Finding a musical route between East and West

The ancient Silk Road opened up a swath of trade between countries from the Mediterranean and China some 2,000 years ago. But more than just oil and beads traded hands. Culture, in all its forms, traveled up and down the old merchant routes, spreading ideas from one civilization to the next.

Today, cellist Yo-Yo Ma has adopted the name for a project he hopes will show just how profound the exchange of ideas between cultures can be. His Silk Road includes community workshops, new compositions, festivals, and musician exchanges.

The Chinese-born musician views his Oscar-nominated performance on the soundtrack of the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," as yet another step along that new-old road.

"I read the script, and I thought, this is what I love to do with all the Silk Road projects, take different genres that have existed in other ways and times and see how those genres can be renewed," Mr. Ma says. "I'm always interested in how the next generation will pick things up."

What the world-renowned cellist says he would like to see happen, both in this film and other projects,is to not separate the old and new knowledge. "New music, new knowledge is happening so fast and culture doesn't sit comfortably between the old and the new, but I think that if you brought them together, you'd get a different kind of creativity," he says.

The film score combines haunting cello tracks using a traditional Western emphasis on harmony and melody, with more Eastern tonalities, based on different notions of harmony and melody.

"What we're trying to do in the film [score], as well as in real life, is to figure out what are the impediments to communicating and contacting one another," Ma says.

"We need things to bridge between the East and West," says composer Tan Dun, who wrote the film score. "In this film, Yo-Yo is the bridge: his instrument, and the way he could play his instrument, [is] the bridge between the two cultures."

Mr. Dun's biggest challenge, says the composer, who developed an international reputation with his controversial opera "Peony Pavilion," was in blending the Eastern and Western orchestras.

"This is a fusion of tonal color that we've never seen or heard before," he says. "You hear the cello sliding and using fingering that makes it sound like a mystic, faraway instrument. Meanwhile, you hear this huge chunk of action music."

Dun says the music expresses the two different musical traditions. "Eastern music uses the simple to represent the grand - a single mournful sound, perhaps. But the other, Western culture, has [a] more profound counterpoint and uses a big sound with very colorful harmony."

The differences are philosophical, as well. "In the East, you perform for yourself, not a large audience. It's meditative; you have a dialogue with yourself," Dun says. "Western culture has some of this, but is also very developed as a performing art, a communication between a large mass and a single human being."

The process of bringing these two traditions together fits well with Ma's goal of bridging cultures through his Silk Road project, Dun says.

"To me, Yo-Yo is a special kind of person, I don't see him as either Eastern or Western. He sticks with his wonderful instruments, and it's always like he's in his own world. As a composer, you don't feel any limitation or worry when you start thinking about working with him in any musical color."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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