Album review: The Silk Road Ensemble – Sing Me Home

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Beautiful and often transcendent music—when it sticks to its core values.
Genre: World fusion/classical crossover/roots music
Country: USA
Release date: April 22, 2016
Label: Sony Masterworks (vinyl release by Music on Vinyl)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: MOVCL025

Personnel:
Kinan Azmeh – clarinet
Cameron Beauchamp – vocals
Jeffrey Beecher – bass
Michael Ward Bergeman – accordion
Mike Block – cello
Roberto Comesaña – accordion
Shawn Conley – bass
Nicholas Cords – viola
Sandeep Das – tabla
Toumani Diabaté – kora
Lisa Fischer – vocals
Bill Frisell – electric guitar
Haruka Fujii – percussion
Johnny Gandelsman – violin
Rhiannon Giddens – vocals
Esteli Gomez – vocals
Joseph Gramley – percussion, marimba, vibraphone
Martin Hayes – violin (Irish fiddle)
Colin Jacobsen – violin
Eric Jacobsen – cello
Sarah Jarosz – vocals
Kayhan Kalhor – kamanche
Shujaat Khan – sitar, vocals
Balla Kouyaté – balafon
Yo-Yo Ma – music director, cello
Jessie Montgomery – violin
Dimo Orsho – vocals
Cristina Pato – gaita, piano
Anxo Pintos – hurdy-gurdy
Gregory Porter – vocals
Willa Roberts – vocals
Davide Salvado – vocals, tambourine
Shane Shanahan – percussion
Caroline Shaw – vocals
Sarah Small – vocals
Mark Suter – percussion
Shelley Thomas – vocals
Kojiro Umezaki – shakuhachi
Virginia Warnken – vocals
Abigail Washburn – banjo, vocals
Kaoru Wantanabe – taiko drums
Wu Man – pipa
Wu Tong – bawu, sheng, suono, vocals
Reylon Yount – yangqin

1.

Green (Vincent’s Tune) 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up

Wu Tong/Silk Road Ensemble

4:23

2.

O’Neill’s Cavalry March

Traditional Irish

2:42

3.

Little Birdie

Traditional American

2:48

4.

Ichichila

Traditional Malian

6:30

5.

Sadila Jana 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up

Traditional Macedonian

3:27

6.

Shinigashi Song

Traditional Japanese

5:05

7.

Madhoushi 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up

Ustad Vilayat

9:36

8.

Wedding 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up

Silk Road Ensemble

6:07

9.

Going Home (New World Symphony extract)

Antonin Dvorák/William Arms Fisher

5:31

10.

Cabaliño 16x16-black-white-thumbs-up

Traditional Galician

7:41

11.

St. James Infirmary Blues

Traditional American

7:26

12.

If You Shall Return…

Silk Road Ensemble

6:50

13.

Heart and Soul

Hoagy Carmichael

3:56

Total running time:

1:12:02

After the decline of the Romantic movement after World War I and the subsequent rise of atonal, serialist, and other esoteric styles, Western orchestral art music has largely been confined to the academy, locked in on one side by the slavish adherence to 18th and 19th century traditions in its arsenal of sweet-sounding instruments that have been refined to the point of losing much of their original character, and on the other by abstract “scientific” ideas of composition that are long on clever tricks and abstruse theory but very short on actually connecting emotionally to audiences, as exemplified by Milton Babbit’s absurd essay Who Cares if You Listen? from 1958. Displaced first by jazz and later by the explosion of popular American-derived youth music from the Baby Boomer era onward, orchestral music is now most often heard is severely bastardized form as film soundtrack music—orchestral music of recent composition made to be listened to for its own sake is rare. Orchestral music of recent composition, made to be listened to for its own sake, that is any good is an entirely different level of rarity. That makes the Silk Road Ensemble a very special group.

The brainchild of virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Silk Road Ensemble is named after the medieval trade corridor stretching from Spain to the shores of China, which not only facilitated the spread of goods and money, but also technologies, knowledge, and culture across the vast landmass of Eurasia, before its disintegration in the 15th century at the hands of the first wave of European conquerors. Like its namesake, the Silk Road Ensemble reconnects European musical arts to the rest of Eurasia as part of a community, not as enemies or overlords, and refreshes the stagnant ivory tower of Western classical music with outside perspectives and new musical ideas.

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Yo-Yo Ma’s cello costs more money than you will ever see in your entire life.

The Silk Road Ensemble freely mix and intertwine musical concepts, theories, and forms from many Eurasian cultures, blending them together as if they had always been meant to sound like this. The Western orchestra has been pared down mostly to a string section, with the woods and percussion mostly filled out with Asian instruments—kamanches from the Caucasus, tabla from India, shakuhachi and taiko from Japan, and a huge array of Chinese classical instruments, some of which sound entirely unlike anything in the European classical tradition. These instruments have a much less glossy and homogenous sound—some are breathy, some are earthy, some screech or sigh or wail, but all have quirks and idiosyncrasies untouched by European instrument makers’ obsession with “perfect” sound that is generically pretty through the entire range, which makes me wonder if the Silk Road Ensemble would not be better off for introducing the less refined Baroque versions of orchestral instruments in place of the modern ones. A few rustic European instruments traditionally considered too “coarse” for the orchestra, like the hurdy-gurdy, make the occasional appearance, and fit in perfectly.

The scales, melodies, structures, and idioms derived from non-European musics are fresh in this classical setting but, unlike the icy esotericism of modernist composers, excite emotions and passions—they’re beautiful in their own right, not merely clever. The occasional bit of jazz-based improvisation is sometimes seen to weld together musical ideas, but they rely primarily on Western, Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese classical compositional techniques to build their pieces out of. Such a motley assortment of cultures whose equal exchange of ideas has been warped by five hundred years of European imperialism shouldn’t work, but it does. There are remarkably few seams in the compositions; the pieces fall neatly into place and transitions happen smoothly and professionally.

It’s kind of disappointing then that this, their first album to be released on a vinyl record, steps away somewhat from their bold Eurasian classical vision and focuses more on the “home” implied by its title—national roots musics, old-time New World folk, blues, and soul standards, stuff that’s very nice for what it is but seems frankly beneath the talents of this diverse and incredibly powerful small orchestra. The American pieces are especially unwelcome—out of place with their predictable, pop-based progressions and stilted English singing, and shot through with cheap sentimentality. How many people really wanted to hear Silk Road Ensemble interpret a pop standard by Hoagy Carmichael, or the cloyingly saccharine “Little Birdie” made famous by Pete Seeger? Or, for that matter, the overplayed to the point of vulgarity second movement of Dvorák’s New World Symphony, saddled with William Arms Fisher’s dreadful 1894 lyrical treatment that turns it into an ersatz black spiritual. The original Fisher lyrics are interwoven with a Chinese translation that is better not only because Wu Tong’s operatic soprano is far superior to Abigail Williams’ breathy, cigarette-addled contralto, but also because the lyrics being in Mandarin means I can no longer understand them.

The sound quality of the vinyl is fantastic, with a rich, deep soundstage that provides the sense of space and physicality appropriate to a large acoustic ensemble. The dynamic range will blow away people used to harsh rock and pop CDs, with the music exploding from delicate and gossamer-thin to thunderously loud at a moment’s notice, and imploding back on itself just as quickly. The bass frequencies are strong but well-controlled, obscuring none of the details of the instruments. With the relatively small orchestra used here, relatively quiet instruments like the double bass (which gets many excellent parts where it plays independently instead of following the cello) are allowed to be heard very clearly. However, the digital version I’ve heard online does not sound nearly as impressive, with the dynamics suppressed and the dramatic changes from soft to loud or loud to soft coming off more like “a bit louder” or “a bit softer”.

When they stay away from the Americas, they come off much better. The opening “Green (Vincent’s Tune)”, composed by pipa (Chinese lute) player Wu Man, is an excellent overture that displays the Silk Road Ensemble’s strengths as well as Wu Man’s phenomenal pipa playing that could give almost any Spanish guitar master a run for his money. Nearly all of the Ensemble’s forces are on display in this densely arranged, highly textural piece, washing over the listener in waves of instrumental layering and throat singing from the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Oddly enough for a classical piece, this one feels a bit too short; it goes on for a bit over four minutes but seems like its ideas could comfortably support six.

Of the European roots tunes, my favorite is the Macedonian “Sadila Jana”, with its gorgeous three-part vocal harmonies using a round format in the equally gorgeous Macedonian language, carrying a mood of wistful, nostalgic melancholy. It is short and simple but very powerful in its use of somber modal scales and the way the music gradually and smoothly builds itself up and breaks itself down before ending with the same isolated, lonely vocal line it started with. The Galician “Cabaliño” is also excellent, much longer and more elaborate than “Sadila Jana”. Originally sung by farmhands to maintain the rhythm of work during the harvest, it has been completely transformed into a grim, sepulchral dirge held down by a deep bass pedal point, over which ride a desolate bagpipe lead and Davide Salvado’s dark, strongly melismatic vocals (a North African influence from the medieval Moorish era, perhaps?). If there is a harvest going on here, it must be a poor one indeed—the tone is one of overwhelming sorrow and despair. About two thirds of the way through, in a sharp and almost progressive rock-like transition, it suddenly speeds up into an almost jig-like rhythm, still gloomy but not as all-consuming as the earlier part. The intensity starts to build as more instruments come in and Yo-Yo Ma gets a lovely, extended solo on the cello leading into a fast, aggressive ending theme that discharges all the accumulated energy in an explosive finale.

Shinigashi Song” is not one Japanese traditional piece but two, woven around one another in a musical dialogue like the two contrasting themes from Rachmaninoff’s “The Cliff” or Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia”. One is solemn and stately, the other quick and lively, the contrast emphasized by the use of dark, heavy taiko in the sections belonging to the former piece and the lighter, quicker tabla in the bits belonging to the latter. Eventually the two combine with one another, with the melodies and rhythms merging as the heavier theme speeds up and the lighter one starts to gain gravity, while the taiko and tabla start to play together instead of separately. I find the ending a bit inconclusive though—the piece builds towards a full synthesis of the two themes but at the end splits them again and just comes to a stop, as if the composer couldn’t figure out how to merge them completely.

“Madhoushi” is another highlight, a modified raga incorporating European-style arrangements written by guest musician Shujaat Khan. His sitar chops are excellent but the composition is even better, a kaleidoscopic swirl of melodies with counterpoint stacked three or even four layers deep while still managing to remain coherent. The level of coordination among the melodic instruments is simply stunning—there is a huge amount going on at any one time, but it never gets confusing or disjointed, the huge array of moving parts working together in absolute synchronicity. People who appreciate the heavy polyphony of Bach and other late Baroque composers will find this a real treat, as it is a glorious example of how to have several different, independent melodies play together simultaneously and make perfect sense.

However, the album’s biggest standout of all is the Silk Road original “Wedding”, a piece of partially improvised program music depicting a wedding party in Syria. One might almost call this jazz-classical fusion with its heavy use of improvisation and the angular, odd-time pizzicato bass rhythm that would not be out of place on an ECM Records jazz album. However, this has way more drive, intensity, and musicianship than a piece of ECM jazz lounge music, proceeding at a rapid clip with strong, memorable themes, lightning-fast bursts of lead playing from the high-register instruments, and enthralling rhythmic interplay between the bass and the tabla drums. The music builds and builds as the party goes on, the tablas driving the orchestra faster and faster into an ecstatic frenzy with Dima Orsho’s incredibly agile vocals easily keeping place with the violins in thrilling unisons as the piece barrels towards its sharp and sudden conclusion.

The last remaining Silk Road composition, “If you Shall Return…”, is a disappointment compared to the others. It features the talents of ECM Records guitarist Bill Frisell, and, well it sounds like the sort of music Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie, etc. normally play. Some people like this sort of thing; I don’t. It is slow, mild, and soporific, with unchallenging melodies, simplistic arrangements, and wispy, dreamy electric guitar lines based on blues scales from Frisell. Yeah, it’s nice, but shouldn’t art music evoke feelings more powerful than “that’s nice”? Where’s the drama? The fact that this leads into an equally flaccid closing piece, the aforementioned Hoagy Carmichael cover “Heart and Soul”, throws a wet blanket over the entire ending to the album, the point where a music recording should reach the height of intensity and musical ambition, not the nadir.

Another problem with these weaker tracks is that they just don’t have to be here. The album is thirteen tracks and over seventy minutes long. Taking out the English language tracks and “If You Shall Return…” would pare it down to 45 minutes, a perfectly fine length for an album, and one that fits neatly on a single LP instead of two. However, when they do focus on their core values of merging European, Asian, and in the case of “Ichichila”, a quick diversion into African classical music traditions into a modern synthesis of composed art music, they are always great and at times glorious. People who appreciate classical music, detailed compositions, instrumental virtuosity, and the breaking of musical boundaries owe it to themselves to listen to this record, but expect some filler in there too.

Rating: 80%

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