Tag: globalization

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: http://www.silkroadproject.org/.
[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 johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.

What Are Our Goals?

Musicians live and work in every city and town in the world, not just the “meccas” where most of the music industry’s corporate headquarters have set up shop. And I would venture to say that the locations of these headquarters aren’t that important to the musician choosing to relocate to one of these urban centers. The music industry doesn’t give value to a local music community, although it does attempt to assign value by manipulating the broader musical culture. One imagines a time when the music being disseminated by the industry was stuff that musicians were already playing to their fans. The industry was merely widening that fan base and skimming lucre off the top. Now it seems that the industry has defined a variety of products to sell to demographically delineated subsectors of a marketplace.

I’m not sure how long this has been going on, probably for centuries; but I’m sure that the literate-ing of music has been an essential part of the process, which suggests origins in Ancient Sumer—about 20,000 years ago. Fortunately, not all of human civilization opted into the paradigm, and diversity of musical performance, theory, philosophy, and aesthetic has fueled the musical marketplace. Some might suggest that this diversity has kept the world’s music healthy. But we live in a world where the prominent culture pushes for “globalizing” itself, and part of that globalizing effort is narrowing down the fields of music being sold.

Without going into the how-and-why of this trend, I’ll point to my entry from two weeks ago as an indication of the effect this anti-diversification process is having on our “local” music community that represents more than 300 million people. To be real, the reinstatement of the 31 categories that NARAS eliminated last year wouldn’t begin to mirror the diversity of America’s musical palette. I don’t think artists like Elliott Sharp or Tom Hamilton could be included in any of the existing categories. The same holds true for vocalists Fay Victor, Tom Buckner, and Dean Bowman, drummers Tom Rainey and Nasheet Waits, pianists Jason Moran and Eric Lewis, or bassists Mark Dresser and Tarus Mateen, even though their work is neither new or radical. What is common to the names listed above is that the level of their musicianship is very high and the music they play is deeply personal, qualities that the music industry has little interest in. That the best jazz vocal album of the 2012 Grammy awards went to a drummer’s project that included more vocalists on it than the rest of the nominations combined is telling. That this happened to the jazz vocalists should raise an alarm because it is they, and not the music industry, who give value to music. Without words, music is so much deft manipulation of pitches and timbre. Semiologically profound on occasion, but devoid of any real meaning. It is when words are included with the notes that music moves us the most. The semiotic potential of a motive or phrase is given to it by the words attached to it. There’s a very good chance that we won’t see Michael Franti’s name any time soon in a Grammy ceremony, even if Gil Scott-Heron was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award this year. My hope is that none of the names mentioned above become marginalized to the point of obscurity. They, and so many others, work hard to better than break even in one of the toughest businesses, where operating at a loss is the norm. To categorically silence each vocalist individually is to deny their individual expression. In a sense, NARAS has denied jazz a point of view.

It’s true that many venerated and accomplished musicians who, sometimes by their own choosing, perform rarely or only play locally and are not recognized by the musical industry, despite their talents and contributions. They’re in every city where there are musicians, which is just about every one. I can think of many: the late Claude Sifferlin and Earmon Hubbard (brother of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard), both pianists from Indianapolis; saxophone genius Bert Wilson of Olympia, Washington; multi-instrumentalist Andrew White (oboist with the National Symphony and bassist with Stevie Wonder as well as the 5th Dimension, also responsible for transcribing the recorded output of John Coltrane); guitarist/educator Jerry Hahn of (recently) Witchita, Kansas. The list is endless. I mention them because the musical meccas have them, too. And many are vocalists. One of them, Anne-Marie Moss, passed away early Wednesday morning. She was an amazing vocalist who moved to New York in the early 1960s while singing with fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson. She was adept at singing vocalise and had a huge range (rumored at five octaves) and briefly filled in for Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks and Moss. She spent most of her career in a duo with her first husband, singer-guitarist Jackie Paris. This was a time when the distinction between jazz and popular music was blurred. Jazz vocalists, like Peggy Lee, were the Adeles and Houstons of their time. Jackie and Anne Marie lived in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side until they divorced in the late 1980s and worked tirelessly to promote their superior vocal skills, which were appreciated by the musical community in New York, but rarely heard anywhere else. Anne Marie’s student roster is a Who’s Who of jazz vocalists, especially Roseanna Vitro (a 2012 Grammy nominee), Judi Silvano, and Jane Blackstone.

While some believe that the measure of success is how many recordings and high-profile concerts you perform in, Anne Marie Moss measured hers in how well she sang and how effectively she could instruct her students in how to sing with their “chest” or “speaking” voices. Moss was part of the faculty of The New School and Manhattan School of Music. I was fortunate to work with her and Jackie Paris from 1978 until 2004, and my wife studied with her until she retired around 2005. Still, her discography can be counted on one hand: a single solo album, Don’t You Know Me (Stash ST-211, 1981), a duo album with Jackie Paris, Live at the Maisonette (Different Drummer DD 1004, 1975), three tracks on a compilation Best of the Jazz Singers, Vol. 2 (LRC Ltd. 40050, 2008), and one song—“Let’s Fall In Love”—on a Maynard Ferguson reissue, Dancing Sesssions (Jazz Beat 514, 2007). While few in number, these recordings cover a wide range of settings, from pedal-to-the-metal big band to a voice and drum duo that displays perfect control of her range from pianissimo to double forte. Listening to these recordings has the same effect on the listener as hearing her sing in public did, leaving you wanting more.

I would offer that the number of recordings one is on should not be the measure of an artist’s success, but rather a measure of the success of the culture that artist must negotiate. A society that refers to itself as “the greatest in the world” should be able to document the careers of its greatest artists based on the merits of their work, not on how much they can hustle the music industry. Our goals as artists can be to make good art without having to pretend we admire the pablum that corporate America is hooking our children on.