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Sample Track 1:
"Maqam: Prelude and Dance" from Road to Kashgar
Sample Track 2:
"Winged Horses of Heaven" from Road to Kashgar
Sample Track 3:
"Three Treasures" from Road to Kashgar
Sample Track 4:
"Villagers' Dance" from Road to Kashgar
Layer 2
Orchid Ensemble,  Spring 2010 Tour Old Sounds on the New Silk Road: Organic, Intercultural Chamber Music from Canada’s Pacific Rim

Orchid Ensemble Tours the U.S. in Spring 2010

The dusty Silk Road city of Kashgar in Western China and the bustling metropolis of Vancouver have more in common than it may seem: They are both cultural crossroads on tried-and-true trade routes and sonic crucibles cooking up intercultural sounds. Harnessing these possibilities is the Vancouver-based Orchid Ensemble, a trio of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Canadian musicians turning the traditions of the Pacific Rim into elegant, intercultural chamber music by challenging the ancient instruments and classical canons of both East and West.

They will bring the richness of the laments of Chinese noblewomen (“Hujia”), Mongolian love ballads (“Meeting in the Yurt”), Uighur desert tunes (“Maqam”), and Jewish song (“Ya Ribon”) to the Midwest for several spring 2010 concerts. Their tour program draws on the group’s extensive repertoire of commissioned works and past explorations of the immigrant experience, the Silk Road and beyond, and China’s wildly varied musical palettes; all from a distinctly Canadian perspective.

"In my own personal experience here in Vancouver, which is classic Pacific Rim culture, I was very inspired by the activity that I witnessed of bringing these rich Asian traditions into the context of contemporary composition," explains the Orchid Ensemble’s percussionist and marimba player Jonathan Bernard. “It all happens very naturally here.”

Though natural, the Orchid Ensemble faced distinct challenges as they explored the potential of a Chinese chamber group. Ensemble founder, Taiwanese-Canadian musician and composer Lan Tung, was trained to play the millennia-old erhu, the two-stringed Chinese stick fiddle, either as part of a large orchestra or as a solo instrument—one more often associated in North America with out-of-tune street musicians than New Music innovation.

“There are very few small ensembles in classical Chinese music and no fixed repertoire for them, except for maybe Shanghai’s silk and bamboo ensembles, but even then, instrumentation is flexible. It’s not like a string quartet or piano trio,” Tung explains. “So I had limited small ensemble experience, especially as an erhu player. When we first started as a trio, I always felt I needed one more person to play something. Eventually we just decided to see what would happen with three instruments.”

Though originally Tung worked only with other classical Chinese musicians, Bernard’s entrance made for a whole new set of inspiring possibilities. Bernard brought an entire percussive instrumentarium from around the Pacific and the world, as well as a feel for polyrhythms and a willingness to learn the push-and-pull of traditional Chinese phrasing’s fluid pulse.

He also brought the ensemble’s only chordal instrument, the marimba. This allowed the group to echo the richness of a bigger ensemble with only three performers and to discover new timbres where traditions met. Yet the marimba as part of a Pacific chamber group proved a tougher—and more satisfying—nut to crack than one would expect.

“We’re mixing two starkly different systems of tonality. The erhu and the zheng (Chinese zither) are from a just intonation tradition, and I am playing on an equal tempered instrument, like your regular piano keyboard,” Bernard notes. “Everything that gives the music its Asian character falls between the tones on my instruments. So we have had to learn how to avoid the clashing of these tonal systems and their different intervals to create a sound that works.”

For the Orchid Ensemble, integrating traditions from Kashgar, the Indian Subcontinent, or even Eastern Europe means more than just staging a multicultural free-for-all; it’s about the subtle discovery of what makes up a music’s inner vocabulary. “When we meet other groups at festivals and workshops, nobody knows what to play with us,” Tung laughs, “so we play what they are playing. Maybe it’s Country, or the Blues, or Persian. It’s been really interesting for us, to learn about different kinds of sounds that way.”

This really hit home for Tung during a recent impromptu jam session with Indian music icon Sultan Khan. When Tung went backstage after a concert by the Indian sarangi master, she brought her erhu. “We traded instruments for a bit,” Tung recalls. “When he played the erhu, it didn’t sound Chinese, and vice versa. This proved to me it’s not the instrument, but the musician. If we were to learn more about other cultures, they would give us more vocabulary to create with.”

A new musical language can also flow from a whole new kind of grammar. Bernard’s relationship with the local New Music scene and Tung’s fascination with improvised music has added another level of possibility to the ensemble’s musical explorations, including uncovering new extended techniques that transform classical Chinese instruments. As Tung puts it, “Why does the erhu always have to sound like the erhu? It’s about the player, not the instrument.”

This spirit has spurred the Orchid Ensemble to commission new works from Asian-inspired contemporary Canadian composers. Artists like Moshe Denburg, an Orthodox Jewish musician who immersed himself in Indian music, and whose exacting pieces for the Orchid Ensemble investigate both striking images from a far Western Chinese desert (“The Endless Sands of the Taklimakan”) and new approaches to the group’s instruments. Or special multimedia projects striving to capture aspects of the immigrant experience (“Triaspora”) or chronicling the Silk Road through both new works and arrangements of ancient Persian, Chinese Jewish, Uighur, and Indian tunes (“Road to Kashgar”).

These projects, often presented in places few chamber ensembles fear to tread—parks, world music or folk festivals—strive to dismantle the barriers that divide the Classical canon and the burgeoning global music scene. “By performing contemporary works to Folk and World Music audiences, while at the same time performing traditional music to Classical and New Music audiences, we aim to break down boundaries between musical genres,” Bernard explains.

These endeavors form part of a small but lively Vancouver scene that thrives on a trans-Pacific blend of Asian and New Music, and, thanks to support from private philanthropists and public arts organizations, has real chances to execute innovative projects that blithely and intelligently cross old cultural boundaries. It’s a new era of interculturalism and creative integration, one reminiscent of the exchanges and hybrids of the Silk Road.

“It’s no longer about national boundaries or genre lines,” Bernard exclaims. “People coming from specific traditions from around the world have been encouraged through government policy or the general cultural environment to really explore, celebrate, and perform their own traditions. This creates a ripe environment that makes people want to interact and learn and collaborate with artists from other cultures. It’s not intentional. I don’t think people have this plan to mix this and mix that. It’s all happening very organically, and we really feel it in our work together as an artistic community.”

Orchid Ensemble acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $26.3 million in music throughout Canada