An Ear for the Avant-Garde

Renowned pipa player, now local, debuts in Brevard

Celebrated classical musician Min Xiao-Feng now lives in WNC.
Photo by Paul Steiner

When Min Xiao-Fen and her husband left New York City and resettled in Western North Carolina in 2020, they may have been expecting a slower pace of life. But that’s not how events have unfolded for the celebrated composer and multi-instrumentalist.

Min came of age in China, where she was a member of the Nanjing National Music Orchestra for more than a decade. She toured the world, performing as a soloist on the pipa, an ancient lute-like stringed instrument. After emigrating to the United States, she settled in San Francisco before moving to New York. Along the way, Min collaborated with a who’s-who of musicians from the contemporary classical, avant-garde, and art-pop worlds, including work with Björk, John Zorn, and Derek Bailey. 

To date she has released several albums, including her intriguing 2017 recording Mao, Monk and Me, in which she re-interprets the music of jazz great Thelonious Monk using traditional Chinese instrumentation. In March, Min traveled to Cologne, Germany, taking part in her Min/Wu/Xu project with German-based musicians Wi Wei and Xu Fengxia; the trio presented an original work, “Five Elements,” at the Cologne Philharmonie. 

Her most recent release, White Lotus, is Min’s original soundtrack to The Goddess, a 1934 silent film from the golden age of Chinese cinema. Accompanied by guitarist and Guggenheim fellow Rez Abbasi, Min played the pipa and other Chinese instruments, adding vocals as well. 

Photo by Paul Steiner

Live performances of White Lotus feature Min and Abbasi playing the music while the nearly century-old images flicker on a large screen behind them. The popularity of those unique concerts caught the attention of the prestigious Lincoln Center; earlier this year, the two musicians traveled to New York City, mounting 16 performances at the celebrated venue. “After the concert,” Min says, “I was interviewed on stage, and we were able to share the experience with the audience.” Additional performances of the work are scheduled in cities across the U.S. and abroad into 2024.

Energized by the experience of composing and performing White Lotus, Min undertook new creative projects in a similar vein. Commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution, she wrote new original scores for two more film classics. The first was Romance of the Fruit Peddler from 1922, notable as the first Chinese silent film. The second film, Romance of the Western Chamber, premiered in 1927. Min says that while the music she wrote for both films is composed, “a lot of it — maybe 50 percent — is improvised.”

Working with Asheville-based percussionist River Guerguerian, Min’s approach for this latest project is very much an interactive experience. She thinks of the performances as a trio: in this case herself, Guerguerian, and the films themselves. “We use our music to give voice to the films,” she says. 

And sometimes that voice is felt rather than heard. “Right before something big happens [on screen], I make a little silence there,” Min explains. “The film takes a solo.” Other times, only Guerguerian plays. “It’s like a conversation,” Min says. “We inspire each other.”

After those bravura concerts for the Smithsonian, Min returned home to Western North Carolina and scheduled a performance of the works at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in June.

And on July 5-6, she will be a featured artist at the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival, highlighted in “Beyond Fusion,” a concert curated by visiting historian/author Joseph Horowitz (see related story in this issue). 

Min will perform several pieces, including solo performances from Mao, Monk and Me. She will also join a string quartet for a reading of composer/saxophonist’s Daniel Schnyder’s “Cairo.” Min has worked with Schnyder before; she notes, “He wrote a pipa concerto that I premiered in 2016 with the PostClassical Ensemble in Washington, D.C.”

Unlike that concerto, though, Schnyder’s “Cairo” was written for soprano saxophone and string quartet. “But I saw the score and listened to it,” she says. “And I realized, ‘That’s for pipa — it’s no problem.’”

Brevard Music Center presents “Beyond Fusion,” music by Gustav Mahler, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk performed by Min Xiao-Fen, Daniel Schnyder, and David Taylor, on Wednesday, July 5, 7:30pm, curated by Joseph Horowitz at Parker Concert Hall. $24-$67. Min Xiao-Fen will appear at a free workshop Thursday, July 6, at 10:30am. For concert tickets, see 

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