Insatiable curiosity is the key ingredient that has drawn distinguished performers and composers from more than 20 countries to celebrate cross-cultural music with the acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble since 2000.
The innovative group, formed by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, explores both ancient and contemporary musical crossroads, taking inspiration from the historical Silk Road trade routes crisscrossing Eurasia. The Silk Road Ensemble will return to Akron on March 14 for a performance with the Tuesday Musical Association as part of a six-city tour.
It’s the second time the international ensemble has performed in Akron, the last being in 2004. More recently, Ma gave a sold-out solo cello performance in 2007 with Tuesday Musical at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.
When Ma talks about the Silk Road Ensemble, he is not talking about himself, though. In an interview from the Berkshires in late February, he stressed that the ensemble is a democratic one.
“Everybody has a chance of leading with an idea, and going with it, and we will all support that person,” he said.
For example, an ensemble member’s interest in Gypsy music led to the group performing a suite called Music of the Roma on tour. It explores the Gypsies’ migration from Central and South Asia to the Romani region of Eastern Europe.
“I think we’re all very excited because every tour is new and different for a number of reasons. We’re kind of like a roving, laboratory,” Ma said. “We’re like curiosity on Earth, not on Mars.”
“It’s so great because over the last almost 15 years, a group of disparate individuals have come together and worked at various times during the year incredibly intensely and we’ve become, you know, a band, and a group of good, wonderful friends.”
In Akron, 15 musicians from eight countries will take the stage with Ma, who was born in Paris to Chinese parents and later moved to New York. They include everyone from Cristina Pato on gaita, a Galician bagpipe from Northwest Spain, to Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi, a Japanese wind instrument.
On March 14, the Music of the Roma suite will include the premiere of Rajasthani Traditional, an arrangement by tabla (Indian drums) virtuoso Sandeep Das of a folk melody from the Rajasthan region of India, a birthplace of Gypsy music.
The international artists whom Ma works with are masters of tradition who aren’t just replicating ancient ways: They also live in the present day, he said.
“We’re always led by the idea of imagining something, but based on certain things that we know, and then you take a leap,” Ma said.
Consider Suite from Book of Angels, a work the ensemble plays composed of short pieces by avant-garde American composer John Zorn that experiment in Jewish musical styles. For this suite, Silk Road musicians have taken turns arranging the Jewish songs from their diverse cultural perspectives. Next week, kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor will premiere his latest arrangement in the ongoing project. (The kamancheh is a Persian bowed string instrument.)
In 1998, Ma created the Silk Road Project as an internationally minded performing arts nonprofit with cultural and educational missions to promote innovation and learning through the arts. In forming both the project and the ensemble, Ma originally looked to a group in his current hometown of Cambridge, Mass., called the Revels. They create a winter celebration focusing on a different culture every year that involves the whole community in song, dance and storytelling.
Other models Ma looked to were theater director Peter Sellars’ Pacific Rim Festival in California, where he discovered immigrants who had been masters of their arts in their home countries working menial jobs in the United States. Ma also admired the Mark Morris Dance Group and was inspired by the Marlboro Music Festival in Marlboro, Vt., where he grew up playing chamber music in the summer.
“My gosh, the feeling here is so incredible,” Ma said of each of these groups. “How did they do that? How does that happen?”
What each group shared, Ma said, were values of generosity, a lively interest in the world and the desire to share — all preconditions that allowed creativity to happen.
“It was certainly not my project. I never wanted it to be. It was more like, say, if we had these conditions in a certain place, can we create a kind of culture where good things happen, interesting things happen?”
Silk Road Ensemble musicians have a constant flow of ideas in and out, and can’t wait to share them. Members run music festivals, camps, quartets and subgroups in their own countries such as Spain, India and the United States.
“It’s that kind of intersection that makes the knowledge really flow all the time within the group,” Ma said. “The muscle of coming together, leaving, coming together again forces each one of us to take out the experiences from the group back into our other lives, and sort of practice new ideas and confront new things. And from the time away, we come back with new ideas.”
That creativity includes integrating music with computer science, art and design. Umezaki, an expert in the field of music technology who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, brings new ideas to the group, as does cellist Mike Block, who has worked with turning a computer into an instrument.
Ma said people the ensemble has met along the way are a key part of the creative process, from kindergartners to people in museums, stadiums and concert halls. In educational outreach endeavors, the Silk Road Project works to use music as a tool for developing rich imaginations in young people.
In Akron, the Silk Road Project will give a lecture/demonstration to middle school and high school children from 1 to 2 p.m. March 14 at E.J. Thomas Hall. The ensemble is expected to play a piece from its evening program and have a question-and-answer session. Tuesday Musical expects up to 600 students to participate. Attendance by student groups must be arranged by calling Barbara Feld at 330-761-3460.
Ma said the Silk Road Project knows 12-year-olds best, having worked with the age group in inner-city schools in New York, Boston and around the country. The organization would like to broaden its focus to other ages. Its goal is to help students become curious and interested in the world so they can make connections through arts integration with their math, history, social studies and science classes.
The Silk Road Ensemble’s residencies include five years at the Rhode Island School of Design as well as eight years at Harvard, where the musicians are currently working with the business school on a Dean’s Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge.
In this program, Ma likes to use the ecological term the “edge effect,” which refers to increased diversity that occurs in areas where two types of habitats meet.
“Culture is a part of nature. So, if this happens in nature, does that also happen in culture?” Ma asked.
The cellist cited a historic example of remarkable new things growing from where two “edges” meet.
In the early 1960s, influential composer Philip Glass was studying in Paris with great music teacher Nadia Boulanger. When he was given a piece of Indian music to transcribe, he hit a wall and couldn’t figure out the intricate patterns.
“When he did make a breakthrough, that was the epiphany that set him on his path of writing minimalist music,” Ma said. “But by being at the impasse, that’s when the new life was formed; a new way of thinking was formed.”
A similar thing happened to Silk Road Ensemble violinist Colin Jacobsen when he traveled in 2004 to Iran, the home country of fellow ensemble member Kalhor. Jacobsen was inspired by the incredible Persian architecture, craftspeople, poetry and music in Tehran, and has been writing and arranging music ever since. His visit to an ancient fire temple, or atashgah, inspired the composition Atashgah, composed for kamancheh and Western strings, which will be featured on next week’s program.
Through his visit to Iran, Jacobsen drew from the rich resources of each ecosystem — the classical tradition and the Persian tradition — to create something new, Ma said.
“I so remember that moment because his [Jacobsen’s] improvisation sounded different from that moment on. You could tell that something really impactful happened to him in sound, and probably in thinking also. But it took someone who is naturally curious and seeking to recognize the things and then let them affect him. He’s just become a richer musician. … It was beautiful to see.”
Such cultural exchanges are key to the Silk Road Ensemble’s making world connections. Ma, who has worked in Argentina and Brazil, said he comes back home to find himself more deeply attuned to Brazilian culture in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“You actually get more and more flavor of the States from immigration from everywhere,” Ma said. “We discover more of who we are. So many layers of what we are is this complex mix of edges, and that’s really fascinating.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.