URBANA – Renowned pipa player Wu Man began collaborating with the Kronos Quartet in 1992, only two years after she first arrived in the United States.
Since then, Wu and Kronos have worked together on three major pieces, the most recent being "Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese Home," to be presented Thursday at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Wu and Kronos violinist David Harrington spent two years putting together "A Chinese Home" for string quartet and pipa – the Chinese lute – by drawing from existing Chinese traditional music, from ancient to modern times.
"In that way, we feel we cover a much wider range of Chinese music, with not just one or two composers writing the piece," Wu said in a phone interview.
"A Chinese Home" also features video by director and visual designer Chen Shi-Zheng. After Kronos and Wu presented its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in November, All About Jazz writer Martin Longley wrote that "A Chinese Home" could be described as a multimedia suite or a performance-art happening.
The main inspiration for creating "A Chinese Home" was Wu's visit six years ago to Yin Yu Tang at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Yin Yu Tang is an 18th-century family home that was taken apart in China and reassembled in Salem.
The home became a starting point for Wu to reconnect with the music and culture of China, and that affected her deeply. Researching the piece, Wu spent two years going back and forth to China to find traditional musicians in rural areas, mainly in the north.
"I discovered so many wonderful musicians," she said. "When I was in China, I had no idea about them. I'm so happy and so touched by those musicians, to see their real life in the village and how they make the music with the villagers."
Wu began learning the pipa when she was 9, at her father's insistence. The four-string pipa once had silk strings; in the 1950s, musicians began replacing those with steel ones. Wu and other players use artificial fingernails to pluck the strings.
The Hangzhou-born Wu was trained in the Pudong school, one of the most prestigious classical styles of imperial China, and graduated from the Central Con- servatory of Music in Beijing.
The 45-year-old Wu is now working on a solo album that will premiere 9th- to 12th-century pipa music discovered in the Dun Wan cave in western China. Next year, Wu will tour with traditional musicians from China in a show that will incorporate Chinese shadow puppets.
"Puppetry with the pipa," she said. "It's good for the audience not only to hear the authentic traditional music but also to visually kind of experience Chinese culture."
A virtuoso pipa player, Wu is a founder and principal member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and has performed at the White House with the famed cellist. She has performed with major orchestras and ensembles and has had new pipa music written for her by composers such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun and others.
Wu, the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa, is credited as the artist most responsible for bringing the pipa to the Western world.
When she first began working with Kronos Quartet, Wu had little experience with or knowledge of Western music, contemporary in particular, she said.
Teaming up with Kronos was a real turning point in her career, she said: "It really opened the door to me, for my instrument.
"It's given me much fresh ideas: 'Wow, we can do that!' My instrument not only can play Chinese and traditional music, but we can also play something else. (Kronos Quartet has) no fear. They try everything."
If you go
What: Kronos Quartet with Wu Man presents "Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese Home," a new piece for string quartet and pipa, the Chinese lute.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U.
Tickets: $32 for adults, $27 for senior citizens and $18 for University of Illinois students and youths high school age and younger.
Information: 333-6280 or online at www.krannertcenter.com.