East Meets West in Yo-Yo Ma's New Project ; Silk Road Project Uses Universal Language of Music to Foster Unity

Article excerpt

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls it "the Internet of antiquity," but throughout history, it has been called simply "The Silk Road."

The massive trade route connecting Asia with Europe, from the first millennium BC through the middle of the second millennium AD, was actually a web of routes that crisscrossed Eurasia from China and Japan to Italy, serving as a vital conduit for not only material goods - such as silk and gunpowder - but knowledge, information, and ideas.

It is perhaps civilization's greatest symbol of global scientific and cultural exchange, fostering the tolerance, understanding, and appreciation of disparate traditions.

In much the same way, Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, launched by the internationally acclaimed cellist in 1998, has developed into a far-reaching network of different artistic, cultural, and educational endeavors involving organizations from East and West.

At the heart of the Silk Road Project is a series of festivals with partner cities and presenters in the United States, Europe, and Asia. The kickoff began in Germany earlier this week at the Schleswig- Holstein Musik Festival, and will extend through the next two years, ending with a tour of Central Asia in the spring of 2003.

"The Silk Road represents essentially the exchanges that happen between people for as long as people travel," says Mr. Ma, artistic director of the program.

"It's interesting from a present-day point-of-view because of that ever-present term 'globalization.' Somehow, to look at other times in history where there have been global moments, global cities, gives us a better perspective on what may be happening today, so we can interpret the present and in some ways plan for the future."

Led by Ma and executive director Theodore Levin, an ethnomusicologist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. - along with an international team of musicians, artists, and scholars - the project serves as an umbrella organization and common resource.

A deliberate culture clash

Ma says the goal is to resuscitate classical music within a broader global context while exploring the historical contributions of the Silk Road, "to illuminate the heritages of its countries and identify the voices that represent these traditions today."

Performances present indigenous musicians alongside Ma and musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble in traditional works from Silk Road countries, Western classical works influenced by Eastern traditions - and specially commissioned pieces, 22 in all, that reflect the spirit of the project. It's a kind of global "show and tell" that allows Ma and his associates to "bear witness" to the musical treasures that the project brings to life.

"By putting side by side traditional music like an ancient Persian [melody] with a newly composed piece of music that refers to that tradition, you can get a sense of evolution through time," Ma says. …