Silk Road Notes


Born in 1963 in Iran, Kayhan is of Kurdish descent. He began studying music at the age of seven, and is considered a master of the kamancheh, a bowed Persian spike fiddle. Gallop of a Thousand Horses is based on the folk melodies of the Turkmen people, who live in northeastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and parts of several other nations. The nomadic Turkmen are deeply connected to their horses, and this piece suggests the wild freedom of a large herd crossing the plains. The rhythms of the tombak (Persian drum) are complemented by the sense of motion provided by the kamancheh and other strings. Gallop of a Thousand Horses was recorded by the Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma on Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (Sony Classical 2005). 

ZHAO JIPING (b. 1945)

Born in Xi’an, China, Zhao Jiping is perhaps best known for his award-winning film scores to Farewell My Concubine, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern. His work Sacred Cloud Music is built around one of the earliest extant pieces of Chinese music, Qingyun Yue (“Auspicious Cloud Music”), dating to 640AD. Originally written for guqin, a seven-stringed Chinese zither, Qinyun Yue was transnotated from two later manuscripts by ethnomusicologist Rembrandt Wolpert and interpreted for pipa (Chinese lute) by Wu Man.

KINAN AZMEH (b. 1976)

Ibn Arabi Postlude was adapted for the Silk Road Ensemble by Syrian composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and comes from his orchestral work The Ibn Arabi Suite (commissioned by the Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra). The work was inspired by the writings of Ibn Arabi, an Arab Muslim mystic and Su philosopher who traveled from Andalusia to Damascus in the 13th century seeking knowledge. Kinan was struck by Ibn Arabi’s philosophy that love and free thinking are as sacred as any religious beliefs. About the music, which is in a 15/8 meter, he says, “The piece blurs the lines between the composed and the improvised and can be described as an obsessive ritualistic dance in the maqam, or melodic form, known as Kurd.”

BELA BARTOK (1881-1945)
ROMANIAN FOLK DANCES (arr. Arthur Willner)

One of the greatest contributions Bartók made to the music world, besides his own array of works, was the magnitude of field recordings of traditional folk music he gathered, collected, and organized over the course of his life. His discovery of their tonal world also was reflected in the scope of his output: “the outcome of these studies was of decisive influence upon my work because it freed me from the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys. The greater part of the collected treasure, and the more valuable part, was in the old ecclesiastical or old Greek modes, or based on more primitive (pentatonic) scales, and the melodies were full of the freest and most varied rhythmic phrases and changes of tempi. It became clear to me that the old modes, which had been forgotten in our music, had lost nothing of their vigor. Their new employment made new rhythmic combinations possible.”

Realizing that much of the folk music that had found its way into the Romantic music of Liszt, for example, had little to do with the original songs, Bartók set out to write simple accompaniments, altering the original tunes as little as possible. Thus, rather than dismantling them and repurposing the parts, he simply provided frames in which to showcase the content.


What seems most central to this piece is that it follows a process of accumulation and subsequent reversal. The opening descending dyads, followed by a repeating bass line over which the melody eventually enters, all feed into an electronically sustained accumulation of sound. Then, a pivot. The process reverses in a slightly different context, each new note subtracting itself from the amassed sonic material until none remains. Alongside working on this piece I was reading Charles Seife's wonderful Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea in which embracing zero as its own entity and an equal partner to infinity, among many other attributes, was an attractive thought to reflect upon. This work was commissioned by and written for Joseph Gramley. (Kojiro Umezaki)

VIJAY IYER (b. 1971)

The two-millennium-old Central Asian interzone that appears to us in and around the town of Dunhuang sheds light on our current moment as much as it tells us about the past. A splendid assemblage of painted murals found in several hundred hand-carved cave temples nearby – the so-called Mogao (“Peerless”) Grottoes, built up over nine centuries – reveal to us a deliriously hybrid Buddhism informed by Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, early Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, and Manichaeism. In these caves we see evidence of an organic globalism emerging in Dunhuang from the movements and interactions of Chinese, Indian, Central Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern peoples along the Silk Road. Dunhuang itself was known in earlier eras as Shazhou, from the Arabo-Persian Saju, which means “City of Sand.”

Theater director Peter Sellars brought this improvised cultural aggregate to my attention, through his project on the Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana scripture that is depicted in some of the murals in Cave 17. In this text, the titular protagonist, a layman, performs miracles for a gathering audience of bodhisattvas, monks, and disciples, and offers insights on a number of central Buddhist tenets, most famously the “voidness” of all worldly phenomena, which he expresses in a “lion’s roar” of silence.

The experiences we associate with the Silk Road -- migration, discovery, encounter, interaction -- all depend on improvisation: our capacity to sense, decide, and act in relation to each other. Composing this piece was a puzzle for me at first; it was not immediately obvious how to merge different musical sensibilities and sonic languages. Eventually, through speculating about Dunhuang’s deep past, I realized that just as in these caves, and just as in culture as a whole, individual and collective improvisation would help us make the most of our shared presence. I thank the wonderful performers of A Far Cry and Silk Road Ensemble for rising to this occasion. (Vijay Iyer)

SANDEEP DAS (b. 1971)

Tarang is based on the exchange of improvised and extemporaneous solos between non-Western percussion instruments and Western strings. As Sandeep explains: “I imagined that the merchants or early travelers of the Silk Road may have interacted at first very simply – for example, through rhythm. When I composed this piece, I wanted to bring common elements of rhythm from the Silk Road countries such as a six-beat cycle (Dadra) and 16-beat cycle (Teen Taal).” The strings provide a drone and melodic lines to support these rhythmic weavings.


In the heart of Finland, in the region of Central Ostrobothnia, is the small county of Kaustinen, a municipality that has become known as the nation’s fiddling capital. It is home not only to the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, the largest in Scandinavia, but also to the Finnish fiddling group Järvelän Pikkupelimannit, more commonly known as JPP. In English this name translates to “Little Fiddlers of Järvelä,” Järvelä being both a village in Kaustinen and a family from that village that employs a fiddling tradition dating back to the 19th century. Founded in 1982, JPP is comprised of fiddlers Arto Järvelä, Mauno Järvelä, Matti Mäkelä, and Tommi Pyykönen, bassist Antti Järvelä, and harmonium player Timo Alakotila. (Karl Doty) 


I came across the Swedish fiddling duo of Mia and Mikael Marin in the summer of 2013 on the recommendation of a friend who had just attended one of Mia’s fiddling workshops. I was instantly taken with their music, both their original compositions as well as wonderful arrangements of traditional Swedish Polskas, a whirling dance with a combination of light (short) and heavy (long) steps. Their album Skuggspel quickly became one of my favorites and I started to imagine these tunes on a larger scale for string orchestra. My deepest gratitude goes out to Mia Marin for her graciousness and enthusiasm for these new arrangements. (Erik Higgins)


Throughout musical history, the transcription of folk melodies has been an abundant source of compositional material. Turceasca, the signature piece of the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks (the Band of Brigands), is based on a traditional Turkish song and reflects the richness and complexity of a truly international collaborative work. In 1991, Taraf de Haïdouks, Roma musicians from a small village in southwest Bucharest, performed outside their country for the first time. Their music drew such interest that filmmaker Tony Gatlif featured them in his documentary film about the music of the Roma, Latcho Drom. Composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose broad, eclectic musical training (including Western classical, Jewish liturgical, klezmer and Argentinian tango) made him an ideal translator, worked with the band to arrange Turceasca for the Kronos Quartet as well as subsequent arrangements for the Silk Road Ensemble and A Far Cry.

Program notes written by Kathryn Bacasmot, Nicholas Cords, Karl Doty, Erik Higgins, Isabelle Hunter, Vijay Iyer, and Kojiro Umezaki.