Referring to his multicultural collaborators as "venture culturists", celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project gestated, over 25 years of performing in different parts of the world, out of his growing fascination with the migration of musical ideas among the communities that settled along the ancient trans-Eurasian trade route called The Silk Road.
"How did an 8th-century Japanese biwa, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, come to be decorated with Persian and Central Asian designs; how did ancient Roman glass practice influence objects made in China, Korea and Japan; how did such string instruments as the Arabian oud, Chinese erhu and Indian sarangi come to influence both East and West?" asked the cellist.
To answer such questions experientially, Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project in 1998 as "an umbrella organization and common resource for a number of artistic, cultural and educational programs". Silk Road Journeys is the pot of gold at the end of a 3-year rainbow involving ethnomusicological field work, commissioned compositions and subsequent rehearsals, workshops and concert tours between 24 international musicians.
For the occasion and besides his famed Stradivarius cello, Yo-Yo Ma plays the ancient morin khuur, a Mongolian two-stringed horse-headed fiddle. The ensemble adds exotic timbres by way of the hammered Persian santur dulcimer, Indian tabla, Turkish Ney, the Persian kemanche quasi-cello spiked fiddle, setar, and the Chinese erhu fiddle, pipa lute and sheng mouth organ. More conventionally Western representation occurs via violin, viola, cello, piano, trombones and percussion.
The journey begins with Mongolian singer Khongorzul's shamanic long song whose scintillating vocal warbles instantly set the scene somewhere deep in China, an impression only augmented by the onset of a massive drum cadence punctuated by the brash blats of multiple trombones imitating the deep-throated and otherworldly Tibetan longhorns. Those give intermediate room to the wispy single-string undulations of Ma's cello sounding for all the world like a Chinese erhu relative.
"Mido Mountain" comes off like a Chinese reel or jig, with the mouth organ replacing the Irish bag pipes and Chinese strings standing in for the fiddle. Clacking wood blocks keep the tune's heartbeat apace: A Shaolin priest contemplates a shamrock floating in the malt whiskey mug and admires his kata silhouette in the reflective spirits.
"Five Finnish Folksongs" features aquatic piano patterns as backdrop to Ma's intensely singing cello. Melodic and harmonic material deftly captures the European and Asian dialectic. With "Avaz-e Dashti" the timbral scenery shifts to Azerbaijan or Armenia while the main theme stylistically plays tricks with your ability to pin it down.
"Habil-Sayagy" is a duet between Yo-Yo Ma and Joel Fan's "prepared" piano, a term coined by avantgarde composer John Cage for placing diverse objects on and between a piano's strings to alter their timbre - mutes, mallets, glass beads. The following "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur" is one of the album's lyrical highlights.
It is dedicated to "fourth time", the forth part of the traditional Iranian daily cycle between midnight and dawn. It evokes a free-floating mood unhinged from gravity. A gentle plaintive melody hovers like dreamy vapors between ostinato bass tremolo and overtone pedals before the breathy Ney and plucked santur signal the first light of dawn. The awakening of life is symbolized by tabla percussion and the added complexity and animation of rhythmic instrumental counterpoints.
The concluding Italian renaissance number "Chi passa per'sta strada" then bows to courtly European aesthetics but sneaks in tablas, Chinese lutes and even Wu Tong's sheng. This is the most surprising yet impeccably realized stylistic amalgam on the entire disc, which then offers a brief bonus track from the epic Kung Fu masterpiece "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".
Silk Road Journeys is like a densely populated, floridly written hardcover novel. Only by following word for word will you appreciate the embedded multiple layers, plot twists, setups and the sheer wealth of prose. If you just want the news, ma'm, nothing but the news, pick up your local Daily instead and scan the headlines. Or grab a comic strip. An album like this is best consumed with slow deliberation. As its title implies, it attempts to take you on a journey, not feed you a precooked TV dinner. Properly approached, you might be amazed by the vast vistas it can open.