Yo-Yo Ma has pulled an ace from his sleeve with his most recent album New Impossibilities. Far from canonical, the pieces on the record are wild, living, breathing music. The title, although borrowed from a Mark Twain phrase, seems closer to the kind the writer Jaramillo Levi would use to crown one of his short story collections. In a very real sense, that is what Ma brings to us in his latest production: stories collected from the thousands of miles of the ancient and modern Silk Road. His language is articulated through bold musical sounds, and his subject is the deep continental Asia: Iran, China, and everything in between.
The project that produced this recording has a long history behind it, which can be summarized as follows: Yo-Yo Ma wanted to bring the Silk Road to life in the heart of Chicago. He created the Silk Road Ensemble and invited the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to play with them. And play they did. The cello virtuoso got the whole city of Chicago and its most prestigious cultural entities behind his brainchild. For a year the Silk Road project enriched Chicago’s cultural life with displays of Asia’s ancient and modern culture, through music and performing arts. The city-wide, year-long project finished with a series of the master performances, the best of which are collected in this compact disk.
The three most modernist tracks happen to be the less convincing ones. The first half of the “Arabian Waltz,” with its ethno-meets-jazz style, is much superior to its Firebird-like strenuous second half. “The Galloping Horses,” albeit interesting, struck me as too shallow to be taken seriously, evoking images closer to playful hamsters than running stallions. The lowest point of the anthology might be the “Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets,” which seems almost out of place with its ultra-modern, pretentious orchestration.
In stark contrast, the other six tracks are excellent. “The Night of the Flying Horses,” for the most part a mellow serenade, is sure to lull the listener into a sweet relaxation right before it makes him jump out of his chair with its non sequitur finale that blends circus music with blue grass. “Shristi” includes a majestic display of exotic percussion instruments. Its militant rhythm conjures images of persecution, hunters chasing their prey over expansive steppes, and tribal dances around the fire. In “Night at the Caravanserai,” the listener is transported again to unknown lands: you can almost feel the sand under your feet, see the caravans crawling through the desert, enjoy the passion of love in a tent by an oasis. The very ambitious “Ambush From Ten Sides” makes an almost operatic and successful attempt at telling a story of battles between kingdoms in ancient China.
The highest points of the selection, however, are the two other tracks, which could not be more different from each other. “Vocussion” is a playful blend of voices and percussion. Primitive, ritual, irreverent, this performance will make you smile and rejoice. My personal favorite, and arguably the best track of the disk, is “The Silent City,” a heart-breaking elegy for Halabja, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan that was destroyed two decades ago. Its sublime use of long, seemingly endless string arpeggios depicts the sorrow, emptiness, and abated anguish of a survivor contemplating the destruction.
This is not your dad’s old Yo-Yo Ma album. For sure, not all tracks will please every taste. The record is an experiment in musical and cultural fusion, and as such it comes with both pluses and minuses. It is clear Ma is using his titanic reputation to push ahead this project, born from his roots and from nostalgic inspiration. After listening to the result, I think you might feel as grateful as I do for his effort. And if you are curious about the Silk Road Ensemble and would like to see them perform live, you are in luck. Yo-Yo Ma’s Ensemble is scheduled to spend this week at Harvard’s New College Theatre. For more information, visit the project’s Web site: http://www.silkroadproject.org.