Silk Road Ensemble gives John Zorn new zing

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Buried in the fine print surrounding the Silk Road Ensemble’s upcoming Vancouver Recital Society concert is some extremely startling news, and it has nothing to do with the whereabouts of founding member Yo-Yo Ma. (Just for the record, the esteemed cellist won’t perform at Friday’s concert, although 11 equally gifted musicians from around the globe will.) Instead, it’s that Silk Road will be performing a suite of pieces from American avant-gardist John Zorn’s Book of Angels compositional project.

For those familiar with both the recital society and Zorn, this will seem as unlikely as the National Rifle Association promoting a curb on handgun possession. And yet it’s all part of the Silk Road Ensemble’s ongoing project, which is to knock down cultural walls no matter where they’ve been built.

“Borders really don’t mean anything,” says Silk Road member Kayhan Kalhor, on the line from Berkeley, California. Arguably Iran’s most celebrated performer on the violinlike kamancheh, Kalhor is living proof of that: although born in Tehran, he’s lived in Rome, Ottawa, and New York City, and has long cultivated cross-cultural bands of his own.

“When you say ‘Turkey’, for instance, several different cultures formed that country and live in that part of the world,” Kalhor continues. “When you say ‘Romans’, it’s the same thing. You can say that about any culture: they all consist of different people with different languages, different ideas, different music, different religions, and different ways of life. So boundaries between countries don’t mean anything, and they shouldn’t really limit our vision and our way of thinking.”

Ditto for boundaries between different styles of music, a view Zorn himself would no doubt subscribe to. Although the second-generation free-jazz saxophonist began his career as an exponent of abstract sound, for the past two decades he’s been obsessed with exploring his Eastern European heritage, curating a “Radical Jewish Culture” series for his Tzadik record label and writing music based on Jewish folk and liturgical modes. Most often those scores consist of nothing more than a simple, unadorned melodic line, which leaves a lot of creative leeway for those who would interpret them.

“In some cases, the score is just four bars or eight bars long,” Kalhor notes. “It’s not very revealing! But we’re trying to arrange a melody from that book each, until we have 15 or 20, and then we’ll make an album. They’re very beautiful melodies, and we’ll probably arrange and play them in a different way than others have.”

That’s a given, considering that the touring version of the Silk Road Ensemble includes virtuosic performers on the Japanese shakuhachi, the north Indian tabla drums, and the Iberian bagpipe known as the gaita, in addition to a complement of classically trained string players. Kalhor himself will feature in Jugalbandi, an improvised duet with percussionist Sandeep Das, and Atashgah, a work by violinist Colin Jacobsen inspired by the Zoroastrian fire temples of ancient Persia.

“We all learn from each other,” Kalhor says of Silk Road’s ecumenical approach. “You learn all these other cultures: how they approach music; what are the instruments; what are the sounds and preferences, musically. In that way you have more colours to use, more sounds, and more possibilities—and if that doesn’t make your vision broader, I don’t know what would.”

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