Music of the Silk Road

Byambasuren Sharev
Legend of Herlen
Zhao Jiping
Moon Over Guan Mountains
Sandeep Das
Arr. Aslamazyan
Two folk songs from the Komitas collection
Arr. Ljova & Osvaldo Golijov
Two pieces of music of the Roma
Kayhan Kalhor
Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur

Silk Road Ensemble:

Khongorzul Ganbaatar (vocalist)
Yo-Yo Ma (morin khuur & cello)
Joel Fan (piano)
David Purser & Graham Lee (tenor trombones)
David Vines (bass trombone)
Mark Suter & Joseph Gramley (percussion)
Shane Shanahan (tabla & percussion)
Wu Tong (sheng)
Wu Man (pipa)
Colin Jacobsen & Jonathan Gandelsman (violins)
Nicholas Cords (viola)
Sandeep Das (tabla)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Lionel Handy (cello)
Enno Senft (double bass)
Kayhan Kalhor (kemancheh)
Siamak Aghaei (santur)
Siamak Jahangiry (ney)

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 15 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“From its birth before Christ, through the heights of the Tang dynasty, until its slow demise six to seven hundred years ago, the Silk Road has had a unique role in foreign trade and political relations, stretching far beyond the bounds of Asia itself.” (Taken from “The Silk Road” by Oliver Wild, 1992.)

Billed as the centrepiece of this season’s “East meets West” theme, the Silk Road Ensemble, along with its artistic director Yo-Yo Ma, presented a delightful series of works from Mongolia, China, India, Armenia, Persia and the Roma diaspora. The Silk Road countries line the route from China to the western world and, as would be expected, was a magnet for traders, hoteliers and entertainers alike. This Prom was a fusion of the traditional music of old with new and vibrant compositions and improvisations to create, as the proms guide describes, a multi-cultural musical odyssey.

Yo-Yo Ma is the founder and artistic director of the Silk Road project and of the ensemble that takes its name. Ensemble is the best description to describe this group of musicians; there is no one person in charge; for any one performance, each takes his or her turn as the music dictates. I suppose the closest western equivalent will be jazz with each performer developing their part and all the time making the sweetest music without a wisp of egotism.

The concert opened with piece from Mongolia and demonstrated the tradition of telling stories through music. Yo-Yo Ma introduced the piece and showed off his two-string fiddle, a morin khuur, that is decorated with a carved wooden horse head. He was particularly keen on the instrument, he said, because Ma means horse in Chinese. The piece was quite soulful and in a number of short episodes with alternating instrumental groups: the morin khuur and voice making up one group and the piano, brass and percussion making up the other. The melismatic voice of vocalist Khongorzul Ganbaatar sang of the Herlen River in a style known as urtiin duu (Long Song) in which singers take enormous breaths in order to sustain loud, extended and highly ornamented melodic phrases.

“Moon over the Guan Mountains” is one of the more traditional pieces of composer Zhao Jiping who is perhaps better known for his film scores from movies such as “Raise the Red Lantern”, “Farewell My Concubine” and “Ju Dou”. The piece introduces the sheng, a three-thousand-year-old Chinese wind instrument made from bamboo and bronze pipes. It is said to make a sound similar to the call of the phoenix flying over ancient Chinese forests but sounds, to western ears, like a cross between an alto saxophone and an accordion and is capable of playing two notes at a time. The piece was very much influenced harmonically by western musical traditions and evokes an atmosphere of the moon rising over the mountain range in north-western China.

At the end of the concert’s first half we reverted to Indian Jazz with composer Sandeep Das performing with other members of the Silk Road Ensemble in a work that developed out of informal jam sessions. The work, though based on improvisation, proved well structured and opened with a violin solo accompanied by a viola. After a while the tabla entered playing fast six-beat cycles (dadra) all the time over the plaintiff string melodies that act as a drone. The effect is like that of an inverted passacaglia where the interest is provided through rhythmic dexterity and rhythmical conversations between the instrumentalists.

In the second half of the concert we travelled west to Armenia and finally to Persia and Neyshabur: one of the oldest cities on the Silk Road and which boasts one of the ancient world’s first universities.

The first of the Two folk songs from the Komitas collection, “Vagharshabadi Dance” opened with a string quartet that could easily have been taken from the notebooks of Dvořák. Its outer parts were fast and lively with a slower middle section. The second song entitled “It’s Spring” introduced the percussion and the pipa, a Chinese short-necked lute.

The Roma are a race of nomadic people that travelled up and down the Silk Road. Originally from North-central India they migrated to Persia and Europe in about 300 BC. In the fifteenth century, being mistaken for Egyptians, the Europeans started calling them “gypsies”. Being a nomadic race, the music of the Roma draws from an eclectic variety of instruments and styles. The “Turceasca” is based on a traditional Turkish song and was used in the documentary film made by Tony Gatlif in 1993 about the music of the Roma called “Safe Journey”. The piece was arranged for the Kronos Quartet and was augmented by adding the pipa and percussion. The piece was exciting and full of life – as perhaps it should be being the signature tune of the Romanian gypsy band called “Band of Brigands”. The addition of the pipa and percussion certainly added dramatic flair to the piece and I am sure that pipa player Wu Man would have played rock guitar like Hendrix had she been born to a different part of the world.

To round off what can only be described as one of the most enjoyable proms this season, composer Kayhan Kalhor played an improvisatory piece on the Kemancheh (spike fiddle) before the whole group played Kalhor’s Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur. Throughout the afternoon, members of the London Sinfonietta had augmented the ensemble; the last piece was the largest yet with eleven musicians taking part – western string instruments with traditional ones from Persia. Kalhor explained how he “wanted to highlight the qualities of Persian classical music. At the height of the Abbasid empire, the music, poetry and literature of Persia spread to India, Central Asia, Turkey, the Mediterranean and North Africa. The Persian influence can still be heard today in the music of Andalusia and the Spanish flamenco.”

To round off, there were some unnamed encores: a welcome return of vocalist Khongorzul Ganbaatar brought the concert full-circle, back to the stories in song from what must be one of the most inhospitable areas on earth.

In a time when the world seems to be going crazy – dividing itself by religion, the forces of the West in Iraq – it should be remembered that cultures that grew along the Silk Road were as advanced as any to be seen in the West at the same time. In the words of Yo-Yo Ma: “As we interact with unfamiliar musical traditions, we encounter voices that are not exclusive to one community. We discover transnational voices that belong to one world.”

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