The realm Magazine, Issue No. 19 - Spring 2003 [Français]

Pipa Player
By Natasha Mekhail

Liu Fang has touched audiences in Canada and around the world with the Chinese classical tunes she plays on her pipa.

In July 1996, Liu Fang played her first Canadian concert in a Montréal park. As the last note resonated from her pipa and reverberated through the small amphitheatre, an explosion of applause snapped her out of the trance-like state that had swept over her as she played. Her eyes opened to a standing ovation and, to her surprise, faces wet with tears. Overjoyed, and more than a little relieved, the new Canadian realized that the music that had been her entire life in China could become her future in Canada as well.

What the 28-year-old never anticipated, she says, through the translation of her husband Risheng Wang, was that a Western audience could be so deeply moved by Chinese classical music, its tones and subtleties as complex as the Chinese languages themselves. Having grown up in the company of Dianju opera performers-among them her mother, who brought Liu to rehearsals from the time she was an infant-her understanding of Chinese artistic traditions runs deep. As a little girl, Liu remembers being enthralled by the costumes, the drama and, of course, the music, and she longed to be a star of the stage.

"My mother warned me that the performing life of an opera singer was short," she explains. "She encouraged me to take up an instrument instead, and when I was five she gave me my first little lute, a Yueqin."

A year later Liu received her first pipa, a heavy, pear-shaped, four-stringed lute. The instrument's name derives from the basic plucking technique: a pluck forwards is "pi;" backwards, "pa." Its recorded history goes back as far as the Great Wall.

Pipa music is used to tell stories. The fast and furious martial style of playing describes exciting historical scenes like The Ambush, in which the instrument actually recreates sounds of battle. The lyrical style is softer and more poetic, producing pieces like Sai Shang qu, the mournful ballad of a noblewoman forced to marry a barbarian prince.

Liu was a natural on the instrument and, by age 11, had begun a successful solo career. She played for Queen Elizabeth during a royal tour of China and, at 15, enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music to study under pipa master Ye Xu-Ran. After graduation, she was recruited by a prestigious music and dance troupe.

In late 1995, after Liu made several failed attempts to immigrate to Germany to join her husband-to-be, she and Wang successfully obtained immigration status in Québec, where Wang got a job with Environment Canada. "I was working and she was at home doing the cooking and cleaning," he says. "It broke my heart that this master musician had to stay at home."

At first they tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to find a manager, then Wang decided to take over. The first performance in Montréal and the others that followed helped them successfully apply for arts grants. In 1998, Liu's participation in a Canada Council for the Arts showcase garnered a Canada-wide tour. Most importantly, these achievements brought her the courage to give her professional music career a serious go. Wang quit his job and became her full-time manager.

Today the couple crisscrosses the globe playing music festivals and concert halls, embassy functions and arts showcases. They spend only about four months a year in their sparsely furnished west Montréal apartment.

Canada Council grants provide much of their funding as well as a promotional budget. They have also secured grants from the Québec government, and numerous CBC/ Radio-Canada recordings of Liu's work have helped garner national exposure. Liu says the funding is enough to cover their travel expenses and cost of living. Record sales from her five CDs help make up the rest.

While on the road, they stay in touch with the world via their Web site, [], where, in seven different languages, you can read a history of pipa music, listen to samples, purchase CDs or see where Liu will be performing next. The couple's plan is to expand the Philmultic label to cover artists from other musical traditions.

In spite of her hectic schedule, Liu is radiant, and it's easy to see she loves her work. When she plays, she brushes the pipa softly with her cheek and holds it on her lap as tenderly as if it were a child. "When I go a long time without playing a concert I get depressed," she says. "I feel like a tree without water. Each concert hall is different and each audience is different. Even if I'm playing the same piece 10 nights in a row, the new atmosphere breathes new life into the music so I never really play the same piece twice."

She credits proactivity, patience and, of course, practice for her success as a professional musician. It gets easier as you go along, adds her husband; each invitation to perform can turn into several more.

Liu says her plans for the future are to continue collaborating with other musicians and to write her own compositions. For now, she hopes exposing the Western world to her interpretations of classical Chinese songs has made a positive contribution to culture here and abroad. Audiences seem to think so.

"When I go a long time without playing a concert... I feel like a tree without water."