Silk Road Ensemble: A Rebel Alliance

Asian Americans have typically been able to find success as classical musicians. According to an ethnographic study by Mari Yoshihara, one in five musicians in the New York Philharmonic are Asian and other top orchestras are composed of more and more Asian musicians. However, despite this relatively high (though still low) level of representation, Asian Americans occupy a very few number of decision-making and “power” roles in the classical music world. They are racially marked as “others”, something that prevents their professional advancement. Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the most recognizable name in classical music, created the Silk Road Ensemble in a way to combat the xenophobia so present in the classical world. The Silk Road Ensemble is a group of musicians who blend Western music with the sounds of their own culture, resulting in new forms of music not quite classical and not quite the other culture’s sound. As a result, these musicians have created a space that Western critics cannot reject them from.

Asian American musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma are undoubtedly talented, but they still face intense scrutiny while their white peers have the privilege of never having their presence in an orchestra questioned. They are set apart from their contemporaries through a tokenization process that removes them from the world of “authentic” classical music. Ma recounts a time early in his career where every interview asked him how “an Asian could make classical music.” A common critique for Asian American musicians who play classical is that they’re too technical, that they don’t understand the emotion behind the piece. In other words, they are seen as intruding upon musical traditions that they have no prerogative to play due to their racialized identity in the musical world. Their involvement is seen as unnatural by no standard other than racial bias.

Enter the Silk Road Ensemble. Ma’s brainchild, the Ensemble became a way for musicians all over the globe to collaborate and change classical music. A tough task, seeing as it has remained unchanged since its inception. To circumvent the problem of “authenticity”, the Silk Road Ensemble threw that concept out the window. If Asian Americans allegedly could not understand the intention behind each piece, then they would not even bother. In fact, they would completely reinvent the arena. They played the music the way they wanted, and sometimes that meant completely reinventing the sound. The Ensemble played by its own rules and in doing so, freed themselves from the criticism that they are inherently unable to play this type of music.

Incorporating sounds from their cultural background allows these Asian American musicians to finally claim a bit of classical music for themselves. Race and ethnic background cannot be ignored and therefore should be proudly acknowledged in a musician’s work. Ma, whose identity as an Asian American is multifaceted and complicated, decided to acknowledge everything that makes him who he is. Silk Road Ensemble is the result of such acknowledgement. Traditional classical music was written hundreds of years ago by white men who all had very similar experiences. Though it really should not be considered classical anymore, the Ensemble brought a breath of fresh air into the classical world in addition to carving out a space for Asian Americans to call their own.

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