Min Xiao-Fen: Music, Movies and More

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 Xiao-Fen 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 Fengia; 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 Abassi, Min played the pipa and other Chinese instruments, adding vocals as well.

Live performances of White Lotus feature Min and Abassi 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, engaged and engaging experience. Min thinks of the performances as a trio: her, Guerguerian, and the films themselves. “We use our music to give voice to the films,” she explains.

And sometimes that voice is silent. “Sometimes, right before something big happens [onscreen],” I make a little silence there,” Min says. “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 in Washington D.C., Min returned home to Western North Carolina, where she scheduled a local performance of the works at the Black Mountain College + Museum Arts Center on June 22.

And on July 5-6, Min was a featured artist as part of the “Beyond Fusion” presentation at Brevard Music Center. She performed several pieces, including solo performances from Mao, Monk and Me. Min was also joined a string quartet for a reading of Daniel Schnyder’s “Cairo.” Min has worked with Schnyder before. “He wrote a pipa concerto that I premiered in 2016 with the PostClassical Ensemble in Washington, D.C.,” she says.

Min says that unlike that concerto, 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!’”

Composer-saxophonist Schnyder was also part of the program along with bass trombonist David Taylor. The evening was curated by cultural historian Joseph Horowitz. The day after that concert, Min took part in a workshop at BMC. She was prepared to answer questions like, “What’s behind your idea to play Monk’s music?”

The “Beyond Fusion” program introduced Min to the Brevard Music Center audience; in between her full schedule of globe-trotting engagements, she will return to BMC on November 9 to reprise the Smithsonian-commissioned “trio” pieces with River Guerguerian. “They tell me this will be the first time they’ve ever presented a movie soundtrack,” she says.

More on Min here and here.