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Anne Arundel 100

Music of the Silk Road

Written by Deborah Lawrence, Assistant Professor of Music

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Preparing for a class on the music of the Silk Road, I asked my neighbor, who was on his way to China as both tourist and solar eclipse observer, to bring me a CD of currently popular music.

The Silk Road is the name given in the 19th century to the various trade routes that stretched from China to Venice, passing through northern India, across Central Asia and the countries we know of as Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and their neighbors, and finally into the West via Iran and Turkey. It was the means by which the West was able to obtain the costly luxury textile that gave it its name. Hundreds of years of use brought not only silk to the West, but countless other items as well: textile design, religious and philosophical ideas, foods, and of course music and musical instruments.

While the music of most of these cultures generally did not survive because it was unwritten, contemporary musicians do perform some traditional works, allowing us to hear music similar, perhaps, to that played for hundreds of years. Musical instruments, on the other hand, do survive and illustrate musical traditions that likely traveled the Silk Road with the traders. Indeed, the instruments themselves may have been traded for various goods and services. I looked forward to a class that would explore numerous aspects of music culture from China to the West, including contemporary trends and traditional music, modern instruments and old ones, and new aesthetics and ancient philosophies.

With that in mind, I told my friend I specifically wanted a sample of what the public was listening to. A formidable musician on fiddle and banjo of traditional American music, my neighbor complied with chagrin, bringing me two collections of Chinese soft rock/pop music.

The fact that I could not understand the words was not important because each song sounded so much like an innocuous, harmless American pop song that it was easy to assume that love – requited or otherwise – was the topic. Here was a prime example of a modern Silk Road, one that is both virtual and actual: American pop music flowing digitally to the East, returned to me as a CD after taking on Chinese cultural influence. Nevertheless, the music in my beautifully packaged Chinese pop CDs  (the “jewel” case for the double CD is made of satiny-smooth wood) came as almost a shock: some of the most forgettable and ephemeral music of America is being promulgated by Chinese culture. In truth, these recordings symbolize much of contemporary global music culture: there are things familiar and unfamiliar, surprising and common.

There is no reason to be surprised at the vibrant mix of ancient and modern, eastern and western, sophisticated and popular art that exists in China or anywhere else for that matter. However, several thought-provoking aspects of our music study did come as a surprise.

 The first was the now-disappearing traditions in Central Asia and Iran of professional Jewish musicians. In Iran, as well as regions of Central Asia that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, Jewish musicians supplied the songs and dances that accompanied weddings and other celebrations. The Soviet government had a hand in maintaining, in its own fashion, traditional music while at the same time promoting Western music. Now that the Jewish population is diminishing, Iran, with its long and rich history, likewise has a conflicted music culture that is pushed and pulled by religious and political forces. Nevertheless, young musicians from Iran have been smitten by American popular culture, and create their own underground rock music.

The seemingly independent development of similar artistic philosophies and aesthetics in the East and the West is fascinating. Confucius and Plato both advocated music education for the betterment of the citizen and state. Understanding the effect of music – its ability to change or alter a state of mind –   has been approached similarly in various cultures. Traditional Chinese theory equates colors, planets, elements, and flavors (among other things) to various pitches. Indian music establishes rasas, or atmospheres, that are appropriate to times of day and seasons. Music theory in the West attributes various moods to the musical scales called modes, linking them to the cosmos and bodily humors as well. Even specific types of music seem to offer similar development. Chinese opera, which has a set of stock characters and semi-improvisatory plots, is reminiscent of Italian commedia dell’arte. The seemingly related views of music that we find in so many diverse cultures speak to the mystical nature of it.

Not surprising has been the influence of politics and religion on music across these areas. In China, the government plays a role as cultural arbiter of good taste, and promotes the music that it determines is good. It is scarcely a surprise that the suggestive, edgy, angry sound of rap is not greatly in evidence. Indeed, recent Chinese history, like that of the Soviet Union, has altered the natural development of music of that country, sometimes advocating traditional music, and other times burying it: unwritten traditions become lost when practicing them is forbidden. Music for the qin, for example, a stringed instrument that is difficult to learn, has at times been discouraged because of its association with the leisure class. Songs for the masses, a kind of group-singing of simple patriotic songs, has at times been promoted; a kind of mirror of it was seen during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games as 2008 drummers offered a precise and overwhelming show.

The centuries-old flow of music cultures of all these regions across Asia is perhaps most noticeable in the musical instruments. A remarkable quantity of lute-type instruments, some bearing names that indicate their relationship to each other, appears throughout the region, as do various spike fiddles, drums, and wind instruments. The string instruments that include the word “tar” in their name (sitar, guitar, dutar, for example), which is Persian for string, indicate their familial connection.

Perhaps the most discomfiting aspect of this class was learning about the United States military’s use of rock music as a weapon of war. Suzanne Cusick’s article  “You are in a place that is out of the world . . .: Music in the Detention Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror’” (From Journal of the Society for American Music (2008) vol. 2: 1-26) informs us of how music of the United States is used in “harsh interrogation” of peoples  who are often from Asia.

Thought-provoking, surprising, frustrating, pleasing: we found music to enjoy, concepts that seemed foreign and ones that were familiar, touching love songs and charming comic ones. Our cross-cultural exploration of music ultimately revealed as much about ourselves as it did about others.