An exotic hum resonated in Sanders Theatre last Tuesday, September 27. The piercing sound of Galician bagpipes enveloped the hall as the lilting melodies of violins began to weave the melody of “River Suite”—and the newest collaboration of The Silk Road Ensemble commenced.
Led by award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, the musicians of The Silk Road Ensemble participated in a week-long residency that started on September 22 and culminated in a final free performance at New College Theatre last Wednesday. Joining forces with Harvard for a five-year collaboration, The Silk Road Project—Ma’s nonprofit arts and educational organization—not only promotes communication between cultures, but also presents music as a way for education and cultural entrepreneurship. The Silk Road Ensemble, Ma’s collective of internationally renowned performers and composers from more than 20 countries, presents innovative performances as part of the Project’s larger mission.
Last week’s performances were no exception to the Silk Road Ensemble’s creativity. Last Monday, the Silk Road musicians surprised passersby at the Spangler Center at the Harvard Business School. With the goal of animating the environment, the ensemble began playing Brazilian samba whistles, which imitate bird calls, in the campus courtyard before presenting an impromptu performance in the Spangler Center before an excited crowd.
The ensemble’s decision to play at the Harvard Business School elaborates on the idea of interdisciplinary learning—and the entrepreneurship that can be inspired by the cross-pollination of different academic fields. Rather than limiting music to the sphere of the concert hall, the Silk Road Project works to unite its music together with other disciplines to create a stronger artistic experience.
“We think about entrepreneurship as being something that is more related to economics [and] business,” said Kojiro Umezaki, who plays the shakuhachi—a Japanese end-blown flute—for the ensemble. “But we feel there is also value—maybe value that you cannot monetize as easily—[in] actually growing [an] original idea within the cultural domain.”
In addition to presenting their own work, the Silk Road Project brought an educational perspective in their collaboration with Harvard’s student musicians. In last week’s most recent collaboration, Harvard students participated in the Silk Road Project by arranging, performing, and working with the ensemble. Challenged with only 24 hours to prepare, three selected freshman were asked to arrange works that were eventually performed by the ensemble in last Tuesday’s Sanders Theatre concert. Several other student performers were given the opportunity to participate in an improvisation session with the ensemble’s musicians in a showcase at the New College Theatre the following day.
“They taught me how to work outside the box,” said Stella F. Chen ’15, a violinist who participated in the Silk Road Ensemble’s improvisation sessions. “They would play Bach and Mozart, just our kind of music. [But] then we would go to the stage [and] they would start putting the bow behind the strings and snap-pitzing [an abbreviated term for pizzicato, or the plucking of strings].”
In addition to improvisational techniques, students were also given the opportunity to explore non-traditional musical influences. “This is a new direction of developing music because we are now applying non-Western traditions to Western music and Western traditions to non-Western music,” said Bran S. Shim ’14, a participating bass player.
Shim shares the Silk Road’s aspiration to extend the potential of musical collaboration. “We can use music as a device not only to communicate with each other, but [also to] develop the international community. It becomes a tool.” In this respect, the value of The Silk Road Ensemble’s musicianship—and their multifaceted education—becomes clear.
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