, local operas and others.
Guqin is a seven stringed zither without a bridge. It’s a most ancient string instrument with a history of over three thou- sand years or more. Guqin has been favorited by scholars and also associated with the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius.
About nanyin pipa:
Nanyin music is called the living fossil of Chinese ancient music, it can be traced back to the Han and Tang Dynasties, it is the oldest form of traditional Chinese music that still exists today in Fujian province and Taiwan area.
The nanyin pipa is held horizontally, it has 14 frets. It is still played in a traditional way – using fingers to perform. Traditionally, the pipa player also should be able to sing.