R.I.P. Liu Dehai, pipa virtuoso

Podcast

Liú Déhǎi 刘德海, master of the pipa, a type of Chinese lute, died at the age of 83 on April 11, 2020. 

Liu was born in Shanghai in 1937. He received his early music education there before the Communist victory in 1949, and went on to become one of the idealistic young musicians who tried to form a specifically Chinese orchestral tradition. He learned a number of traditional instruments but became famous for playing the pipa, as well as for arranging and composing for it. Among many other achievements, he went on to play with both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. 

Liu’s most famous work is “Ambush From All Sides” (十面埋伏 shímiàn máifú), which is featured in this podcast. It’s an ancient tune, but he rearranged it into the intense version you hear on this podcast — perhaps the closest thing to heavy metal that China produced before the 1990s, but played by one man on one acoustic instrument. 

In this Sinica Podcast Extra, Jeremy talks to classical composer and avant-garde guzheng performer Wu Fei about Liu, his legacy, and the amazing “Ambush From All Sides.” (Full disclosure: Fei is Jeremy’s wife.)

You can hear Ambush From All Sides on the podcast itself, but you might also want to look at Liu’s amazing technique in this Youtube video. The painting at Mogao Caves in Dunhuang mentioned in the podcast is Playing the pipa behind the head.