The Silk Road Ensemble and the biggest possible idea

Silkroad Ensemble
Harvard Arts Blog

By Andrew Chow

Start with a virtuoso celebrity cellist and add instrumentalists from across the globe, and you could end up with We Are the World redux. Instead, the Silk Road Ensemble has been a breathtaking stimulator of cultural diplomacy, education and goodwill during the 16 years since it was founded. The musicians have not only carved out a niche of world music that simply did not exist earlier, but they have served as global leaders in bringing communities and cultures together. Ten members of the Silk Road Ensemble visited Harvard for the annual OFA Arts Leaders reception on April 16 to meet with student leaders in dance, music, theater, visual arts and writing. Through music and conversation, they gave students a glimpse of why their group is so powerful on a global level.

The Silk Road Ensemble is fronted by cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76; he is the engine and the manic burst of energy that propels the group into uncharted territories. But for the ensemble’s first performance – an arrangement actually written for this particular event – Ma sat patiently in the back of the group, listening to the many talented musicians around him solo and play off each other. Kojiro Umezaki entered first on his shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, and his solo morphed into a delicate section on the Chinese pipa by Wu Man. After Sandeep Das then set up a groove on the Indian tabla, rest of the group jumped in, chugging out background figures behind Cristina Pato’s wailing Galician bagpipe melody. The ensemble may be anchored by Ma, but the talent and experience of each member means that anyone can take the reins at any time.

Conversely, each musician can drop into a supporting role as well: The members are always listening and responding, learning and teaching. “Since we’re passionate people, we’re constantly learning,” Ma said. “As soon as we learn something, we’re ready to share it, because then you actually get to empty your mind so you can receive more knowledge.” This selfless sharing impulse is apparent not only in their music performance – which abounds with eye contact, physical movement and laughter – but also in discussion. Members constantly referencing back to what others have previously said, making it clear that their listening ideal is not just rhetoric but influences their whole mode of interaction.

It’s amazing how unified the sound is, and percussionist Joseph Gramley admits that it took a while for the group to come together as a unit. After all, they have two huge goals: to create a harmonious, interdependent orchestra out of diverse musical parts, and change the world doing so. But the group is able to keep motives in perspective. “We don’t necessarily always start from the biggest possible idea, rather a place of personal passion,” said violist Nick Cords. “If we can infect the person next to us in the ensemble with that passion, the project just grows.”

After the event, I lingered to talk to the musicians, who were gracious and talkative. Ma was surrounded, and by the time I reached him 20 or so minutes after the event ended, he was still as energetic and passionate as he was at the start, going off about how new technologies can enact change and the difference between critical and intuitive thinking. “You have the choice of inventing the solutions that brains like mine are too addled to deal with,” he said excitedly. It is that choice and talent with which the Silk Road expands its crossroads every year, with the exuberant cellist at the helm.