Last month the arrival of a cargo train from China to Iran made headlines the world over, as it marked the revival of “the ancient Silk Road, a trans-Asian trade route connecting the east to Europe and the Mediterranean Sea” as London’s The Guardian reported it. The rest of the world looks nervously on as these two giants build stronger links.
The silk trade has been traced as far back as the Han dynasty, China’s “golden age” (206 BC – 220 AD), and has pervaded Chinese and world history ever since.
Chinese traditional instruments can be broadly sub-grouped into “silk and bamboo” i.e. chordophones or stringed instruments which originally had silk strings; and aerophones or wind instruments, made of bamboo.
The term “Silk Road” inevitably reminded me of the Silk Road Project Inc. which had captured the news headlines in 1998 when I had just arrived in the UK. This is a not-for-profit organisation founded that year and initiated by Chinese-born cellist Yo-Yo Ma with the objective of promoting collaboration among artists and institutions, promoting multicultural artistic exchange, and studying the ebb and flow of ideas inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, and “to plant the seeds of new artistic and cultural growth and to celebrate living traditions and musical voices throughout the world”.
Yo-Yo Ma has collaborated with musicians and composers from Iran through Central Asia, Mongolia, China and India as part of this venture.
On 21 February this year, Silk Road Project premiered a work for strings and tabla titled ‘King Ashoka’ by tabla player and composer Sandeep Das. Having grown up in Patna, the former Ashokan capital Pataliputra and close to the birthplace of the Buddha, Das felt the urge to “write about something I have grown up with.” He intentionally uses Raag Bhairavi to bring out the paradox of its innate peacefulness and being traditionally played in the quiet of dawn; and yet Bhairavi is the “goddess of war”.
I attended Yo-Yo Ma’s concert on 14 November 2001 with the Orchestre Nationale de Lyon at the Barbican Centre London, where he performed to a full house, giving the UK premiere of a Silk Road Project-commissioned work The Six Realms (a reference to Buddhist philosophy, of states of mind) by Peter Lieberson.
It is ironic that the Silk Road should evoke references to Buddhism, when the Buddha himself would not have approved of silk, due to the violence involved in its creation i.e. the killing of silkworms by boiling them in their cocoons in order to harvest the thread.
Interestingly, the Barbican Centre’s postal address is Silk Street, a street I know well, having traversed it countless times to and from concerts or visits to its library or cinemas.
I didn’t think much about it then, but like most street names, there is a reason for this one too. Huguenot silk weavers fled persecution from France in the 1680s and created an enclave in London’s Spitalfields market area and the lanes leading from it, including Silk Street. The silk-weaving industry in Spitalfields boomed for about a century, before sliding into the decline that Charles Dickens described in his writing: “squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches… where sallow, unshaven weavers… prowl languidly about, or lean against posts, or sit brooding on doorsteps.” The import of Indian and Chinese silks, and printed calico from India, and mechanised weaving contributed to this.
The British Medical Association is headquartered at BMA House, Tavistock Square, London, a fair walk away from Silk Street. I mention it because BMA House is where the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra rehearses, and I was fortunate to play in the ranks of its violins during all my years in England. I would commute from wherever in England I was posted, to its rehearsals and its concerts because it had such a high standard of playing, and was therefore worth the effort.
It was there that I was introduced to the overture to Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera written in 1812, ‘La Scala di Seta’ (The Silken Ladder). It is great fun to play and like the rest of Rossini’s operatic overtures, a delightful listen. He wrote music with such facility and in such profusion that he once boasted “Give me a shopping list and I’ll set it to music.” This overture does have a ‘shopping list’ of all his signature ingredients, including his famed ‘Rossinian’ crescendo.
Rossini deserves the spotlight this year being a leap year, as he was born on 29 February 1792. This year would be his 224th birth anniversary, but he himself would have joked that it would more accurately have been his 56th!
The Silken Ladder is central to the plotline of the one-act “comical farce” opera, as it is used by clandestine husbands and hopeful lovers to climb up and down, in and out, of the heroine Giulia’s bedroom.
Rossini’s librettist Giuseppe Maria Foppa seems to have had the inspiration from François-Antoine-Eugène de Planard’s ‘l’Échelle de Soie’ (1808), which in turn was derived from Riccoboni’s comic opera ‘Sophie ou le mariage caché’, and to complete the cascade, this was a transcription of George Colman’s comedy play ‘The Clandestine Marriage’ (1766) which also inspired Domenico Cimarosa’s opera ‘Il Matrimonio Segreto’ (1792).
Silk was well-known and a fabric of privilege in Europe, so it is not surprising that it should find mention in an opera, but I thought it remarkable that anyone, even an opera librettist, would even think of silk as a substance resilient enough to construct a ladder to bear the weight of a human being. Perhaps the farcical element begins right there. A silken ladder would certainly be lighter, more compact and therefore easier to conceal than a rope-ladder.
But silk is surprisingly resilient, and some research indicates it “easily competes with steel yarn in tensile strength”.
Spider silk is still considered superior, but perhaps it is not too far-fetched to find in the pantheon of super-heroes Silkman, alongside Spiderman. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, but you never know.
(An edited version of this article was published on 6 March 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)