To better elucidate the historical context of the Silk Road Ensemble’s upcoming performance, Artsweek asked a few questions of Professor Bill Powell from UCSB’s Religious Studies and East Asian Languages & Cultures Depts., who for the last few months has been teaching “The Silk Road: Sights, Sounds, and Stories,” a course on the history and culture of the Silk Road and its participant civilizations.

It seems that discussion of the Silk Road inevitably leads to discussion of globalization. What’s your take?

Globalization is something that has been around forever. The Silk Road is simply one of the most important and longest lasting sites of globalization. What is interesting about globalization on the Silk Road is the way in which it brings cultures together.

A classic example lies with the Romans. In Roman days, it was a crime for anyone not in the upper reaches of society to wear silk or the color purple, which was a mark of nobility. The Romans couldn’t produce their own silk, but bought all of it from China. The Chinese exported uncolored silk. The Romans would then die[[dye]] the silk purple using an ink made from a crustacean they had found. And so we have these diverse technologies, dependent on trade, coming together to produce something quintessentially Roman.

Is the study of the Silk Road a relatively new phenomena in academia?

It was pure romance until very recently. It was the site of Kipling’s great game, a place for the confrontation of world powers. People previously weren’t interested in the culture or history of the region, but in controlling that area. In the last 20 years, there’s been a resurgence in what we can learn. People are starting to realize what Central Asia can tell us about our connected histories.

There is an ongoing program called the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). The IDP was inspired by excavations in the early 20th century, primarily in the Library Cave at Dunhuang, which produced thousands of texts and documents in twenty languages, from religious tracts to trade records, that no one had ever seen before. For scholars of ideas and trade, this is a thousand times what the Dead Sea Scrolls were. The IDP is currently digitizing their entire collection for free – a collection of tens of thousands of documents. This allows these documents to be studied outside of the UK and China and the few places these documents are usually kept. Scholars anywhere in the world can see this – including UCSB students.

If there is one thing for UCSB students to know for this weekend’s performance, what would that be?

Take the whole course! In terms of music … these instruments all originated in more or less the same place. The lute was developed in Persia, the string bow came from Mongolia. The Silk Road was a great formative period for the world’s musical traditions. But for all of this exchange and globalization, the music of the East and West parted ways some time ago. This is when the tropes unique to each culture developed, like the European focus on homophony and harmonic progression, while Asian music has monophony, the feeling of a single note. Now, Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble bridge this gap. It’s a difficult task, and requires a lot of experimentation and improvisation. It’s the classic question: “Can you put Humpty Dumpty together again?”