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LUCID CULTURE: THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE - OFF THE MAP

November 9, 2009

Lucid Culture

Their most adventurous album. For ten years, the Silk Road Ensemble has been bringing some of the most fascinating, intense and pioneering Asian and Asian-inflected music to western audiences. On their latest cd, an all-star cast of some of the most imaginative players on the planet – literally – take a flying leap into a rich, cutting-edge program of cross-pollination with equal parts gusto and finesse. For one reason or another, it’s arguably the least Asian of the Silk Road albums, and also the most demanding – while some of the compositions here are among the most accessible the ensemble has recorded, others are far from that – but a close listen pays tremendous rewards.

The cd opens with a three-part suite by the reliably multistylistic Gabriela Lena Frank (who just won a Latin Grammy!), titled Ritmos Anchinos. The opening piece, as Frank puts it, has Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man discovering her inner latina. The second is a blissful little dance inspired by a Chinese-African village in Peru; the third hitches a raw, clattering, rhythmically tricky, reverb-driven pipa piece to a second part where the pipa takes on some particularly imaginative jazz guitar voicings.

Hong Kong-born composer Angel Lam’s phantasmagorical, shapeshifting Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain follows, building to a dark, dramatic crescendo following a sparse buildup in the Asian scale, Kojiro Umezaki’s rustic shakuhachi flute bringing back a rain-drenched, ambient feel. The second part is a mysterious narrative of the events of the first part, sweeping along uneasily on the wings of the strings.

Evan Ziporyn’s compositions draw deeply on his gamelan work, and his trio suite here, Sulvasutra is no exception. Based on an ancient treatise on the proper proportions for Hindu altars, there’s a definite symmetry here, circular, echoey and insistent, the extraordinary string quartet Brooklyn Rider interpolating atmospherics within tabla player Sandeep Das’ hypnotic rhythms. The second part sounds like what another adventurous string composer, Ljova Zhurbin, might have done with a gamelan, adding a raw Carpathian edge to the pointillistic ambience; Wu Man reappears deviously in the concluding segment, taking the piece rousingly back to Fiji.

The concluding suite – if you can call it one – is the album’s star attraction, the latest from Osvaldo Golijov, alternatingly rousing, joyous, raptly hypnotic and haunting. On the slinky, seductive first section, the Argentinian avant garde luminary proves himself adept and frankly exhilarating (if not exactly innovative) at lush Mohammed Abdel Wahab-style levantine orchestration. The still, brooding, mystical tone poems that follow fall in stark contrast with the ecstatic, defiant Sardinian protest song that fades up and blasts along like the Pogues, Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato fueling the blaze. And then it’s over. It’s out now on World Village Music and it makes a particularly suitable holiday gift for the cutting-edge listener on y0ur list.

 

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