Silk Road’s New Fusions

Four composers present works written with acclaimed world music ensemble

At the center of the Kirkland House Junior Common Room sits renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76. He seems modest, almost inconspicuous, as if he is not the night’s primary focus. The lights dim. From the font of the room comes a subdued hum of the strummed mandolin, a gentle thumping on the Indian tabla drums, and the unmistakable tones of two violins and a clarinet. The tuning stops, and a flurry of notes erupts from the mandolin, joined quickly by the clarinet’s tumultuous bars. Back and forth, the two instruments dominate the first part of the melodic folk piece, the foreground to the rhythmic plucking of the violin and the forceful shaking of the tambourine. This piece, David Bruce’s “Cut the Rug,” was one of four compositions featured in the Silk Road Ensemble’s Learning from Performers presentation on Jan. 23.

Created and directed by Ma, the Ensemble embodies the cultural exchange of the historic trade route for which it is named. Its musicians hail from more than 20 countries, a combination that allows them to bring together the traditional sounds of a variety of cultures. “People encounter and live in a world in which many kinds of music exist simultaneously in the same place,” said music professor Anne C. Shreffler. “The Silk Road Ensemble is a personification of this vision of a multi-musical, multilingual world.” After a week-long collaborative effort between the Ensemble and four composers, the performance musically expressed this cross-cultural vision by revealing the works-in-progress of Bruce, Vijay Iyer, Glenn Kotche, and Kojiro Umezaki.

All of the composers had the same set of instruments and musicians at their disposal, yet no two pieces seemed to draw from the same influences. Instead, the four works comprised a musical odyssey. Bruce’s four-part “Cut the Rug” in itself was an expedition through joy and sorrow. “There’s a kind of journey throughout the piece,” Bruce said. “You can kind of think of it as three dances and a funeral.” Jaunty, swift notes from the clarinet and mandolin combined with the sporadic but rhythmic percussion to create the lighter aspect of the folk piece. As the excited trill of the clarinet was replaced by the melancholic melody of the bagpipe-like Spanish gaita, the piece entered its sepulchral march, only to be reawakened by an energized, up-tempo rhythm created by the lighter sounds of the clarinet and string instruments. “The last movement is sort of defiant of death,” said Bruce.

Iyer’s piece, entitled “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion,” is similarly composed of several tonally distinct segments, such that it feels indeed like a playlist of musical sketches. The rolling cadence of the tabla trembling under the jarring chords from the gaita and cello gave some sections the impression of ordered chaos; the more subdued segments were marked by either the Chinese sheng mouth organ’s airy notes or the soft playing of the piano. This dynamic exploration of sound was not entirely Iyer’s creation. “There are moments of improvisation in the piece where I hand it over to different musicians in the ensemble as if to say, ‘Well, enough about me; what do you think of me?’” Iyer said.  As a sort of extension of the collaborative process, the spontaneous contributions of the Ensemble complemented Iyer’s vision of an extreme piece.

Kotche, who is also the drummer for the rock band Wilco, was unable to be present at the performance, but the Ensemble managed his difficult piece masterfully. The composer used the birthdays of his family members to choose the time signatures for “Mille Etoiles,” and unusual signatures such as 21/8 and 23/8 proved challenging for the Ensemble during rehearsals. “This piece is about a sense of trust,” bassist Jeffrey Beecher said. “It was a little bit vulnerable for all of us to play in [21/8], but I think we were all excited.” From the xylophone’s spirited introduction to the piece’s climactic end, “Mille Etoiles” explored the capabilities of the percussion section, alternating between moments of explosive chaos and tight focus.

Umezaki’s “Side In Side Out” drew rich influence from the composer’s Japanese heritage. Kabuki theatre, epic story telling, regional customs—each aspect was explored through the airy sounds of the shakuhachi flute, which Umezaki himself played. Quick, rhythmic melodies tapered off into slow, somber scores, then resurged with a vengeance during the piece’s ending crescendo, a resounding finish to a dynamic cultural story.

The musicians themselves seemed to feel every minute of the pieces, as they swayed with the softer lulls and jerked with the tumultuous rhythms. Responding in kind, the audience passed tranquil moments with eyes closed and subtle smiles. That relationship established between listener and performer seemed a fitting reflection of the Ensemble’s spirit of connection.

—Staff writer Adabelle U. Ekechukwu can be reached at aekechukwu14@college.harvard.edu.

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