Reaching the End of the Silk Road
The phenomenon of multiculturalism in today’s world often becomes so muddled and clichéd that the cultures represented become vitiated and disconnected from their origins. The Silk Road Project—whose five-year residency at Harvard culminated last Thursday evening with a thrilling performance and ceremony in Memorial Church—is an antidote to this superficiality of the multicultural society. By using expert artists and scholars, the Project seeks to teach communities worldwide about the human commonalities and peculiarities that cultural exchange brings to light.The project was born out of a series of conversations between cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and Harvard humanities professors in 1998 about exploring cultural connections through music. Ma sought virtuoso musicians from a variety of traditions to form the Silk Road Ensemble, a group committed to exploring and sharing these traditions and creating new cultural forms—much like travelers did on the famous Silk Road trade route 1,000 years ago.The project then grew to include international tours and workshops, with the mission of uniting the world’s neighborhoods through music. The ensemble has since commissioned works from across the globe and led numerous tours across Europe, Asia, and the Americas.When it began its residency here in 2004, the project included a number of educational programs, including small workshops with Harvard undergraduates. In the five years thereafter, the project’s scope expanded to include programs in Chicago and New York City middle schools.The program in New York, called Silk Road Connect, intensifies a pilot program first implemented in Chicago in 2007. The program was motivated by troubling statistics that connected a lack of academic interest in middle school with low college graduation rates, says Laura Freid, executive director of the Silk Road Project. Silk Road Connect seeks to inspire “passion-driven learning” through its integration of Middle Eastern and Asian studies into existing curricula. “As a young student, it’s important to be excited about yourself as an individual knowledge seeker and also as someone who knows who they are and who they are in the world,” Fried says. “Sixth grade is the time of your life when you’re looking for connections.” Initiated this fall, Silk Road Connect employs a variety of tools—including workshops with the ensemble and partnerships with major institutions—to explore the effects of cross-cultural exchange. Students receive DNA testing sponsored by National Geographic to explore their ancestry, for example, and work with an existing gallery on the Silk Road in New York’s National History Museum.The cross-cultural exchange epitomized by the Silk Road Ensemble mirrors the daily life of American youth, in particular those living in the city, says Steven Seidel, director of the Arts and Education program at the Graduate School of Education (GSE). “This generation of new cultural forms is a reality for sixth graders, but the traditional curriculum does not address these issues well. ”Freid adds that the ensemble itself is particularly important in achieving this. “Kids are excited because they see that the diversity on-stage is similar to the diversity they’re living,” she says.The project’s renewed focus on educational programs contributed to its decision to have this year’s residency headed by the GSE. From 2005 to 2008, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences headed the residency, according to Seidel.“They wanted to go deeper into the conversations about how you make partnerships between arts organizations like Silk Road and public schools work, and a lot of us here at the GSE have done that kind of work for a long time, both with arts organizations and with other nonprofits,” Seidel says. Much of this work is based in Project Zero, a Harvard organization that Seidel directed for eight years and the nation’s oldest and most well-known research center of learning through the arts.In last Thursday’s concert the audience had a chance to experience firsthand the multicultural themes explored by the Silk Road Ensemble. Ma, Russian violinist Jonathan Gandelsman, and pianist Charlie Albright ’11, performed the second movement, “Pantoum,” of Maurice Ravel’s piano trio. The piece is usually associated with the Western classical tradition but, as Ma explained, Malaysian dance forms heavily influenced Ravel during his attendance of the World’s Exhibition in Paris in 1889.Later, six other undergraduates joined the Silk Road Ensemble to play music of Turkmen, Armenian, and Yiddish influence, using non-Western techniques and instruments to create music that was both captivating and unfamiliar. With irregular rhythms, a Japanese flute, and a hand drum, the ensemble seemed to conjure fantastic foreign landscapes.Christopher D. Chang ’12, a violist who performed in the concert, says that the ensemble’s style of playing was a refreshing change from the often sterile performance of Western works. “We learned by interacting and playing with each other rather than analyzing the music to death,” he says. “It was less about the quality of the sound than about the colors we created.”The audience’s thrill—evoked by the musical world the ensemble showed them—was manifest; they were on their feet and cheering three movements before the conclusion of the final piece. To perform such energetic non-Western music amongst the pews and crosses of Memorial Church seemed a fitting emblem of the Silk Road Project’s quest for genuine multiculturalism.
—Staff writer Matthew H. Coogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.