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World Music Features

Min Xiao-Fen

By Charles Blass
Published August 19, 2008

Pipa maestra Min Xiao-Fen paints a vast landscape of sound, leading her own groups and collaborating with artists like John Zorn and Björk.

Wisps of smoke and fiery flashes of heat escape from the sonic cauldron of Min Xiao-Fen’s Asian Trio, at once ancient and timeless. An entranced audience at New York’s downtown performance space The Kitchen ingests a feast of harmoniously contrasting musical dishes where flavors blend and blur, ranging from cool pointillism to tangy ornate embellishment and everything in between. On Min’s ever-adaptable palate, whispering acoustics give way to deep-fried electronics, and slashing, sour howls can segue into red-hot thrash-improv.


“I like to cook, and I like arts, painting, calligraphy—this is all connected with my music,” says Min, who was drawn to the four-stringed pipa, it seems, for more than just musical reasons. “When you cook, you add something flavored to the improvisation, too.” While writing Chinese calligraphy, she also gets inspiration and ideas. “There are many styles—especially the Running Script, with eight standard strokes starting with points in different touches. Part of the ink is concentrating, and part of the ink is spreading in different directions, slowly changing the patterns and shading layer by layer. Together they are making a harmony— music is just like that.”


For Min, “the pipa is an international instrument with no limits.” Whereas traditional Chinese music rarely crosses the line, Min’s tonal expeditions soar brazenly beyond it, dancing between hypnotic lullabies and razor shards of crackling tension. Min’s soft precision draws you into her world, on her terms: she paints hillside plum blossoms and sprays butterfly bullets and misty drops in distant pools, her cascading textures seductively jarring.


The Asian Trio is led by Min on pipa, vocals and electronics, and features Okkyung Lee on cello, and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion and electronics. Min’s vocal style is especially striking: you’ll hear whispers and squeals, mutated demons and hungry ghosts—one moment a little girl, a wizened sage the next. Return Of The Dragon is a DVD commissioned and released in 2007 by The Kitchen, and early next year, Ars Nova/High Two will release the trio’s newly recorded album.


Min’s other working group is the Blue Pipa Trio, who made a studio recording in May, with Steve Salerno (guitar) and Dean Johnson (acoustic bass). Blending jazz and bluegrass with Chinese folk styles, they play Min’s original compositions and interpret standards, leaving out the electronics for a more gentle, pulsing feel.


American bluegrass and southern Chinese music, in fact, are linked rhythmically and melodically both forms rely heavily on 4/4 rhythms and the pentatonic scale. “In an ensemble, we all play the same melody,” Min explains, “but each instrument can play its own ornamentation. Also, a lot of Chinese music<