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.
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.
"It's also about renewal. We always say, 'What's the next new thing?' At a very basic level, this is about what we choose to pass on to our children."
Silk Road's largest donor and creative partner is the Geneva/Paris-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture, sponsors of the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia. The Silk Road Project became both an extension and a catalyst of the trust's ongoing music programs involving performances, research, documentation, and education.
In working with local presenters, the project also hopes to foster a sense of celebration of musical diversity within individual communities. Ma says a long-term goal of the project is to combine old and new knowledge.
"The two never sit very well comfortably, but I think if they do sit together in one room and talk, interesting things can happen," Ma says.
The largest and most complex Silk Road event planned thus far is a co-production with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival of Summer 2002 in Washington. The 34-year-old festival, the city's largest annual cultural event, will feature the Silk Road as its theme, the only time the festival has produced a single-themed event. Involving roughly 400 musicians, dancers, artisans, culinary experts, and sportsmen from Silk Road lands, it was conceived as the culminating and final event of the project.
However, because of burgeoning interest in the Silk Road Project's programs, another year of activities has been added.
And despite the fact that funding is scheduled to end in two years, interest in the project may parlay the initiative into an organization with ongoing programs.
The Silk Road Project's creators expect it to include educational activities and to explore other artistic domains. For the next two years, however, the focus is on music.
"Trying to show relationships between traditional creativity and contemporary creativity is one of our principal goals," Mr. Levin says. "That has not been shown much in the world of classical music, though even in Western classical music, many of our most cherished forms arose out of folk music. It's rare to find concerts that juxtapose classical forms with their folk or popular inspirations."
Though some critics have questioned the possible dilution of traditional voices through such multicultural fusions, Levin insists that the goal is just the opposite.
"We're trying to open people's ears to the wonderful musical diversity of our planet," Levin says. "We're trying to promote a sense of the circulation of music and culture through human societies that helps us better understand how we're all related one to another."
For more information, visit www.silkroadproject.org.