In a corner of Grand Central station, HBO has set up a promotional event for its documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (2017).
The film is directed by Morgan Neville, who won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 20 Feet From Stardom (2013). At Grand Central, a giant video screen and electronic floorboard are tucked away against the far wall of the station, the ensemble’s plethora of instruments lie before it, punctuated by microphone stands. At another corner, members of the ensemble give interviews. Despite the conspicuous floorboard, HBO had charm in keeping the affair informal and unpretentious.
The Silk Road Ensemble is a fusion music project founded by Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, originally consisting of musicians from regions along the Silk Route who practiced indigenous musical traditions. Musicians from the Far East to South Asia to the Mediterranean and beyond collaborated on both new material and novel interpretations of traditional works, forging a perennial aesthetic and cultural exchange. Underlying all these aesthetic experiments is an ideology of multicultural unity and learning. The ensemble soon expanded to include musicians from the world over, contemporary and traditional alike. It is also now part of the larger Silk Road Project, which fosters worldwide musical education and partnerships between local artists and entrepreneurs (jointly with the Harvard Business School).
A single Silk Road Ensemble piece can inextricably enmesh West African vocal traditions, Chinese reeds and Middle Eastern percussion across a dynamic journey of uber-cinematic peaks and troughs. Discerning individual cultural traces in the ensemble’s pieces is often futile and in a sense runs counter to their ethos. Its members maintain unwavering dedication to unified musicality. That the ensemble’s eclecticism has paradoxically produced works of poignant synthesis stands testament to both the its members’ immense musical prowess and their humanist mission statement.
The Music of Strangers debuts March 6 on HBO. The film explores struggles many of the ensemble’s members faced in their personal and professional lives, further tying those experiences to the communal ideology inherent to Silk Road. Shared experiences of exile, prison, and financial hardship among the musicians catalyze a desire to connect artistically and personally across cultures. Interviews with Yo-Yo Ma and his son Nicholas highlight the “meaning” of the Silk Road as not just an ensemble but as an expanded cultural project that propagates inter-cultural dialogue and understanding.
Meanwhile, back in Grand Central Station… The video screen and floorboard comprise an interactive media installation. The screen presents an AV of landscapes across the world while playing some of the ensemble’s music. The floorboard has larger-than life icons of several instruments. Standing on an instrument’s icon activates its respective audio track. For example, standing on the picture of the clarinet introduces the clarinets into the soundtrack, likewise for the cello, bagpipes, and others. Multiple users can work together to create different arrangements of the ensemble’s recordings. I could spend hours playing Dance Dance Revolution on that floorboard, trying to figure out how the ensemble crafts intense aesthetic unities out of seemingly disparate arrangements.
The performance begins when Cristina Pato sounds her gaita (Galician bagpipes from northern Spain) from behind the crowd. She prances through the throng of journalists and onto stage with an air of festivity and unassuming virtuosity. Soon she is joined by a cello and a host of percussion instruments, from a cajon to a range of hand held drums and cymbals. Sonically, the work is less smorgasbord and more, well, Silk Road: all soaring melodies and cavorting syncopation sutured seamlessly without calling attention to itself. In contrast to my bout of floorboard enthusiasm, I often feel I value their compositions more appropriately with my eyes closed, without the visual referents of the specific instruments at play.
Next comes a piece titled “Saidi Swing” that combines Middle Eastern percussive traditions with the wide-ranging contemporary percussion practices of Haruka Fujii. With pounding, intricate rhythms that involve multiple instruments, the work is a feast for the ears and the mind. Rhythm is often described as the organization of time, in which case the ensemble’s taste for disorienting percussion evokes The Persistence of Memory.
The final piece is “Wedding,” composed by Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. Azmeh introduces the piece as an homage to Syrian weddings and their musical traditions. “Wedding” combines minor-key clarinet passages with mirthful percussion, building up to a crescendo that in an ideal world should have convinced subway operators to halt trains to hear its conclusion. Alas, we don’t live in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001). The ensemble seem unperturbed by the fact that clarinets are not traditional Syrian instruments, or that Cristina Pato entwines Azmeh’s melodies with Galician gaita figures, or by any of their other mind-boggling innovations. They take immense pleasure in performance, creating a convivial atmosphere that shuts out the critic and ethnomusicologist and invites the listener. They’re attitude reminds of John McLaughlin’s quip, “there are only two kinds of music, good and bad” (that’s McLaughlin the jazz guitarist, not the political commentator, or the former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, though if the latter two said the same I would have no complaints).
Afterwards, Azmeh was kind enough to take out ten minutes for an interview. He was amiable, and had a likable knack of delivering insight with an unexpectedly casual tone. People just out of earshot probably thought we discussed good places to grab a bagel. You can find the interview below:
You mix so many idioms and so many styles from across the world … I wonder how they work together because you have some styles that are based in chords and harmony and you have other styles that are melody-based, especially from the East. How do you negotiate those differences when you’re arranging or writing?
Kinan Azmeh: You know I don’t personally think of music in categories (this is a personal thing). Like, I don’t think there is something where, like okay, this is where the East stops and the West begins. Let’s say when I play Syrian traditional music in the US, what happens if I take it to and play it in Japan? Does it become music from the West only because Syria happens to be to the west of Japan?
So I think music is a continuum across genres, I don’t think there is any defining line across these genres. In that sense, I also don’t think of music as separated into harmony, melody, and rhythm. I also don’t like that. Because even—I’m sorry if this is becoming music-specific—if you play three notes in a melodic fashion, that also creates a chord. So you know what I mean? So it depends if you think harmonically, there are so many ways you can look at what harmony means, what melody means. You cannot separate all these elements, [they] are so, so linked together.
And in that sense if you look at every musical vocabulary in the world, they have that complexity…everything, you know? So the only way I think you can approach it is if you do something meaningfully, you know? I try in my work to spread myself as much as I can horizontally. You wanna explore the musical vocabularies of the world around you. When you find something that interests you, you dig vertically.
Because you want to learn you know? Like, how many years does it take you to learn a Mozart concerto, for example? It takes you lots of years. It’s gonna take you an equal amount of time to learn the rhythmic vocabulary of Indian music, for instance.
A lot of times you see two different kinds of approaches to fusion music: You see people who are juxtaposing arrangements, a sitar and electric guitar for example, and you see other people who trying to really blend theoretical concepts from a compositional standpoint: “let me take this approach to polyrhythms” or “let me take this approach to microtonality and bring it to a diatonic scale,” for example. Is that something you think about?
Azmeh: I do. I mean, it’s a fabulous question actually, because actually I do this all the time. Sometimes I find an idea and I get obsessed with it. Recently I was obsessed with—I wrote this piece inspired by the time compression you can find in classical Indian music you know? I’m writing this piece for a string quartet, and I like that! So you once you have a device you have to really master—well, not “master,” I’m not saying that I mastered it—but you have to learn how it works. And then you use it you know? Why not? And if the melody on top of that felt like it was coming from bluegrass, also why not?
I don’t think it’s about the elements, you can use any elements you want. It’s how you make sense of these elements. That every element is justified by its use. Like, you don’t wanna do this because you wanna showcase that “look my piece has Indian and Syrian [influences]…I don’t think that’s the goal. At the end of the day, you need something that is meaningful, that has an artistic quality to it. And by doing so, by keeping your ears and eyes open, you learn a lot, a great deal. And that’s what happens when you collaborate with other musicians from other cultures who have strongly mastered these devices.
This is—I’m thinking now as a composer [and] as an improviser—the more you listen to other things, they become naturally integrated in your brain. So the way they come out again, it’s hard to control. And when you play, you don’t know when—it’s hard to analyze, like, a solo that one takes, to say, “oh, this comes from this.” I think you have it all in your brain and what comes out is something new. That’s when the collective is larger than the sum of its parts.
I’ve heard so many musicians say they play differently with different people…
Azmeh: Right, of course. Like how this conversation would happen differently if it was with somebody else. It’s as simple as that.
Regarding how the works are arranged. Do you have one person who’s leading the arrangement for a piece? Or is it always a collective process?
Azmeh: Every piece is different. Some pieces, we commission a composer to write a piece for us. He will write all the parts. Of course, we adapt them, because some composers are not fully aware of the potential of the sheng*, for example, or other instruments that are not common, or commonly used.
[On the other hand] the last piece we played was a piece of mine, that I arranged for the group. But also, this is how I think about composition: you step out of it when you compose the piece and you give it to the ensemble. Everybody’s playing their parts, but I like to see how individuals bring something to the piece. And in that sense, that’s where I see the “continuous” thing that I talk about. Because I think people should approach a Mozart concerto the same way. Like “okay, these are the notes, now do whatever you want to do.” I like this freedom aspect of music-making. That you’re adventurous, that you’re not breaking boundaries because you want to break boundaries, [but] to have a personal voice, that you are trying to dig deeper about why you relate to this piece of music.
So sometimes it’s collective, sometimes it’s individual, but all the time we [make] lots of artistic decisions together when we rehearse. So the pieces are workshopped throughout the rehearsal period.
In these lengthy pieces, do professional musicians count each measure? Like “oh, after 256 bars the B Part comes in”…
Azmeh: Like the last piece we did? I think of the whole piece as one beat [laughs]. It starts and it finishes. I mean, the more you learn, [the more] you know the pieces. They become part of who you are, really. Like, if you ask any classical soloist, do they count—in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto—the bars where they don’t play? Of course they don’t. They know it! I think [all] music works in the same way.
Of course when we are learning music that is new, when we have the score, sometimes we do count. But eventually—that’s always at the early stage. I mean you can tell, some pieces we [have] played many times. “Wedding,” this last piece we played, we have played it gazillion times, nobody needs scores.
And I think we try to sound as if we are improvising too; that it sounds spontaneous. I think some of the best written music are works that sound spontaneous and some of the best improvisations are ones that sound structured, as if they were composed. I mean, when you hear a Mozart concerto, sometimes you think like, “this sounds improvised.” Like Mozart sat on the piano and improvised it, the genius he is, right? And when you hear a Michael Brecker solo, you are almost willing to swear that he certainly wrote it down. And I like that aspect of music-making!
In the “world music” scene, whatever that word means…
Azmeh: [laughs] I know…I know…
…It seems as if collaborative efforts and fusion efforts have more prominence in the market than traditional works from any single culture. Do you think that’s a problem? Or do you think it’s a way to keep traditions alive? To give listeners a window through which they can access more traditional music.
Azmeh: It’s interesting…I don’t have an ultimate answer for that, but I can tell you this: I don’t judge the importance of an artistic project based on how many CD’s it sells. You know? So like, the market for me—yes, of course we are all concerned about the market as artists. BUT, I don’t use it as a standard, or as a reference point. What for me is more important is that the project makes sense: why you are doing a a fusion project. Why do you do it?
Like, if I’m dying to learn this vocabulary from one of my best friends, this tabla player from India. And I’m a clarinetist who plays pretty much everything (the clarinet is not a traditional Syrian instrument anyway), the result is going to be “fusion.” The labelling of it doesn’t matter, One has to remember that traditions, what we now recognize as traditions, were innovations at some point. So I think people should do whatever excites them.
And whether you actually get more into Indian music listening to Ravi Shankar playing a solo sitar concert or by listening to Shakti playing…You know what I mean? Which one is a better access? I don’t know. Both are equally valid because one of them [Shankar] is traditional, the other one [Shakti] is somehow traditional, but also “today.” But even when Ravi Shankar is playing, he is not playing “traditionally” because he was playing in today’s times when he was alive. You know what I mean? But even “traditional” doesn’t mean it’s the ancient past, it’s happening now. And traditions do evolve and they do change.
Thank you so much for your time.
Azmeh: Thank you, it was good talking to you.
* The sheng is a Chinese mouth-blown instrument, consisting of reeds and 17 vertical pipes. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Wu Tong frequently plays the sheng in his work with the Silk Road Ensemble. His smoky, mellow singing voice is also a delight to hear in Silk Road’s works