An interview with Grammy Award-winning music group Silk Road Ensemble

Nader Durgham
Senior Staff Writer

The Silk Road Ensemble, created in 1998 by Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, is part of an artistic organization called Silk Road. It brings together musicians from all over the world representing dozens of artistic traditions and creates music that engages difference, sparking radical cultural collaboration and passion-driven learning to build a more hopeful world. According to their website, they represent many countries from Spain and Japan to Syria and the United States.

Their most recent album “Sing Me Home”, which had a huge variety of music genres from all over the globe, won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. A documentary about them, “The Music of Strangers”, was also nominated for a Grammy.

The Silk Road Ensemble has several members coming from the Near East and has recently been working with Lebanon-based organizations association to help give positive education to refugees in the less-privileged areas of the country.

In an exclusive interview with Outlook, Liz Keller-Tripp, artistic administrator for Grammy Award-winning Silk Road Ensemble, talked about the ensemble, its goals, and how it stands out from other bands, orchestras and music groups.

Can you give us a short history about the Ensemble and how it came to be?

“Our founder Yo-Yo Ma had a vision twenty years ago to connect traditions that he wasn’t familiar with and people from all over the world whom he felt could learn from each other. He brought a huge assortment of musicians from different backgrounds to the grounds of Tanglewood, which belongs to the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts. They experimented for days and they learned about each other, their countries, their music, their instruments. What has essentially happened since is that we’ve grown to become a more organized group of people still trying to continuously learn from each other. We’re always looking for a wide span of perspectives in music and in background politics and geography and have a very devoted group of musicians, many of whom were there twenty years ago, along with several new friends, who are continuously creating something new, and that was the whole initial goal.”

What are the aims of the Silk Road Ensemble?

“We’re always working towards what we call radical cultural collaboration. What’s interesting is that the Ensemble members and staff think of that term in different ways. I currently think of it as always looking for new conversations and engaging someone you don’t know in a musical conversation so that you could always learn about each other. I think that we’re always asking a lot of questions. Currently, we’re thinking about ideas of home, community and belonging, especially as our networks keep on getting bigger across the world but we’re all trying to focus inward and keep a close circle around us as well. Therefore, I see it as a combination of always seeking out new friends, new conversations and issues to address in arts and culture but also maintaining a sense of community, empathy and understanding, which are universal values.”

You’re the artistic administrator of the Ensemble. Can you describe your profession in the ensemble? Also, how would you describe your experience with Silk Road as a whole?

“I’m involved in everything concerning the ensemble. The Ensemble is the main creative engine of the Silk Road organization and therefore I help plan tours, residencies at universities, activities in schools and activities abroad like what we are doing this week in Lebanon. I manage details with the music, the musicians, travel, technical needs, workshop formats and interacting with teachers and students. I’m basically in everything that involves the ensemble members.

As for my experience, I’ve been with Silk Road for about six years. It is ever-changing, I might think of several things one day, think I will have to develop them more, then find myself working on many other new things the next day. It is both fascinating and challenging. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world, which has become very important to me. I’ve learned a lot concerning the ‘music is the universal language’ cliché. It is more than that. It’s a conversation starter, a relationship builder and it’s something that immediately opens towards new worlds.

Before working with the Ensemble, I used to work with orchestras in the United States, and it’s a very different approach over there. It’s more like the musicians do all the presenting and the audience is just receiving whereas [at Silk Road], we try to make it more back and forth. That has been really remarkable to experience.”

The Silk Road Ensemble has many musicians from Lebanon and Syria as well as several projects in the region. What is the reason behind your particular interest in the Near East?

“There’s a lot of ways to answer that question. I have my personal interests in the region as I was here for five weeks during the summer trying to study Arabic. I love this city and this country, and this region is a very special one, so steeped in history and it is also very misunderstood, especially in the United States. We do have a number of musicians from the region that I’ve gotten to personally know along with their music. The way that they speak about their home countries and traditions is very special and it makes you want to learn more about what they are bringing to the Ensemble. Organization-wise, as I mentioned before, we’re always looking for places to have conversations with your friends but also, as we look ahead for the future, we’re looking for what we call “Lab Sites,” places across the world where we can really plant ourselves and get to know a community and start to work with local organizations.

Do you think this ensemble has an impact on people? Can you notice it when people hear them play?

“I definitely think it has an impact, in part because I know it has one on me. If I still feel an impact after six years of working with Silk Road, I know it is here. When people leave our concerts, they have a look on their face that’s both very excited and maybe a little like ‘What just happened?’ and I love knowing that people learned something. They don’t have to like everything they hear, but they try to understand it and I think our performances and workshops offer many ways into what we do. If one thing’s not working for you, something else will. What we try to do is tell stories through our songs and pieces.”

As you know, your latest album “Sing Me Home” won a Grammy and your movie “The Music of Strangers” was nominated for one. Was winning a Grammy part of your initial goal? Did winning it for the album change anything?

“I doubt that anyone working for the album had a goal of winning an award for it, but what we wanted to do was to have it heard and listened to by a really wide variety of people which led us to engaging a wide variety of people on it. It was a nice way for us to highlight how we always like to work, by finding new people and discovering new places in music.

The film being nominated was unexpected and amazing. That combination of the film and the album gave us more of a spotlight in the world, more people had access to us and were paying attention to the group. We obviously felt the attention and opportunity that this gives us to share our values and engage new people in our work. I think we’re still working off of that energy and as we’re approaching our twentieth anniversary, it’s just an exciting time as a whole.

This question is a bit technical: how do you go about selecting your new band members?

“There is no single answer to that question either. Basically, there is no audition process. It’s like a dinner party where a group of friends always gets together on a regular basis and every now and then someone mentions a new great friend they’ve met. That friend then starts coming to the dinner parties and that’s how several musicians have joined the Ensemble. The dinner party just keeps getting bigger and crazier and more fun.

How do you choose your music?

“We get really excited when one of the musicians or ensemble members wants to start writing for the group. They’ve been listening to the group for several years and can be attracted to a specific sound and would want to try writing for the group. Therefore, a number of them have written pieces, which is basically something they’d like to play with their friends.

There are also many composers around the world that we’re close with and write for us in really special ways. We know a composer in Uzbekistan, for example, who knows the ensemble so well that he regularly writes for them. He’s a real storyteller in his work which makes us really enjoy working with his music.

There are also constant newcomers. The musicians get to know them and their different lives and start to hear something that could really work as an ensemble piece. This brings us back to the whole idea of the dinner party.

Now that we have a big number of members and are more selective when it comes to new musicians and music, we are facing a little challenge. We discover some great music and we wouldn’t like to just use it once. There are a lot of factors related to how we want the mood to be while listening to our music.”

Finally, what advice would you give to passionate musicians who also have a message to send and would also like to be heard?

“To use and harness that passion for sure. For every minute that you spend practicing, you need to spend multiple minutes out in the world conversing and identifying problems where you could try to help with your art and finding creative solutions to non-musical concerns. I think artists are so much more than performers now, which is a must in order to be successful. There is an opportunity to use music, dance, or any art to tell a story or to shed a light on an issue no one is paying attention to, to fund raise. Musicians have a big challenge now to have a conversation that is much bigger than the traditional music environment.”

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