April 3, 2009 at 6:00 AM
A concert by the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo Yo Ma enlivened my life recently, just as the one I attended four years ago (see my blog dated April 26, 2005) did.
The Silk Road Ensemble takes its name from the collection of ancient trade routes which connected Europe and the Far East, passing through southwest and south central Asia. The Ensemble now includes music from even more locales, including Africa and Central and South America. The format of the Ensemble's concerts, like the cultural makeup of its music, varies from time to time. This year the concert contained several composed pieces mingling various musical traditions. At first I was concerned that the vitality of the traditional music would be compromised when it was "imprisoned" on paper, but I was wrong. All the pieces were fantastic cross cultural musical experiences.
A mixture of Chinese and Incan music, as improbable as it may sound, did actually begin in the late 1800s when a Chinese man moved to the Andean mountains and opened a country store. His great-granddaughter. Gabriela Lena Frank, composed the first piece of the concert in his honor. It began with two violinists, two violists, and one cellist (Yo Yo Ma) playing some unusual, loud pizzicato notes on their instruments. Each player traced a wide arc with his right hand, beginning above and to the left of his head, gathering momentum until it plucked the string, and to finish the arc below and to the right of his body. The effect was especially dramatic on the cello, from which the pizz sound rang load and clear. Later in the piece, the Western stringed instruments were played in a more conventional manner with bows. The Western string musicians were joined by a woman playing the pipa, a Chinese traditional musical instrument resembling a large lute, which is held vertically in the lap and plucked with the fingers of the right hand, often in very complex finger picking patterns. This player's rapid, complex finger picking patterns seemed almost superhuman. The next musician played a (sheng), a traditional Chinese instrument which originated about 3,000 years ago. It is sometimes called a "Chinese mouth organ" because it can play up to six notes simultaneously. The pipa and players engaged in a musical dialogue backed up by the Western string instruments. The beginning of the following clip, from a workshop and performance of the Silk Road Ensemble in Chicago in 2007, contains a verbal and musical introduction to these two Chinese instruments.
The second piece was based on a very old Sanskrit treatise, dating back to about 800 B.C.E. The rhythm section consisted of tabla, small drums used in Indian classical music as far back as the first few millenia B.C.E., when they were played to accompany Vedic chants. The violins figured prominently in this piece, but they did not sound like any violins I've heard. I tried to guess how they produced such strange sounds. All notes played as harmonics? Strange mutes? Bows placed too close to the bridge? I looked through my opera glasses and ruled out all of these theories. My best guess is that they used ingenious electronic devices.
My favorite piece in this concert was in the same genre as my favorite in the concert four years ago: a gypsy dance that grew wilder and wilder as it was played. The original gypsies migrated westward from north central India through Persia, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. They were enslaved and persecuted mercilessly for centuries. The music of the gypsy Diaspora includes strains from many different cultures. The gypsy music at this concert was based on a Turkish folk song traditionally played at the end of a wedding party. Violins are absolutely wonderful instruments for gypsy music. The piece was started by a few violinists who continued in a prominent role throughout the piece, which culminated in a wild frenzy of playing. The violins played with an assorted collection of instruments from different cultures. One, an Indian drum, looked like a rectangular box roughly the size and shape of a good stereo speaker. The player sat on this drum while he played it, often exchanging riffs with a standup bass player. Other instruments in this performance were the Chinese sheng and the cajon, a Peruvian drum. The music was wild from the start, got wilder as it progressed, and ended in a dazzling frenzy.
The concert concluded with a piece based on a classic Arabian love story dating back to the seventh century. The story is well known and loved in the cultures of Central Asia. It is a theme so fundamentally human that it is found in many cultures and many eras. In our own culture, it is the Romeo and Juliet story. The setting played in this concert, although written in a complex form of Azerbaijani modal music, went right to the heart of the audience. The instruments came from several different cultures and included
the tar, a large, round, Persian frame drum,
the daf, a plucked instrument akin to the lute or guitar, with a long neck and two gourds joined together for the body, and
the erhu, a Chinese traditional bowed instrument with two strings.
There were also two singers, a man and a woman, clad in beautiful, flowing costumes. The man's voice was especially rich and seemed to fill the whole concert hall. The singers' voices conveyed their emotions beautifully and clearly even though their language was incomprehensible to the audience.
The performing ensemble, formerly called "Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble," is now called "The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo Yo Ma" -- an important change. Yo Yo Ma created something bigger than himself, with a life of its own and changes he could not have foreseen. The music comes from many cultures and many eras, but it continues to thrive because it is so fundamentally human.