THE GENIUS AND the predicament of Wu Man were equally evident when she arrived in America 14 years ago. Her pipa playing had won virtually every musical prize in China. But would anybody in the outside world care about the ancient, four-stringed lute? 'No, they didn't,' laughs Wu, sitting in her suburban Boston home. 'Everybody in America knew African music, Cuban music, they knew Siberian and Indian music. But Chinese music? Forget about it. We had no George Harrison or Ravi Shankar. Chinese music had no rhythm, no propulsion, no melodies. 'The sounds were so clangy. Chinese music was so ...' the 38-year-old makes a face suggesting she's just swallowed bitter medicine, 'so educational.' With her recently released album, From A Distance, topping world music charts around the globe, she can take much of the credit for educating non-Chinese about the music of the mainland. Her appeal was confirmed this year when United Airlines adopted her music as in-flight entertainment. This Saturday, she performs the premiere of a concerto in Taiwan by Hong Kong composer Chung Yiu-kwong. A week later, she will be in New York to perform pipa works by three women composers for the first time. Lou Harrison - who died last month after being part of the 'exotic' American musical scene for almost seven decades - had been a friend for many years. In his last year he wrote a concerto for Wu. 'Can you imagine?' she says. 'In his 80s and he worked so hard for me? We spoke for so long on the phone, and then he decided, 'Well, I'm not going to use a Chinese scale, and I'm not going to use a western scale. I'll make up my own scale.' Which he did, and which I recorded just this month.' Over the past decade, Wu has not only turned the pipa into a virtual mainstream instrument for composers, she has broadened the repertoire into every stream of music without abandoning the melodies written for the instrument. Terry Riley is another long-time friend who is writing a work for her. She is also set to work with the Kronos Quartet for the second time. Composers of the calibre of Philip Glass write music for her and critics from papers such as the Washington Post extol her 'heights of virtuosity involved in producing melody and percussive timbres with an extraordinary repertoire of finger techniques'. At a Hong Kong concert several years ago her technique combined Lionel Hampton, Andres Segovia and Vladimir Horowitz. And while that might have seemed like hype, former US president Bill Clinton seemed to be a fan. 'I was at the White House with Yo-Yo [Ma], and President Clinton, who really does understand music, just jumped up on the stage when we were finished and said he couldn't believe what he saw on the pipa,' she says. 'He said to me, 'I can't believe it - that the pipa has only four strings. I could have sworn that you had a thousand strings on this instrument.'' Wu's description of this long-necked lute with its mahogany back and sunlit-white front is, like her playing, controlled but without boundaries. 'The generation of masters who taught me used to wash their hands before playing. They thought music had to be so holy. Nobody could ever get up and dance to music of the pipa,' she says. 'The pipa is sexy, it's dramatic. It can be violent. It can be silent or elegant. It can express the personality of the person who plays it, or it can take you back 2,500 years to when the first music was written for it.' Within its long history, there have been only four major stages of development for the pipa, and Wu has been present for the past two. It began as an elegant instrument for playing soft music, either solo or in home-grown ensembles. No notes were ever written down. The songs were passed from teacher to student, and the changes became personal - and often disappeared. 'They were lost,' Wu says, 'because the pipa improvises. As in jazz or in Indian raga music, players would have the tune or a cluster of notes, and would then invent more music as they went along. In that way, it was a very personal instrument. Everything was always different, invented, spontaneous.' In the 19th century, the influence of the west prompted artists to write down the music. And as they wrote it down, that art of improvisation inevitably disappeared. 'The secret had been to see a few notes and then, with your technique, to take off on your own. But when students learned through notes, that tradition disappeared - though I have tried to bring it back again.' The third era of the pipa came during the Cultural Revolution. Born to an eminent painter in Hangzhou, Wu was too young to know anything more about that period other than the fact that her father would disappear for a few days each week, sent by the Red Guards to work in the countryside. She, meanwhile, learned the pipa from a local teacher. 'Parents would teach their children music in order to keep them off the streets and in the home, so they wouldn't get in trouble,' she laughs. The most talented children were given special education during the revolution. At the age of 12, Wu was taken to Beijing's Central Conservatory, as one of few pipa players. 'The government decided that the traditional strings of the pipa, first gut and then nylon, would not be adequate to make this a 'people's' instrument. Playing in small ensembles was a kind of selfishness. Whereas, if steel strings were used, and if we used steel picks on our fingers rather than the fingers themselves, we would be able to work with larger ensembles, to play in large concert halls.' Wu has four instruments, strung with nylon or steel, depending on the work, the audience and the mood she strives for. In the conservatory, she specialised in the Pudong discipline, which has the most detailed notation and the most intricate music. Technically, she learned not only the most spectacular finger dexterity - with up to 30 frets, the instrument has a range of almost four octaves - but virtuoso programme effects. Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics, noises, even vocal effects give the most traditional old songs martial or dramatic airs. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the conservatory expanded its training. Wu was tempted to switch to piano, at which she excelled. Instead, after winning the First National Musical Performing Competition for Chinese Instruments, she went to America in 1985 with a Chinese group, and five years later moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to further her training. She learned to speak perfect English, but stayed in close contact with Chinese musicians in New York's Chinatown. Jamming in Chinatown with the likes of Tan Dun and others was a weekend treat, along with western concerts, operas and the whole gamut of music. Wu had just started giving recitals and making recordings when composers started flocking to her. When her pipa appeared in the music of western composers working in a range of styles, she became a central figure in the fourth great change to the instrument. Glass shared the nervous wonder many composers felt when trying to come to terms with the pipa. 'He is so easy-going and it was so good discussing the possibilities of the pipa,' Wu says. 'Then he wrote something for pipa, flute, percussion and cello, and invited me down to New York to try out my part. 'That seemed to go well, but in Cambridge [Massachusetts], when we all sat down to try it out, he became very concerned. So we played it together, and he sat in the audience, and then he came up on the stage and started laughing, and said, 'I think it's going to work'. He was so happy and laughing.' As a performer, Wu is in great demand. She has performed under conductors as diverse as Christoph Eschenbach and Yuri Bashmet, with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and her work with her neighbour, Yo-Yo Ma, is legendary. While first-time listeners are entranced by her virtuosity, drama, elegance, and a personal grace which matches her instrument, her success owes more to her surprising range. 'Fifteen years ago nobody would have expected Yo-Yo to play tango on the cello, and five years ago, people would have thought the pipa should just play the old melodies,' she says. 'But now I can broaden things. 'Yes, I play traditional music, but I love improvising in jazz. The composers who write for me are both Chinese and western, and so I have a variety there. I've done some theatre pieces where I play on stage and I've tried rhythm and blues.' Today, Wu is an American citizen, living the American dream with her Beijing-born chemist husband, her five-year-old bilingual son, Vincent - named after Van Gogh - and a schedule that keeps her travelling around the world for virtually half of each year. But she realises some audiences can't accept 'clangy' Chinese music. 'I know the feeling,' she says. 'I used to hate Cantonese opera myself. And then one day, in a little teahouse, I heard it sung, and I was almost shocked by how much beauty was in it. The mood, the setting were just right. 'I don't know how people should react to the pipa, but you shouldn't expect anything at all until it begins. 'You open your ears, you listen,' she says. 'Perhaps you'll hear something very special.'