Silk Road Project Inspired Works

Matt Small Presents: "The Ancient Journey of the Lapis Lazuli Stone" - Live at the de Young Museum, San Francisco 03/12/10.

Composer and bassist Matt Small discusses Egyptian cultural and music influences at the time of King Tut by ancient Silk-Road region traders, followed by Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble premiering commissioned works inspired by traditional forms of ancient Egyptian and Silk Road-region music.

"The Ancient Journey of the Lapis Lazuli Stone" was commissioned by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and was part of the de Young’s Cultural Encounters Initiative, made possible by generous support from the James Irvine Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Columbia Foundation and the Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by The Zellerbach Family Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

About the 2004 Silk Road Project Workshop

In September 2004, I was invited to participate in a unique summer workshop co-sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Sixteen musicians from the United States and abroad joined the Silk Road Ensemble at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts to work on existing music as well as newly commissioned works by Silk Road composers. The workshop was led by Yo-Yo Ma, legendary Azerbaijani vocalist Alim Qasimov, Chinese wind instrument master Wu Tong, Indian tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das, and Iranian kamancheh master Kayhan Kalhor. After ten days at Tanglewood spent getting to know one another, having fun improvising with each other, work-shopping new music, and learning about our respective musical backgrounds, we moved to New York City where the workshop culminated in multiple daytime demonstrations, panel discussions, and four evening concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Watch a video clip of the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) documentary series on the Silk Road featuring Matt and Yo-Yo attempting to play a replica of a 2,000-year-old Chinese Harp. The initial narration is in Japanese, but the group conversation is in English.

If you're visiting for the first time, it may take a moment for the video and audio clips below to load in the players. Thank you for your patience.

This video requires the QuickTime Player.
Download the most recent version of Quicktime (for PC or Mac) by clicking here

Listen to an excerpt, featuring Matt, from NPR’s “All Things Considered” story on the SRP workshop.

Listen to the full story

Read Related Workshop Press

Transcriptions & Adaptations of Silk Road Region solo pieces for the bass
After the inspiring experience of working with the SRP, I wanted to continue learning about the musical traditions found in the Silk Road regions. Having done an initial batch of research and transcription in preparation for the workshop, I adapted more pieces for the bass, and wrote additional music expanding on ideas that had emerged during the residency.

Guqin solo
This transcription is of a guqin piece entitled "Jiu Kuang" (“Wine Mad”) from the SRP album A Musical Caravan. The relaxing tone and deep resonance of the guqin reminded me of a plucked, upright bass. Replicating the intriguing vibrato of the player, Yao Bingyan, made for an interesting challenge.


Shakuhachi solo
This adaptation is of Kojiro Umezaki’s shakuhachi solo“Lullaby from Itsuki,” from the SRP album A Musical Caravan. I was especially attracted to this piece for its variety of phrasing and texture, and the strong expressive character of the melody. To adapt this for the bass I chose to play it only on one string, muting the other strings to avoid unwanted noise that results from the aggressive bowing techniques used in the attempt to reproduce the shakuhachi’s sound.

More info about this instrument:


Pipa solo
This transcription is adapted from the traditional pipa piece entitled “Dengyue jiaohui” (“Lanterns and moon competing in brilliance”) from Wu Man’s first solo CD, Music for the Pipa. After getting a chance to work with Wu Man personally and witness her approach to playing the pipa, I was especially inspired to attempt an adaptation for the bass. I was attracted to this piece for its intense forward motion and fluid melodic progressions.

More info about this instrument:


Sato solo
This adaptation is of a sato piece by Turgun Alimatov entitled “Nava” from the SRP album A Musical Caravan. I was inspired greatly by the meditative quality of this piece. In the book The 100,000 Fools of God, author Ted Levin offers the idea that Alimatov’s playing sounds as if it has elements of improvisation, when in fact his works are very strictly executed. An interesting element of this adaptation which was challenging to perform, was that the melody must be played with the first and second fingers of the left hand, so that the third and fourth left-hand fingers are free to reach over to pluck the lower strings, while sustaining bowed melody notes.



Morin Khuur solo
This transcription is of “The Gallop of Jonon Khar,” a morin khuur piece played by Baterdene from the SRP album A Musical Caravan. This piece was difficult to decipher and translate for the bass because of the morin khuur’s sonic characteristics, especially as they relate to changes in bow direction. I tried to create my own solutions to replicating it’s sound, and the regular use of the morin khuur’s open strings made it possible to adapt for the bass.

More info about this instrument:


Komuz solo
This transcription is of a komuz piece entitled “Ker-Tolgoo” from the SRP album A Musical Caravan. I really enjoyed adapting this galloping piece. The virtuosity of the performer, Samara Tokhtakunova, initially excited me and I knew it would be intriguing to try to put on the upright bass. I utilized two different plucking techniques to simulate the articulations used in this komuz piece.


Compositions Based on Silk Road themes

Composition #1: “The Wind Subsides” (Armenian traditional, arranged by Small)

There were two inspirations for the creation of this piece. First was my experience of hearing and working with Armenian duduk master Gevorg Dabaghyan at the SRP workshop. I was constantly entranced with Gevorg’s tone, the timbre of the instrument, and his expressive capacity with it. I was also struck by his ability to improvise beautiful melodies, so when I thought about creating this piece, I knew I wanted to incorporate an improvisational section for the duduk. With that in mind, I chose a typically jazz oriented form of "melody-solo-melody" for the new work. The second inspiration for the creation of this piece was hearing a recording of the original folk song on which the piece is based, featuring Vatche Hovsepian and Antranik Askarian playing duduks. I felt strongly about preserving the drone aspects of the original, where one duduk played the drone and the other played the melody line. I decided in my piece that the piano should be the carrier of the drone, which is present nearly throughout. The melody of the original piece is an instrumental transposition of a song composed for a poem by Avedik Issahakian, although no details about the poem itself were revealed in the recording’s liner notes, only the title, "The Wind Subsides." The melody was beautiful and intensely nostalgic, and I wanted to capture that feeling in my own realization. I approximately transcribed the melody and built the piano part around it.

After an earnest attempt at finding an Armenian duduk player in the Bay Area, I found that this piece would be best served by the closest western approximation I could think of: a soprano sax. One of the saxophonists I work with regularly, Steve Adams, happened to be a big fan of the duduk, as well as one of its master practitioners, Djivan Kasparian. The haunting and beautiful fast vibrato indicative of the duduk is a style of phrasing foreign to most sax players, and very difficult to replicate. As opposed to attempting a strict imitation, we decided that the best approach would be to use the duduk as the inspiration and point of reference for the sax part, which would allow Steve to have a more organic interpretation.

The melody uses notes that never stray from this scale: C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. Knowing that, I built the piano’s harmonies to work with any of those notes at any time in the piece. I did this because the melody is played rubato (with a flexible tempo), an element I wanted to keep, although the piano part I heard as wanting to be in tempo. Because of that planned dichotomy, the piano and duduk parts aren’t locked together rhythmically, creating a feeling of freedom and stability simultaneously. When the duduk finishes the melody, there is room to solo and create melodic variations off the melody. The only requirement I imposed on the solo was that the melody’s scale would not be deviated from, to better emulate a traditional instrumentalist’s approach. Once the duduk player hears the drone in the piano’s left hand return, that’s the cue to play the opening melody once again, thus ending the piece. This piece appears on my Chamber Ensemble CD, On The Verge of Sentiment.

More info on the duduk:


Composition #2: “Wu Man Clan Attack Plan”

This piece is the first composition I wrote after returning from the workshop. The spirit of it is a reflection of all the good energy I got from everybody involved with the Silk Road Project. I wanted to write something that would feature the Chinese pipa and the Indian tabla, based on the structured improvisation that Wu Man, Shane Shanahan, and I worked on and performed during our time together at Tanglewood and Carnegie.

I took a simplified version of the bass line we had used and built the new piece around it. I had so enjoyed hearing Wu Man solo over a steady vamp, that I wanted to be sure to include some solo space for the pipa in this piece. It’s built around a 16-beat cycle throughout, so the tabla player is free to create compositions over 4, 8, or 16 beat cycles, as well as other longer multiple beat patterns.

Zhao Jiping’s piece, “Moon Over Guan Mountains” on the SRP disc Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet, was a key inspiration for the piece’s instrumentation. This recording of the piece features Eric Perney (upright bass), Sarah Zaharako (violin), Alex Kelly (cello), Gabriel Robinson (tabla), and me playing the pipa part on the electric bass. After we recorded this version of the piece, I re-arranged it so that my Chamber Ensemble could perform it as well.



Composition #3: “Dashti Structure”

Another idea I had after returning from the workshop was to try blending Persian classical aesthetics with Western aesthetics, specifically with regard to their different tuning systems. My goal was to combine those tuning systems in a pre-determined fashion that would result in a partially micro-tonal piece. I thought it would be interesting to use the micro-tonal elements of a Persian mode and match them with certain Western harmonies. I was also looking to find a balance between the Persian classical tradition’s improvisational focus, and a Western written structure that would serve as a platform for improvisation.

In my search for a Persian classical artist to work with on this idea, I was very fortunate to find Ramin Zoufonoun, an accomplished musician and pianist in both Persian classical music and Western jazz and classical traditions. Ramin was open to trying out my idea of blending the two aesthetics and, after a couple of get togethers with him, I was ready to start developing ideas for a piece. The piano is an uncommon instrument in the Persian classical tradition due to the difficulty of recreating accurate micro-tonal tunings with it. However, there are a hand full of people who specialize in doing this and Ramin is one of them.

One of my favorite Persian concepts is the notion of avaz, or non-rhythmic playing. I find these improvisational statements to be very personal and love to hear a player’s ideas unfold and develop, much as they do over the course of a traditional jazz solo. As a way to mix Persian and Western forms, I chose a structure of “avaz-rhythmic interlude-avaz,” as the piece’s form. I also was interested in building the piece’s energy in a way similar to a Persian improvisation, which typically starts softly and with a limited amount of melodic activity, then builds over time to a climax. In this piece, it’s done over a shorter amount of time than a typical Persian improvisation, but utilizes Persian improvisational concepts. Every note of the written material, as well as the two chords the piano uses to improvise with in the avaz sections, is meant to harmonize the Persian mode “dashti” in a pre-determined fashion.

I constructed the bass and Western piano part from harmonies that I felt re-harmonized dashti in a satisfying manner, so that all of dashti’s three possible 1/4 tones would work at any point during the piece. I did this because as Ramin improvises, there’s no telling when he may feel like incorporating a 1/4 tone phrase, thus all of the written material needed to be able to fit with dashti’s full scale. In my mind, the ideal realization of this piece would be for a Persian classical ensemble (some combination of ney, kemanche, tar, and santur, along with tombak during the “rhythmic interlude” section), to perform it in order to provide for a greater sonic palette. In this recorded version, we provide only a rough representation of the piece’s primary themes and ideas.

During one of our early meetings, Ramin mentioned that the piano came to Iran through the country’s connections with France around the turn of the 20th century. This information inspired me to use some impressionistic harmonies within the written structure. As I was writing it, I imagined this piece as one that could have been written in the early 20th-century, possibly as an early cross-cultural experiment, fusing a Western classical approach to one of the piano parts, a Persian classical approach to the soloist’s piano part, and a jazz bass finger style approach to the bass part. In this piece, I tried to draw upon the romantic spirit of French Impressionism, the poetic phrases of Persian aesthetics, and a somewhat modern bass style.