Silk Road Ensemble
New Music and Globalization, Part 1: Silk Road and Global Collaborations

New Music and Globalization, Part 1: Silk Road and Global Collaborations

Silk Road Ensemble

Silk Road Ensemble
Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography

There is little doubt: the particular phase of globalization we are living in (forged from a combination of post-Cold War politics, digital networks, global finance, free market ideology, and cheap travel) has had a major impact on the forms and presentation of art, music, and literature. Within the visual arts, this is a major topic of critical interest, and is widely seen to be manifest in the explosion since 1989 of art biennials. The form of the biennial, as a festival-like exhibition of work from around the world, certainly reflects some aspects of the global experience: the mixing and curation of international artists, the touristic approach to culture, and the boundaryless flow of international capital.

There isn’t really an equivalent in—for want of a better word—art music, even though many of the same structural changes apply. (World music is better served through projects such as WOMEX and WOMAD.) For all their strengths, new music festivals like Tanglewood or the Bang on a Can Marathon can’t attract the same sort of money (and therefore glamour and press attention) as the Whitney, São Paolo, or Venice biennials. Art, through the biennial, can become particularly symbolic of the flow of global capital—often concretely too, as works are bought and sold. Music, as a time-based art form rooted in experiences rather than in objects, cannot attract the same level of capital investment. When it does reflect the flows and structures of globalization, it therefore tends to bring other dimensions out.

In terms of curatorial impact, perhaps a closer analogy to the art biennial might be found among new music ensembles. Single concerts don’t do the same thing and new music festivals, unfortunately, don’t have the same impact. Ongoing projects, however, in which repertories can be collected and developed, in which a sense of global mobility can be projected through international tours and residencies, and for which financial support and prestige can be built up over time, offer a closer comparison.

One example is the Silk Road Project, founded by Yo-Yo Ma. With Ma as its chief advocate, Silk Road is capable of attracting a level of capital, interest, and prestige that is possibly unique in new music. In large part this is due to Ma’s superstar status, but there is also a correlation with the group’s commitment to a globalized, multicultural vision that operates outside of the usual channels of new music, and there is a case to be made that the “global music” angle that Silk Road promotes opens doors in ways that more conventional, “abstract” compositional approaches cannot do.

Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki
Photo by C Taylor Crothers

The Silk Road Project was founded in 1998 to “promote innovation and learning through the arts.”[1] At the heart of the concept is the network of ancient trading routes from India and China to Europe, which acts as “a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”[2] Two years later the Silk Road Ensemble was formed, a variable collective of around 60 musicians, artists, and storytellers that performs music in accordance with the Silk Road ethos. The ensemble’s members come from more than 20 countries, many of them along the Silk Road itself. They bring with them the instruments and traditions of their own countries—from the gaita bagpipes of Galicia as played by Cristina Pato to Kojiro Umezaki’s Japanese shakuhachi—taking in the instruments and musical styles of southeast Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, India, and China along the way.

The composers involved with the group are similarly diverse in origin. The ensemble has commissioned more than 80 original works and arrangements, most of them from composers originating from outside the conventional Western repertory. They include figures like the Azerbaijani Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, the Argentinean-born Osvaldo Golijov, and the American Vijay Iyer, all of whom have substantial careers beyond their Silk Road work. However, others are little known outside of this context, composers such as the Lebanese Rabih Abou-Khalil, the Tajik-Uzbek Alisher Latif-Zade, or the Mongolian Byambasuren Sharav.

The ethos of the Silk Road Project (with the ensemble as its most tangible manifestation) is built upon the principles of cultural exchange, learning, and understanding. As Ma explains it, modern-day cultural fragmentation can be resolved through the sharing and passing on of knowledge. In musical terms this might be accomplished by something as simple as adjusting your ear to the nuances of a new kind of scale, or a new rhythm. Music, as a flexible, intangible medium, is well suited to this sort of transformative synthesis, but the sympathetic adjustment Ma talks about acts as a metaphor for a more substantial kind of global harmony. Ma’s model is one of transparency, in which progress is achieved through the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, within a collaborative creative process.

When it appears on stage, the Silk Road Ensemble is a model of harmonious unity: despite the national costumes and range of instruments on display, the emphasis is on togetherness and coordination, audible through the music itself, and visible in the relaxed body language and constantly exchanged glances and smiles of the players.

But while Silk Road’s music is enjoyable, its goals laudable, and the musicians’ skills impressive, hybridization of this sort is not a perfect model for understanding or addressing the issues of modern-day globalization through music. At the heart of its model is the notion of collaboration, but as the scholar Timothy D. Taylor has observed, “collaboration” has become an ideology in world music, since at least Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland: “The term frequently appears as a sanitizing sign when western musicians work with nonwestern ones, making their music safe for mass consumption.”[3] Against the background of hybridizing collaboration, differences get softened, he argues, “making Others and their cultural forms desirable in new ways.”[4] As musicians are expected to alter their original sound in order to conform to international expectations, others are expected to produce hybrid musics. The result, reflected in the respective sales of field recordings versus hybridized world music, is that music that is hybridized—like Silk Road’s—is received as more authentic. This is what a global music is supposed to sound like, and so engaging with that process comes to be seen as a more authentic gesture than sticking to your (isolated) roots. As Taylor puts it again, “World musicians may not be expected to be authentic anymore in the sense of being untouched by the sounds of the West; now it is their very hybridity that allows them to be constructed as authentic.”[5]

For all its merits, then, Silk Road’s ideal of global interconnectedness is not without its problems. (I should mention that the biennial model is also much criticized.) This post is the first of four looking at the impact of globalization on the aesthetics of new music. In my remaining three I will look at some alternative approaches, and how they have made their way into the work of other American musicians.


[1] Silk Road Project website:

[2] Ibid.

[3] Timothy D. Taylor: Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 129

[4] Ibid., p. 126.

[5] Ibid., 144.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson is writing a book on music since 1989 for University of California Press. He lives in London and blogs at

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “New Music and Globalization, Part 1: Silk Road and Global Collaborations

  1. David Mendoza

    I disagree with your argument that Silk Road’s music “is not a perfect model for understanding or addressing the issues of modern-day globalization through music.” You and your quoting of Timothy Taylor point to Paul Simon’s Graceland as a background for understanding intercultural collaboration, but Graceland and the issues associated with it have nothing to do with what Silk Road is doing. Graceland gets talked about in every ethnomusicology class with regards to appropriation, but times have changed with that album’s release.
    I think if you ask the Silk Road’s kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor if his music is “being sanitized” I don’t think he would agree with you. There is a certain amount of give and take when people collaborate, but it’s not correct to say that the musicians are “expected to alter their original sound in order to conform to international expectations.” Some of the songs the Silk Road performs are well beyond the 3-minute radio durations. What you’re talking about really refers to the New Age albums of the 1980’s and 1990’s .
    Have you done much research into what Yo-Yo Ma calls cultural entrepreneurship? Many of these musicians who play erhu, kamancha, duduk, and so on are huge stars, make very good money, and are in high demand both in the West and the East. I think you should interview them before you make judgments in the name of political correctness.
    Also to say that Silk Road’s music is viewed as “more authentic” is strange because it’s actually the other way around. If anything Silk Road is susceptible to being labeled as pseudo-world music. It’s not traditional (not that traditional music is static) and it’s not Classical (not that Classical music is static either). Silk Road’s mission is not to make “authentic” music; their mission is to make intercultural music, or as Yo-Yo would say, cross-cultural music. I have never heard them say that their music is what “global music is supposed to sound like.” They are one of many ensembles out there doing intercultural music. I suggest you look at the Atlas Ensemble of Amsterdam and the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra for more examples of effective, positive, and inspiring intercultural collaborations.
    Another issue is that of identity. These boxes of Western and non-Western are out dated. Many people today have multiple identities and there’s nothing wrong with being bi-musical. If a person is of mixed heritage, say from a China and the US, then what would be an authentic musical expression from this person? If this person became a composer, are you saying that they would be inauthentic because they “sanitized” their music in some way? Again, these “boxes” people are being put into are quickly becoming out dated. I suggest you research the work of Kawme Anthony Appiah.
    What’s damaging about this article is that you inject fear into composers’ minds. Let me ask you, what’s wrong with writing for shakuhachi? What’s wrong with people coming together accepting and tolerating differences and finding common ground?

  2. Jon Silpayamanant

    The problem is, if it’s concert music then it’s already necessarily hybrid. Even were we to bring the indigenous musician to the stage that already places him or her in a completely foreign performing space.

    Not that I don’t agree that the Silk Road Ensemble is problematic on that level, but I also think we have to recognize that nearly any decontextualized music is a hybridization of some sort, and most of the evolution of any music that doesn’t stay local involves some measure of hybridization. Which begs the question that if the normal evolution of most musics is some form of hybridization, then why couldn’t that also be considered “authentic?”

    For example, it took Arab audiences decades to assimilate to the works of Mohammed Abdel Wahhab and other hybrid Arab ensembles formed after the Cairo Congress in 1930, but most folks from the region (as well as diasporans) today consider him to be one of the four pillars of true Arabic music.

    I think the danger is that since we’ve purportedly moved beyond that ethnocentric stage of only considering Western Art Music as progressive and as having evolved to that pinnacle of human achievement as opposed to the static and unchanging (thus eternal and primitive) folk music we might end up reiterating just that same dichotomy again while neglecting the facts of the evolution and hybridization of the world’s (including Western Art) musics.

  3. David Mendoza

    Jon, I agree, but you say that we might be in danger of reiterating the same dichotomy of Western music as being progressive and non-Western as eternal/primitive. Where have you encountered this? Sure there might be some who think this, but I would hope that most in the new music community (whatever that means) would not make this mistake. I mean the history is clear. The Ud has been called the king of instruments because that’s where many instruments have originated from. The histories of the East and West are so intertwined. If we teach that there is no such thing as a “pure” culture and that everything is connected to something else then that takes off the edge to this us vs them, Western vs. non-Western thinking. I mean Western Classical Music is really just northwest Asian court music.

    1. Jon Silpayamanant

      David–The old “static folk music” versus “progressive and modern Western music” dichotomy that played itself out in bygone years of the the enlightenment (and influenced some early ethnomusicological work). We’ve been well beyond that for some time but there’s still some hints of that old idea that only Western music evolves and changes, while indigenous musics are static an unchanging. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how many people sill feel this way.

      1. David Mendoza

        Jon, I agree. There are those who think this even in academia probably, but I’m trying to address Tim’s argument that Silk Road “is not a perfect model for understanding or addressing the issues of modern-day globalization through music.” Why? Give me examples in the music and in how the musicians operate that would lead you to believe this. I would agree that the music is audience friendly, but so is John Adams and Jennifer Higdon. Would we call them “sanitized” for consumption? Even if they simply remake a folk song, which they do, what harm is that doing to the culture of origin? If they (emic perspective) don’t see their music as “static primitive” then why are we imposing that old stereotype on it? The pit falls of these intercultural experiments is that sometimes things do get misappropriated and sound cliché, but that goes with the territory. As long as composers understand the history of Orientalism and the issues concerning cultural rights with happened with Graceland, then they should be free to experiment, which is what I think Silk Road does.

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  5. David Mendoza

    Nabeel Zuberi has a very good review of Timothy D. Taylor’s 2007 Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. At the very end of the review he mentions that the Other “also incorporates “our” cultural forms and practices.” The Other also samples “from many parts of the world, not just the West.” This is an important fact to understand because there are rock bands in Mongolia and there are rap groups in Argentina. Should we criticize them for “sanitization?” I agree with Nabeel when he says that in many instances the West may not have “a coherent identity or clear borderlines.” This was my argument to begin with, and why articles like this speak to a more monocultural past. Recently the US census has stated that the White majority in the US will be gone by 2043. The IMF just said that China is now the largest economy in the world. And I’m sure if anyone want more examples and predictions of how our world is changing you can read Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat. Because of these facts, I think we need to be skeptical of terms like Western and non-Western? These boxes like the other boxes of race, religion, ethnicity, and other forms of identity are becoming more complex. Like I said above, this criticism of the Silk Road is outdated. People should be proud of where they come from and who they are. They should be proud of their traditions and musics, but don’t criticize artists and composers for trying to understand and learn from their fellow human beings.

  6. Michael Robinson

    Zakir Hussain had a wonderful response to a question related to the topic of conversation here. You may access the full interview by clicking on my name above.

    Michael Robinson: How is it that Indian music has this amazing resiliency to last over a thousand years, and still be growing, and still finding all these endlessly new paths?

    Zakir Hussain: Because we have a loophole in our music. We are at one time told that we have to be very traditional, we have to maintain the old, and play that, and do it justice, and do it right, and do not water it down, and whatnot, and everything. And once we are told that we are also, in the same breath, told “and you must improvise.” So if you are going to improvise, you are going to run into areas which are alien, which are new, which are fresh, and therefore, are they not traditional, or are they traditional? So, the thought is there, and that’s one of the reasons why this music has survived. It’s because of the loophole. Because we are allowed to create. We are not allowed to stagnate with just this one thing there, and exactly that way for the last five hundred years.

    1. David Mendoza

      Thank you for sharing this. It’s a wonderful and detailed interview. I might use it for my dissertation. I love how Zakir references similarities in Jazz, and Classical music. It really gives some good insights.

      My favorite part:

      Michael Robinson: You’re Muslim yourself.

      Zakir Hussain: Yes, but that doesn’t matter. Musicians have a religion of their… they’re a religion onto themselves.
      Zakir Hussain: So we’ve learned to play this fabulous repertoire onto the instrument, but we never really stopped to think what the instrument itself can do. The places the instrument has on its head, and how many different places there are, and OK, if you got to play a particular stroke this way, is there another way of doing it. Is there another possible combination. Is there a tonal change that you can effect. Is there, you know, all those things. And that only happened because I was watching the percussionists in the West.

      Michael Robinson: Really! [This is the first time I have ever heard a major Hindustani musician acknowledge receiving inspiration from outside India.]

      This demonstrates my point that even the most traditional manifestations of culture have connections to other cultures. I’ll just add that Indian music would be very difficult to kill because it is so interwoven into the culture. It has grass root support, where here in the West, I’m not so sure. Take away our non-profits and government support and Classical Music just might die.

  7. Michael Robinson

    Glad to hear how much you enjoyed the interview, David, and that it may become part of your dissertation. One of the musical highlights of my life was arriving early to claim front row seats in an intimate setting on two consecutive evenings very close to where Zakir and two equally great musicians, double violinist L. Shankar and ghatam artist Vikku Vinayakram were situated while performing. Their extraordinarily creative and inspired improvisations are still resonating inside me where we all breathed the same air. No doubt, readers will be curious to read the full context of all the quotes taken from Zakir. In January of the year I moved to Los Angeles, 1990, where I was to unexpectedly meet many of India’s greatest musicians, I spent a memorable evening discussing music with George Harrison of the Beatles in Lahaina, Maui. Looking back, that experience now seems to presage my immersion into the classical music of India. Moved by the news of his passing in 2001, I wrote about that night, which readers may access by clicking on my name above.

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