Off The Map is the Silk Road Ensemble's first CD without the direct musical participation of Yo-Yo Ma, the founder of the group and, as far as I can tell, performer in the world premieres of all four pieces on the disc, at Carnegie Hall, September 2006, following a Tanglewood Workshop project. But Ma was rarely a "star" performer in any of the works written for this chamber ensemble of Eastern and Western instruments, and a press release does say he "offered his artistic direction on the CD" at hand, where Eric Jacobsen plays the cello parts. Off the Map joins four previous Silk Road CDs (including Traditions and Transformations, with Chicago Symphony participation, reviewed here last year) with all the joyful energy, dazzle of instrumental colors and serene beauty that listeners have come to expect from the group.
The title of the album may be intended to connote
adventurous repertoire and departure from Western norms, but if we take the Silk
Road literally — stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean through Central
Asia to Western China — the composers at hand are indeed off that map.
Gabriela Lena Frank is an American whose mother was Peruvian; Angel Lam is from
Hong Kong and
Frank's Ritmos Anchinos is essentially a chamber concerto for pipa with sheng and string quartet. World Village's booklet provides an interview with each composer but no information on the non-Western instruments; however, the Silk Road Project's website provides pictures of each instrument, so the inquisitive can learn that the pipa is a Chinese lute, plucked but sometimes played mandolin-style, and the sheng is a Chinese mouth-organ. Also not found in the booklet (but available on Carnegie Hall's website) is the meaning of the title: "Anchino" is the composer's pun on chino and andino, so the piece is "Chinese/Andean Rhythms." It's a three-movement work in which the Chinese instruments make allusions to various Peruvian plucked and blown instruments. There are striking alternations between slow, melancholy passages and either sprightly or forceful rhythmic sections. An extended cadenza for the delicate pipa is found midway through the vigorous finale, with the bigger-voiced Western strings providing incisive accompaniment throughout. Wu Man, a stalwart of the Silk Road Ensemble who can also be heard playing the delightful Lou Harrison Pipa Concerto on the CSO disc [CSO-Resound CSOR 901 801], offers a richly characterful performance.
Evan Ziporyn's Sulvasutra might be described as a concerto for tabla, the drum of classical Indian music, accompanied by pipa and string quartet, except that the tabla (played here by Sandeep Das) is perfectly interwoven with the twangy pluckings of the pipa and a variety of waveline surges and sustained notes of the Western strings. The actual Sulvasutra is an ancient Vedic sutra "that describes the proper proportions for sacrificial altars," according to the booklet interview with the composer. Thus Sulvasutra might be said to be about an intersection of mathematics, spirituality, and musical inspiration. The three movements, played without pause, are titled Ka (secret name of a Hindu creator deity), Agni (god of fire), and Letter to Pythagoras (3/4/5) (alluding to the sides of a right triangle) — or in the composer's words, starting with "the source," then "the spread of knowledge," leading to "the arrival, the Eureka moment." Overall, the piece builds from an eerily hushed beginning, before the tabla's dramatic entrance, to a rhythmically very intricate finale; the listener might be reminded of both Steve Reich and Indian ragas at times.
To conclude the program, Osvaldo Golijov's Air
to Air includes the largest orchestration on the CD: all the players
from the preceding works except for Das on the tabla, plus Galician bagpipe,
kamancheh (Persian spiked fiddle), jang-go (Korean hourglass drum), nay
(Persian/Azerbaijani flute), a lot more percussion, and "laptop," presumably
to cue in the prerecorded liturgy used in the third movement. Again, I found it
frustrating not to have more concrete information about the piece in the booklet
interview (and the Internet provided no help that I could locate). But the four
connected movements of this suite are all based on pre-existing materials:
Christian and Muslim Arab melodies in the first; a Christian-Arab Good Friday
service in the second; "prayers to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe" (
With its extremely varied moods and spectacular display of the instruments, Air to Air is an excellent finale for a Silk Road concert — and creates quite a racket in its bolder passages. Each movement has its own fascinations. The first has sections alternating between Galician-bagpipe wailings, a pulse-racing Arab dance, and a plaintive melody (featuring the kamancheh, I think) that may be Christian-Arab but reminds me in its opening phrase of the D. L. Moody hymn "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning." The "Good Friday" movement could be called an adagio arabesque, while the third movement, equally slow and delicate but in its own way, interweaves a variety of instruments with the pre-recorded Mexican chant. The brief finale is fast, densely scored, and raucous, with yelps and other vocalisms from players toward the end.