℗ © 2013 Sony Music Entertainment
The Silk Road Project has been on a mission to promote innovation and cross-cultural understanding through the arts for the last 15 years. The newest chapter comes with the Sony Masterworks release of the new album A Playlist Without Borders from the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. This is the groundbreaking group’s fifth recording and first since 2009’s Grammy-nominated Off the Map.
The vision of Yo-Yo Ma’s limitless collective, the Silk Road Ensemble, is as timely as ever: to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences. From flashy surf guitar sounds to ninth century Chinese poetry, from modular playlists to Egyptian rhythms, the Silk Road Ensemble mixes the modern and the traditional, breaking boundaries of ethnicity and era. A Playlist Without Borders demonstrates once again that there are no barriers for those approaching music with an open mind.
Founded by Yo-Yo Ma during the Project’s second year, the Silk Road Ensemble has featured more than 60 members from 24 countries. Hailed as “one of the 21st century’s great ensembles” by the Vancouver Sun and described as “a kind of roving musical laboratory without walls” by the Boston Globe, the genre-defying Ensemble is a broad collective of musicians who honor the value of each member and the flexibility and creativity of the group.
"I think that there are not many ensembles that can share the musicianship that the Silk Road Ensemble does,” says member Kayhan Kalhor, one of the great kamancheh players of today. “Everybody brings a lot of energy to the music, so it’s a continuing learning process that we all share."
The album opens with the eight-part “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion,” composed by pianist Vijay Iyer. The title refers to the literary theorist and amateur classical pianist Edward W. Said’s description of a classical performance — he asserted that an “extreme occasion” was experiencing music written and played with an expertise that select few ever achieve — as well as a the concept of modern-day playlist, which also is referenced in the album’s title.
“I built this piece with that kind of modular format in mind,” explains Iyer, “that any part of this could be spun off and you could do anything with it in the course of performance and let that be it’s own thing. I’m not trying to force some sort of overarching narrative, but rather let that emerge from the accumulation of small ideas.”
Iyer had written for all these instruments before, though never in this combination. He chose to highlight the way the tabla, the gaita and the sheng offered specific structural details to the work, and to push the envelope of what those instruments could do.
This sense of playful exploration also informs the four-part “Cut the Rug,” written by noted classical composer David Bruce. Referring to both the Central Asian rug-making tradition as well as the Western phrase for dancing, this piece is a cycle of play-fight-die-rebirth. The dance-like first movement called “Drag the Goat” was inspired by the Central Asian horse-back sport called Buzkashi, a polo-like game that uses a headless goat carcass as the ball. The second movement, “Bury the Hatchet,” is more confrontational in a formalized way that recalls flamenco or capoeira dancing. “Move the Earth” begins as an elegy before climaxing with a powerful gaita solo from Cristina Pato. The final movement, “Wake the Dead,” strikes a lighter and more uplifting tone that closes the piece with a sense of rebirth.
“Often in my work I'm trying to explain to classically trained players how to play folk-like ornaments or styles of playing,” Bruce recalls. “These all came so naturally to the Ensemble, of course, that I didn't have anything to say in that regard. It was nice writing a simple line, knowing it would be brought to life by some of the best players in the world.”
This ensemble of world-class players also features several composers and arrangers in its midst. Percussionist Shane Shanahan wrote and arranged “Saidi Swing.” This composition fuses the four-beat rhythmic figure common in the traditional Egyptian dance called Saidi with Shanahan’s desire to “swing” out into uncharted territory on this piece, which also features tabla player Sandeep Das as well as percussionists Joseph Gramley and Mark Suter.
On “Night Thoughts,” pipa player Wu Man used a ninth century Buddhist pipa melody and was further inspired by the famous poem “A Quiet Night Thought,” written by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai or Li Bo. “Since we have quite a few 'all-play' pieces, I deliberately kept this small combination of instruments,” explains Wu Man. “It’s a dialog between pipa, shakuhachi and jang-go, each with their unique sound color and, more importantly, representative of a common origin from the Buddhist music tradition.”
A Playlist Without Borders also includes an elegant cello solo by Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun, played by Ma, entitled “Allegretto from Partita, Op. 31” and the evocative and multifaceted “Atashgah” by Silk Road Ensemble violinist Colin Jacobsen. The album closes with the singular “Briel,” written by avant-garde jazz icon John Zorn. The song’s title refers to one of the Jewish angels invoked during childbirth to protect the newborn and its mother from harm and illness. Arranger and oud player Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz notes that “‘Briel’ explores the similarities between the tradition of the oud and the surf guitar stylings of the 60's — in technique, sound, scale, and rhythm — like Fareed Al Atrash meets Dick Dale.”
Like time-travelling merchants crossing the ancient Silk Road trade route, the Silk Road Ensemble trades in sounds and ideas. In A Playlist Without Borders, the Ensemble’s currency is music and its passport, an inquisitive mind.