The Silk Road criss-crossed through Asia and the East from Europe to China carrying merchandise, particularly silk, between the two continents. In the days before shipping was a reliable form of travel, without the Suez Canal the only way from Europe to Asia was via bottom most tip of Africa and there was as much chance of going down as making that passage successfully in the early days of sailing, the overland route was considered a lot safer. The Silk road wasn't of course an actual road, and the caravan routes that it was made up of traversed many countries and went in as many directions as there was trade to be conducted.
Aside from the obvious trade implications, the Silk Road also represented the first real communications between Europe, China, Japan, and the other countries of that region. As always, although believing itself superior, the West benefited most from the exchange bringing home pasta, silks, spices, and of course gunpowder. Although there wasn't necessarily reciprocity in the exchange between the two cultures, the idea of naming a musical ensemble interested in bringing together Eastern and Western music after the earliest known trade route between the two cultures makes a great deal of sense.
Which is exactly what world renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma did when he formed The Silk Road Ensemble a collective of around 60 musician, composers, arrangers, visual artists, and storytellers from twenty plus countries. Not only is the intent of the group to integrate the work of one culture with another, its to do so while maintaining the integrity of an art form's cultural traditions. Is it possible to take a piece of work composed by a Latin American composer and have it performed on traditional Chinese and Indian instruments while remaining true to both the composer's and performers' traditions? As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, and in this case that's the forthcoming release on the World Village Music of the ensemble's new release Off The Map on November 10th/09.
The disc contains four new works that reflect the cultural diversity of the ensemble not just because of the composers' nationalities, but also due to the nature of the work they ended up producing. "Ritmos Anchinos", by Gabriela Lena Frank, "Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain" by Angel Lam, "Sulvasutra" by Evan Ziporyn, and "Air To Air" by Osvaldo Golijov each represent the individual composer's attempt to implement the overall objectives of ensemble. Each of them not only developed their own approach to finding a way of doing just that, they've done so without sacrificing artistic or musical integrity.
The biggest worry I have about projects like this is that the politics will over ride the art; the composers will lose track of music in an attempt to fulfill the mission statement of the organization. I guess I should have known better, this is not a collection of new age "wanna-be's", but a group of serious and dedicated musicians and composers who not only obviously love music, but have a deep and abiding respect for other's cultures and traditions. So whether it's American born Spanish-American Frank writing with the Chinese guitar like instrument the pipa in mind, or Hong Kong born and Western trained Lam composing a piece centred on the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi in an attempt to articulate a young girl's confusion about death, you never once have the feeling that they have compromised anything in the process. If anything the challenge posed by incorporating the new elements has pushed them to create works that are stunning in both their beauty and intelligence.
As with the case in most contemporary compositions there are elements in each of these pieces that are going to be difficult for those used to more "traditional" European classical music to assimilate. In this case not only will the listener have to be prepared for the usual structural differences that are to be expected with new music, but will also need to adjust to hearing the sound of instruments we are unfamiliar with like the two mentioned above, or in Golijov's piece previously recorded music. However, if you're willing to let go of preconceived notions of what music is "supposed" to be and allow yourself to settle into the individual pieces, the rewards will be well worth the effort. Beauty is in such short supply these days closing our minds to any new potential for its experience is tantamount to criminal. Allow this music to work its magic on you and find whole new vistas of possibilities for its appreciation being opened for you.
In order to make it easier for you to appreciate the work, the booklet accompanying the CD contains notes in the form of conversations between the composers and one of the musicians who performed their piece talking about its composition. In each case they talk about what they are trying to accomplish and how they've set out to achieve that end. What this does is give you a framework, or a context, within which to place the music, and goes a long way to helping you understand what it is you are listening to.
In the end though its all music, and music does the same basic things the world over; expresses our inner thoughts and emotions. The sounds might be a little different than we're used to, but the language is still the same, and its still talking about all the same subjects music has ever talked about. The pity is that more of the world's communication isn't being done through music.
(Originally posted November 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.