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The Silkroad Ensemble Brings A Blend Of Cultures to Penn State, University Park

Liz Linder
courtesy of The Silkroad Ensemble

The Silkroad Ensemble, a diverse group of musicians from around the world, will give a concert Tuesday night on Penn State’s University Park campus. The group was founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1999.

“There were 60 musicians,” says Silkroad’s co-artistic director, Nicholas Cord.  “We premiered 15 new pieces. A beautiful cacophony is the best way I could describe it.“

“Silkroad was Yo-Yo’s brainchild in a lot of ways. And I think Yo-Yo had always had an idea in his life to do something of this magnitude.”

What Yo-Yo Ma did, Cord says, was to bring together a diverse group of musicians from around the world to blend their musical styles and instruments.

“It’s a feeling that he’s instilled in all of us: music, and the instruments that we play, is merely a tool.  What we’re really trying to do is connect people. And connect cultures: sharing cultural collaboration as a window into a better society.”

Cord says Silkroad performs music from many cultures, and commissions new works for their unusual combinations of instruments.

“In every tour, we do a lot of premiering of new work,” Cord says. “And very often that new work is written very much in mind with the group that has assembled.”

Silkroad doesn’t bring all 60 musicians to every show.  They perform around the world in various smaller touring groups.  So any new music they play has to work for the combination of instruments they have at a given show.

“We’ve commissioned probably over a hundred works. I don’t think I have a running tally.  But with a group as diverse as ours, in terms of instrumentation and traditions, we have to create a lot of our own music.”

Another large part of Silkroad’s repertoire is traditional music, and composed works that are hundreds of years old.

“And there’s always a conversation between tradition and innovation,” Cord says.  And I think that’s been one of the driving engines of Silkroad, all these many years.”

As the group’s co-artistic director, Cord himself is now a driving force for Silkroad. Yo-Yo Ma no longer leads the group.  So its future direction is in the hands of Cord and his co-artistic director, percussionist Shane Shanahan.

Cord calls Shanahan “A wonderful percussionist, who specializes in all kinds of different world percussion styles, and is a master of many, many, many instruments.”

When you watch the Silkroad Ensemble, you see intensity and joy on their faces, movement to the music, and plenty of interaction between the musicians. And when someone in the group gets a solo, they really let loose. You might think you’re at a jazz concert.

Cord says there is a good deal of improvisation in Silkroad. “But there is a lot of music that is also through-written. And I think as a performer, it’s always nice when the audience can’t tell where those lines are.”

“You know, I grew up playing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.,” Cord says. “But the art of interpretation is in and of itself an act of improvisation. So I think those boundaries are incredibly fluid.  But typically-speaking, in a Silkroad concert there is a high degree of improvisation.”

The diversity of sounds you hear at a Silkroad concert is matched by the visual elements: you’re bound to see some instruments that you look at and wonder, “What’s that?”

“There are unusual instruments, but to me what’s really unusual is the combination of instruments,” Cord says. “And I have to say this is a total first for Silkroad.  We’ve never toured with this instrumentation before.”

In the November 5 concert at Penn State, Silkroad musicians will blend improvised electronics with classical stringed instruments, a trumpet, and traditional instruments like the kehmancheh, a kind of Iranian fiddle, and the pipa, an ancient Chinese instrument.

“Well the pipa is a Chinese plucked instrument,” Cord explains. “It has four strings. I think your listeners could probably just think about it as part of the guitar family.  The pipa is played on the lap, but in a vertical way. And Wu Man likes to joke that it took about a thousand years of migration from the middle east to china, for the pipa to become upright.”

Cord loves his time on stage, blending different cultures with Silkroad.  But for him, it’s about more than just music.

“For me it becomes a model of a society that I really want to live in, all the time. There’s an element of fun, of exploration. You know, sometimes being out of your comfort zone, but being supported by those around you.  There’s a feeling of sharing: with each other, but also with the audience. It’s like the moment that we all cherish and live for.”

Thirteen members of the Silkroad Ensemble will enjoy one of those cherished moments Tuesday night, at Penn State.

Kristine Allen is Program Director of WPSU-FM. She also files feature stories for WPSU on the arts, culture, science, and more. When she's not at WPSU, Kris enjoys playing folk fiddle, acting, singing and portrait-sketching. She is also a self-confessed "science geek." Kris started working in public radio in college, at age 17, and says she "just couldn't stop."