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The Silk Road Ensemble Interprets Dunhuang through Spontaneous Live Music

06.13.16
Silkroad Ensemble
The Iris

The medieval Silk Road connected Europe and Asia for a thousand years through trade. In the 21st century, the Silk Road Ensemble does the same through music. Founded in 2000 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Ensemble is a network of 20 performers from Iran, Japan, Switzerland, the US, and countries in between, playing instruments as varied as viola (from 16th-century Italy) and pipa (from ninth-century China). In the same spirit, their concerts and recordings embrace both centuries-old melodies and contemporary compositions.

Musicians from the Ensemble are visiting the Getty this spring and summer for two-day residencies that are part research retreat, part public engagement. The musicians explore the exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang, exchange ideas about music and art with the exhibition’s curatorial team, meet with local students and teachers, and finish with spontaneous public performances across the Getty Center. Capping the summer, the musicians will unite to perform a live score for the silent movie Cave of the Silken Web on August 24, as well as for a concert with Yo-Yo Ma at the Hollywood Bowl on August 21.

Each musician also chooses a replica cave that particularly speaks to him or her, and offers a short pop-up concert to be filmed and shared online. These videos will be published on The Iris as they are edited and released.
  
On May 25 and 26 we welcomed Kojiro (Ko) Umezaki (shakuhachi), Sandeep Das (tabla), and Nicholas Cords (viola). All three were moved by the experience of the replica caves, which they visited as their first stop before exploring the galleries and 3D video with the curators. Over coffee, Sandeep—who has an infectious energy and an amazing talent for breaking into tabla-inspired vocal effects—suggested they come back the next morning and make music inside the caves.

Some more jet-lagged than others, the three returned to the Getty at 8am to perform short pieces chosen specifically for the cave setting. We filmed their performances and will post them here when edited. For a taste of Ko’s music, see this Facebook Live clip of his pop-up performance on the shakuhachi on the Getty Center plaza, which was the final note of this mini-residency. 
 
Before their performance, each musician previewed for us what the caves inspired in them.

The Divine in the WindKo was inspired by the mendicant monks wearing patchwork robes depicted in Cave 285 and chose to perform a medieval composition, “Empty Bell”:

“One of the original pieces in the repertoire for the shakuhachi has a story attached to the originator of the Japanese Fuke sect of Buddhism. The monk Fuke was a bit of an eccentric, and would walk into town ringing his bell and saying things most people didn’t understand. One day he came into town with his followers, still ringing his bell, and said, ‘I’m going to get into a sarcophagus and ask my followers to nail it shut. Come back tomorrow and open it up, and I won’t be there.’ He’d said stuff like this so many times before that the people in the town [didn’t believe] him. But sure enough, the next day people opened the sarcophagus and he was no longer there. At that moment, they heard his bell ringing from somewhere in the empty sky. To commemorate that moment, one of his followers purportedly composed a piece, called ‘Empty Bell,’ that serves as one of the cornerstones of the repertoire for this instrument.

The piece is really boring [laughs], but it’s about breathing, and how within every breath you can create a sound that captures the entire universe. This idea—that the divine operates in the wind, in the sky, and in the upper reaches—is captured in this piece. There are nice connections between conceptual [elements] within the practice of Buddhism and the embodiment of it within the person, which are captured within Cave 285.” 
 
Read the rest of the review here