Silk Road Project Drinks to the Music

In the third century A.D., the Chinese scholar and musician Ruan Ji began a 60-day drinking binge. Ji got smashed every day to avoid serving in a corrupt government, and wrote music like “Wine Madness,” which in some versions has a final coda labeled “The immortal exhales his wine.” Though drinking served as a leitmotif during last week’s residency of the Silk Road Project—founded and directed by Yo-Yo Ma ’76—each piece of music was far more beautiful than any drunken reel or inebriated burst of song.

The Silk Road Ensemble held an open rehearsal with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), hosted by Geisinger Professor of History William C. Kirby last Tuesday in Sanders Theatre. Ma dropped his role as emcee during the last piece, and joined in on his cello. The ensemble played again Wednesday night at Club Passim in Harvard Square.

The rehearsal was an informal affair. Ma and Kirby joked onstage with Dr. James Yannatos, the conductor of HRO, and conversed with both the audience and musicians.

In the middle of the opening piece, Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto, soloist Jonathan Gandelsman took the classic work in an entirely surprising direction. Instead of playing a traditional cadenza, Gandelsman switched to a distinctly Chinese theme. Playing over a sustained drone from the cellos and pentatonic bird-calls from the violins, his solo was a stark contrast what would be expected.

Gandelsman had bent a note here and there during the piece—his first cadenza had sounded slightly odd, though not oriental. These bent notes had the effect of building to this mid-concerto, multi-cultural moment, in which Mozart and the Zhou dynasty cross.

The rest of the program was more traditional Chinese music. The second piece was an arrangement of “Wine Madness” by Wu Tong, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble.

Tong, a rock star in China with chart-toping vocals, was also the star of Tuesday’s performance. He stole the show whenever he sang or played his sheng—a mouth organ made of a ring of bamboo pipes, looking, as one audience member said, like “an organ and a church steeple put together.”

The rehearsal ended with a composition by the modern Chinese musician Zhou Long, set to some Chinese poems about drinking too much. Here, the HRO joined Ma and his string quartet in an intricate and difficult piece. According to Ma, the final eight chords sounded like “drunk men falling down.”

Though the mood was lighthearted—there were numerous references to the aptness of playing those pieces in Sanders, as the Queens Head Pub will shortly open in the basement of Memorial Hall—the music was serious and beautiful, and the larger purpose of the Silk Road Project evident.

“If I had it my way, all of our students would go on the Silk Road,” said Kirby. “We’ve brought the Silk Road to you.”

Ma reiterated the cross-cultural importance of the project. “This is bringing the international experience to Cambridge,” he said.

Following the Tuesday rehearsal’s “drunken theme,” Ma said, “Drinking culture breaks down international barriers.” As the Silk Road Project has again shown, music also breaks down international barriers.

The next evening, members of the Silk Road Ensemble in a group called China Magpie, led by Tong, played at Club Passim. The verve and vim of the performance were even more tangible in the smaller space. Club Passim doesn’t serve alcohol, but the invigorating music was more than enough to sustain the excited crowd.

For everyone who has ever pre-gamed an Expos paper or Chemistry problem set, Yannatos had some words of advice. Recalling the case of Ruan Ji, “You don’t need to be tipsy to be creative—though it sometimes helps.”

—Staff writer Alexander B. Fabry can be reached at

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