Mediaeval Music: the Soul of the Silk Route

What would Marco Polo, the famous Italian explorer, have heard if he travelled overland from Europe to Mongolia not in 1271, but in our time?

The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan album cover.

The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan album cover.

It is a question not only asked, but also resoundingly answered, by Smithsonian Folkways–the recording studio responsible for today’s mediaeval musical album The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan. Ranging from the coast of the Mediterranean all the way to the Pacific Ocean, this two-cd set presents the lavish soundscapes of Central Asia born from centuries of cross-cultural contact and collaboration.

A major influence in the development of music in the region were the courtly cultures which patronised musicians and inspired an elevated art of the performance. Equally important, however, were the amateur performers, religious devotees, and nomadic artists whose playing infused the rituals of everyday life, including weddings and funerals.

Within these two broad divisions, and among the host of regional canons which have developed, however, many similarities abound. The haunting tones of stringed instruments entwine with those of reed flutes and the elusive patter of drums. The variety of these instruments is astounding, as are their materials. Lutes and fiddles may be strung with metal or, more evocatively, horse-hair and silk, reflecting the unavoidable relationship between the soundscape and material conditions of each culture.

At times plaintive, at others lively, these performances express the spectacular depth of culture which so impressed Marco Polo. In his book of Travels, he describes the supernatural music of the desert which befuddles the mind and the battle-music of the Tatars:

‘For this is a custom of the Tartars, that before they join battle they all unite in singing and playing on a certain two-stringed instrument of theirs, a thing right pleasant to hear. And so they continue in their array of battle, singing and playing…’

Court musicians in a 17th century manuscript of Firdawsi's Shahname (Wikimedia Commons)

Court musicians in a 17th century manuscript of Firdawsi’s Shahname (Wikimedia Commons)

In his description of the Mongol Kublai Khan’s court, his reference to the ‘vast store of every kind’ of instrument well conveys the opulence of an era when everything from commerce to culture was synthesised by the astonishing breadth of the Mongol empire.

Among the most moving of the album’s many masterpieces is one titled The River Herlen, which is a Mongolian ‘long song’. Although four minutes in length, the song has only ten words prolonged to tell the story of a man mourning his brother’s death. Recognised by UNESCO as one of our world’s intangible heritages, the form has been practised since at least the 13th century.

At once intimate and exotic, this album will transport you effortlessly to the steppes and oases, lively trading cities and hidden valleys of Central Asia. While not a direct record of the musical experience of Marco Polo and others of his era, then, it offers something equally magical: a glimpse into the vitality to be found among the inheritors of the region’s many centuries of artistic virtuosity.

Learn More:

Listen to sample tracks and buy the CD from Smithsonian Folkways here!

Read The Travels of Marco Polo online here!

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