For nearly two thousand years (ending in the 14th century), the historical Silk Road, a series of land and sea trade routes, crisscrossed Eurasia, enabling the exchange of goods and innovations from Japan to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the centuries, many important scientific and technological innovations migrated to the West along the Silk Road, including the magnetic compass, the printing press, silk, gunpowder, mathematics, and ceramic and lacquer crafts. In this way, the Silk Road created an intercontinental think-tank of human ingenuity. Interactions among cultural groups spread knowledge, religious beliefs, artistic techniques, and musical traditions, so much so that long after its decline, the Silk Road remains a powerful metaphor for cultural exchange.

This historic trade network provides a namesake-worthy metaphor for the Silk Road Project’s vision of connecting artists and audiences around the world. Yo-Yo Ma has called these routes, which resulted in the first global exchange of scientific and cultural traditions, the “Internet of antiquity.” Both historic and symbolic elements are central to the work of the Silk Road Project, which takes inspiration from this age-old tradition of learning from other cultures and disciplines. The repertoire of the Silk Road Ensemble includes traditional music (both as an oral tradition—passed down from generation to generation—and in melodies arranged by and for members of the Ensemble) as well as newly commissioned works, many of which combine non-Western and Western instruments, creating a unique genre that transcends customary musical classification. Tonight’s program opens with a piece written in 2012-13 by Kojiro Umezaki in response to a request from fellow Silk Road Ensemble members to create an all-play featuring an assortment of instruments. Side In Side Out is constructed from bits and pieces of material and ideas in various proportions and transformations, some in more direct ways than others. According to the composer, a laundry list of sources would follow a path through Takemitsu’s Eclipse for biwa and shakuhachi (and subsequent tenth “step” in his work, November Steps); a personal recording of Satsuma biwa master Suda Seishuu performing Shiroyama; one specific conversation about how to judiciously combine electronics with the pipa; a family member’s favorite movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5; an NHK video series of the Kabuki classic Kanadehon Chushingura; a shakuhachi player’s fascination with metered rhythm; modern dance; and one melody intimately linked to the formation and identity of the Ensemble, to name a few of the ideas behind the work. “From this veritable jumble of material,” says Umezaki, “the piece emerges perhaps also as a letter, in music, written to friends and family of the past and present, and those yet to come.”
When Nicholas Cords and Colin Jacobsen visited Kayhan Kalhor in Iran in the summer of 2004 on a cultural exchange grant made possible by the Silk Road Project, one of the things they saw was an ancient fire temple, or atashgah, outside the city of Esfahan. Originally built as a holy site for the Zoroastrian religion in the Sassanid period of Iran’s history (3rd-6th centuries AD), it still felt to these travelers like a place of great power – a place that makes one aware of the layers of history. For Jacobsen, the experience of listening to Kalhor play music can be “like watching a fire  in a fireplace; it is mesmerizing, hypnotic, and yet constantly changing. His music comes from a deep inner creative fire.” Jacobsen caught a spark of that creative fire,and on returning from Iran that summer, was inspired to do something with what he had heard and experienced. He has been writing and arranging music ever since, and Atashgah, composed for kamancheh and Western strings, is one result of that inspiration.

In the Silk Road Suite – Music of the Roma, the Silk Road Ensemble offers four examples of its exploration of the music of the Gypsies, who migrated from Central and South Asia to the Romani region of Eastern Europe, carrying with them influences from India and other parts of the Silk Road. The Gypsies were enslaved and persecuted for centuries, and were nearly exterminated in the Holocaust during World War II. But music has always survived as a powerful assertion of the Romani culture and has in turn influenced Western composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Rustem is one of several Gypsy melodies that the Silk Road Ensemble has adopted with arrangements by Russian-born composer Ljova. Rajasthani Traditional, premiering on this 2013 concert tour, is an arrangement by tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das of a folk melody from the Rajasthan region of northern India, one of the birthplaces of Gypsy music and known for its lavish musical traditions and festivals. The 1993 documentary Latcho Drom raised awareness of the Romani; its soundtrack, which featured music by the great Romanian band , inspired the Silk Road Ensemble to reinterpret several melodies, including Kali Sara, by Dorado Schmidt, a renowned master of the Gypsy style. The title refers to the patron saint Black Sarah, a goddess of great importance to the Roma people. The Suite concludes with Turceasca (Turkish Song), the signature piece of the Taraf de Haiidouks band. Composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose broad, eclectic musical training (including Western classical, Jewish liturgical, klezmer and Argentinean tango) made him an ideal translator, worked with the band to arrange Turceasca for the Kronos Quartet. The Silk Road Ensemble, further bolstered with an arrangement by Ljova, provides  additional embellishments to the work with the inclusion of instruments from other traditions, including the cajón, a Peruvian drum. The piece, based on a Turkish folk song traditionally played at the end of a wedding party, now dissolves standard written notation in an explosion of rhythmic joy. Playlist for an Extreme Occasion was written for the Silk Road Ensemble in 2012 by the acclaimed New York-based jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. The title, according to Iyer, is meant to evoke the ways we listen to music today: “The piece’s structure is indeed a playlist, a kind of modular form that most of us have in our lives already (usually in our pockets). The literary theorist Edward Said, himself an amateur classical pianist, described recitals, operas, and other classical performances as ‘extreme occasions’ because of their ritual quality, their now requisite displays of superhuman prowess, and their careful prescriptions of the behavior of performers and audience alike.” Iyer adds, “I have great admiration for the Silk Road Ensemble for their ability to transcend the traditional confines of these settings, to connect authentically as people, and to communicate a real joy for creating music together. I dedicate this piece to them, and I thank them for the opportunity to collaborate with them.”

Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Repayment from a Crane) is one of the most popular folk stories from Japan. On a recent Ensemble member visit with youth at a school in Lame Deer, Montana, SRE100822_0011sponsored by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and their arts-enrichment program, an exchange of stories took place. Umezaki learned how the flute came to the Northern Cheyenne; that led to a telling of this Japanese folktale that interwove narration with an iconic work in the shakuhachi repertoire – illustrating, in sound, the life of a crane. Tonight’s interpretation of the tale is shared through shakuhachi, cello and more. To close the program, the Ensemble performs a Suite from Book of Angels made up of short pieces by the prolific and often avant-garde American composer John Zorn, whose distinctive music reflects lifelong influences ranging from jazz to cinema, and from classical to klezmer and rock. Zorn’s Book of Angels is the second in a series of collections that form his Masada project, an experiment in Jewish musical styles inspired by the composer’s own heritage. In exploring this collection, Ensemble members drew on their own respective musical interests from around the world to arrange the songs from diverse and sometimes unexpected cultural perspectives. Performances of arrangements by Shanir Blumenkranz, Johnny Gandelsman, Cristina Pato and Shane Shanahan have so far contributed to this ongoing venture; the latest arrangement, by Kayhan Kalhor, was created to premiere on this concert tour.

by Isabelle Hunter

The Silk Road Project, 2013