Labor of Love? The Work of Asian and Asian American Classical Musicians in the Silk Road Ensemble

In an ethnographic study, Mari Yoshihara explores how Asians and Asian Americans motivate themselves to continue laboring in the field of classical music despite the racialization and material hardships they must endure. She finds that these musicians de-emphasize their racial and class identities in favor of a middle-class status position that values the passion and universality of music-making. Perhaps no other group of musicians better exemplifies this shared value system than Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble, which purposefully recruits musicians from musical traditions all over the world. Through the ways in which they represent their racial and cultural identities in their music-making, the members of the Silk Road Ensemble both reinforce and challenge existing cultural and racial hierarchies in the field of classical music.

Nearly invisible in other fields of music like folk and hip-hop, Asians and Asian Americans are hyper-visible in the field of classical music. While most people may not have heard of the Silk Road Ensemble, they will likely recognize the name of its founder, the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Yoshihara points out, however, that this hypervisibility hides the lived realities of Asian and Asian American classical musicians, who face certain barriers to achieving the promise of class mobility and prestige that white musicians do not have to face. Highly successful musicians like Yo-Yo Ma are the exceptions rather than the rule, because most Asian and Asian American classical musicians do not see equivalent returns on the vast economic capital that they and their families invest in classical music training (Yoshihara 133). On top of that, they must confront a culture industry that attributes their success solely to their cultural upbringing and scrutinizes the cultural authenticity of their playing (Yoshihara 4-6). 

In response to these harsh realities, Asian and Asian American classical musicians reproduce discourses of multiculturalism and universalism to promote their music to a global audience without explicitly acknowledging their race and class identities. They talk about pursuing art for art’s sake as way to distance themselves from materialism, commercialism, and mainstream tastes (Yoshihara 157). The discourse of music-making as a labor of love, removed from considerations of race and class, is evident in the way the musicians of Silk Road talk about their music-making:

In their documentary trailer, the pipa player, Wu Man, proclaimed, “There’s no East or West. It’s just a globe.” Another musician said, “We don’t speak perfect English, perfect Chinese, or perfect Persian, but we speak perfect music language.” This narrative of universal connection through music allows them to traverse the boundaries of race and culture in the field of classical music, but it also reproduces the ideals of neoliberalism, which value diversity so long as it does not call attention to the unequal relations of power among different racial and cultural groups. The musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble demonstrate a lack of race and class consciousness when they treat music as an equalizer despite the reality that the spaces to perform and enjoy their music are still not universally accessible.

Nevertheless, the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble also challenge racial and cultural hierarchies through the form and production of their music. The music of the Silk Road Ensemble shows the potential of music as a form of resistance against dominant discourses of taste and authenticity, which are often used to devalue the music of Asian Americans. By creating an equal platform for various musical traditions, the Silk Road Ensemble disrupt hierarchies of taste that assign differential value to the artistic productions of racial and cultural groups (i.e., by assigning designations of high versus low art). Each song of their most recent album, Sing Me Home (2016), is composed by a different musician from the ensemble, drawing from the traditional songs of their cultural communities and from their personal experiences. These musicians get to define what “home” means to them, thus controlling the representations of their cultural identities and preventing the erasure or essentialization of their cultural traditions. A particularly moving example from the album is Yo-Yo Ma, Wu-Tong, and Abigail Washburn’s performance of  “Going Home,” which re-contextualizes Paul Robeson’s original lyrics to Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony to expand the notion of home to be transnational and transcultural.

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