Everyone knows the conclusion of the old saw that begins, “East is east and west is west . . .” Over the last 15 years, the mission of the Silk Road Project has been to prove how amicably the twain can meet on musical grounds.
Eleven skilled musicians from the Silk Road Ensemble—the touring arm of the Silk Road Project—brought their infectious musicianship to La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium Sunday (Oct. 20), spreading their gospel of global harmony through virtuoso collaboration. From their opening selection “Coronte,” Silk Road dramatized their unique brand of cultural rapprochement. The two soloists–Spanish bagpipe virtuosa Cristina Pato and shakuhachi whiz Kojiro Umezaki—were not just from widely different cultures. Already playing their instruments, they entered from opposite sides of the stage and met each other in the center in what might have been some primitive mating ritual.
Of course, the performers were so engaged in their musical performance that nothing even mildly suggestive took place, but it was easy to imagine that the wail of the gaita (the proper name for the powerful bagpipe from Galicia) and the piercing call of the traditional Japanese flute were summoning the most serious level of intimate engagement. “Coronte” opened over a rumbling drone, a typical convention of Asian music that allows the soloists the freedom to engage in cadenza-like extravagance, which both Pato and Umezaki unleashed with ravishing results.
“Coronte” quickly modulated into “Saidi Swing,” a festival of intense Arabic drumming composed by Silk Road resident percussionist Shane Shanahan, which was followed by Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’s intoxicating “Arabian Waltz.” This waltz communicated the pulsing triple meter of the Viennese court, but its complex, asymetrical inner rhythms brought us out of Habsburg palaces and plunged us into a teeming Middle Eastern souk.
Other cross-cultural pieces on the program included “Celtibera,” Silk Road cellist Mike Block’s Scottish folk song merged with Pato’s spicy Galician rhythms, and an improvised duet, “Jugalbandi,” in which the traceries of Kayhan Kalhor’s Persian spike fiddle engaged the time-honored patterns of the Indian tabla, executed with consummate ease by Sandeep Das.[php snippet=1]
“Empty Mountain Spirit Rain” by the Chinese-American composer Angel Lam, a work commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Silk Road and premiered in 2006, painted a still, spare soundscape with minimalist string ostinatos that allowed soloists Umesaki and Shanahan—this time on bass marimba—to spin out mournful arabesques. Four John Zorn tunes from his 2004 “Book of Angels” (the second volume of his extensive Masada Project) in arrangements by individual Silk Road musicians rounded out the concert with touches of jazz in “Song of the Fallen Angel” and exstatic religious frenzy in “Song of the Angel that Guards the First Heaven.”
Without reciting pious speeches but rather by making music together these musicians from many cultures along the historic Silk Road advocate peaceful co-existence among all people regardless of their ethnic, racial or religious differences. This subtext is perhaps what gives their spirited performance that added level of urgency and persuasiveness.