What happens when you take ambitious, virtuosic musicians from nations across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and get them all to make music together? Shredding, that’s what, and plenty of it. Led by everyone’s favorite cello playing shred-master general himself, Yo-Yo Ma, The Silk Road Ensemble’s A Playlist Without Borders is here for two reasons: 1.) melting faces via contemporary classical virtuosity fused with numerous different musical traditions found along the ancient silk road and 2.) chewing bubble gum; and let me tell you here folks, they left the bubble gum at home. The skill of these musicians is unquestionable, and is almost, at times, distracting. This is one of those records where you pretty much already know if you are going to be into it before you listen to a single incredibly well-played note. This is music for musicians and serious music nerds; other categories of people might be left in the dust while Yo-Yo and company make Dream Theatre sound like Brittney Spears.
I can’t help but compare this record to one of my old favorites: the 1990 collaboration between Phillip Glass and Ravi Shankar Passages. That classic record starts with the old “East meets West” premise, but you get the impression very early on in that record that that tired old dichotomy isn’t going to help you much in wrapping your mind around Passages. The listener is forced to see, in a very natural and unforced way, that Glass and Shankar really have more in common than we assumed at first and Passages end up being far more than just two different musical traditions coming together Passages is downright gorgeous; the product of two fearlessly brilliant musicians fusing their music together, like the Skeksis and the Mystics in the Dark Crystal. A Playlist Without Borders often sounds a great deal like Passages, and I would be very skeptical if these folks claimed not to be fans of that collaboration. The Silk Road Ensemble is a more ambitious project than the Shankar/Glass collaboration however, and for that reason it is not as focused or consistent.
Because this record fuses so many different styles and traditions, listeners will inevitably like certain parts more than others. Since I am a hopeless sucker for klezmer music and the accordion, the bits of A Playlist Without Borders that highlight accordionist Patrick Farrell make me chortle with pleasure like a guinea pig at feeding time. As I am also a hopeless sucker for traditional Indian music, the bits that focus on the tabla and other South Asian instruments also instigate enjoyment deep in my heart. People raised on Mozart and the Western classical tradition might find some of this stuff a little bit daunting and dissonant, but sometimes it is difficult to reason with those folks, and I don’t feel very inclined to try. A Playlist Without Borders sometimes feels too ambitious; like The Silk Road Ensemble is trying to make some grand gesture about music being the international language. The thing is, although the gesture is indeed grand, it remains pretty convincing. After listening to A Playlist Without Borders several dozen times and having these dizzying compositions stuck in my head for days at a time, I am forced to the conclusion that shredding might, in fact, be the international language. This stuff will be pumping out of dorm rooms at the Berklee College of Music and Juilliard for years to come.