Put three or four or five musicians in a vehicle, factor in the sheer size of the Canadian landscape, and add bad weather or summertime construction delays-no wonder some rather bizarre ideas have been hatched on the road. But the highways that crisscross this country have also given birth to some equally insightful works rooted in the notion of travel, such as the Orchid Ensemble’s groundbreaking Road to Kashgar CD. Based on Chinese classical music but flavoured by Persian and other Middle Eastern sounds, the disc is an apt and evocative tribute to the Silk Road-the ancient trade route that once linked China to the Mediterranean. Yet it’s also appropriate that it was born in a minivan, somewhere between Toronto and Montreal on that well-travelled stretch of road known as Highway 401.
“Being Canada’s lifeline in terms of the movement of goods, the 401 is very much a modern-day, Canadian Silk Road,” argues Orchid Ensemble percussionist Jonathan Bernard, calling from the East Vancouver home he shares with his wife and musical partner, erhu virtuoso Lan Tung. “And in our experience, travelling back and forth on the 401 doing summer-festival tours, it seems to us that those festivals are the modern-day equivalent to ancient marketplaces like Kashgar. You have musicians from all over the world hanging out and playing together, and you have food from all over the world and crafts from all over the world. And those festivals are essentially where, many, many years ago, we got the very strong inspiration to explore all of these Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Persian influences on China.” Road to Kashgar appeared in 2004, and has been enough of a success that it’s kept the Orchid Ensemble busy ever since, with a touring schedule that has encompassed shows at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian Institution. But the Orchid musicians are continuing to refine the project, and its latest incarnation will debut at the Roundhouse Performance Centre on Friday (September 16). New this time around will be the addition of an interactive video component, which media artist Donna Szoke will create in real time using software developer Cycling ’74’s innovative Jitter animation program.
“We’ve worked on this project for a few years, so it’s basically about finding a different way of presenting this repertoire,” says Tung. “Since the music is very strong and has so many different influences, we’ve been thinking about how to present it in different ways so as to prolong the life of this repertoire. And also it’s always interesting to incorporate different disciplines, and we think Donna’s video will complement the audio elements very well.” Tung stresses that the new, multimedia version of Road to Kashgar is not a simple slide show with musical accompaniment. “We’ve seen so many slide shows with music that we wanted to do it in a more artistic and more unusual way,” she explains. “The images are not the actual scenery: they’re objects and things that will represent the cultures of the Silk Road. Food, grain, clothing, textiles, musical instruments from a number of these cultures-all these things. The idea is to use close-up shots and then manipulate them on the computer with this new software so that they become abstract images.” Bernard considers this combination of cultural artifacts and advanced technology an obvious continuation of the Orchid Ensemble’s artistic mission statement. “We’ve always been about the marriage of the ancient with the very new and contemporary,” he says. And he adds that Vancouver, as one of the world’s great melting-pot cities, now functions as a laboratory for this kind of work. “A couple of generations after [Pierre] Trudeau instituted Canada’s multicultural policies, those ideas are manifesting themselves in our art and even in our everyday world. And while it seems kind of commonplace to us-obviously we find ourselves quite at home in this kind of environment-it’s very new and exciting for people elsewhere. Give them two or three decades, and if they approach it with the same level of idealism and real respect for each other, then maybe they’ll experience something similar.” Bernard and Tung-and presumably the third member of the group, scholar and zheng virtuoso Mei Han-are nonetheless aware that there’s still lots of work to be done when it comes to educating the public about cultural diversity. That’s why they’ve added a bonus to their upcoming show: a pre-concert lecture and demonstration in which oud player and guitarist Gordon Grdina will join young Chinese and South Asian musicians in showcasing some of what can still be heard in the various countries of the Silk Road. Their hope is that listeners intrigued by this 7 p.m. freebie will stick around for the ticketed concert that follows, then hear the headliners with a greater understanding of how the Orchid Ensemble’s hybrid sounds, so rich in new concepts and centuries-old sonorities, have evolved.