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Beyond Bach: The Silk Road Project

Modern technology can disrupt, dislocate and flatten cultures and people. This much is clear -- or should be by now. But with its double-edged nature, technology can also enhance art and life in surprisingly wonderful ways, a key dynamic which techno-pessimists often overlook. This thought struck me as I read an article about celebrated cellist, Yo-Yo Ma in the NYT's Circuit section (See A Virtuoso and His Technology by Seth Schiesel, Sept 30, 2004.)


In addition to contributing beautiful music to the world, Yo-Yo Ma has been an important cultural and social entrepreneur with his ambitious and on-going Silk Road Project. The project is a "a multidisciplinary collection of performing artists that he founded to connect the classical tradition of the West with the diverse Middle Eastern and Asian musical cultures along the historical caravan route."

While not a technie, Yo-Yo Ma has "embraced the latest technologies to forge connections across barriers of time, geography and culture -- even if he can't always find the charger for his iPod," writes Schiesel. The multi-media process includes digitally videotaping traditional musicians (of course using a Mac), both obscure and well known, across this diverse cultural and geographical route. With these recordings, musicians like Ma can then play with these different musicians asynchronously and improvise new sounds syncretically. Not playing with a live person may seem artificial or suboptimal, but for Ma it's no less important because this is a way to form "impossible connections across time and space." Just as Natalie Cole was able to magically sing the sentimental duet, "Unforgettable", with her famous father long after he was dead thanks to new recoding technology, sometime in the distant future, Ma's dream is for musicians to discover this treasure trove of material and to be able to play with and learn from the traditional musicians of the past.

The past as a resource for the future: this is surely a good idea, especially since we're rapidly becoming ahistorial in our collective memories. The process implicit in The Silk Road Project is equally fascinating as well. With the values of the project in the foreground and technology firmly in the background, we witness a judicious combining of different media with complimentary sensory and temporal attributes. In this case, technology is truly a servant tool not totalitarian driver.

More importantly, this innovative process might inspire us and give some clues on how to resolve one of our biggest long-term adaptive problems: that is, how do we experience and understand the connections across different scales of time and space and culture(s)? Cognitively speaking, our brains are still in beta; we struggle with intuiting exponential rates of change and visualizing complex systems. Clearly, many systemic problems would be much easier to work on if we could get stakeholders to see the local in the global, and the global in the local; if we could perceive more easily how the past, present and future are linked, manifesting both deep continuity and deep change. Past civilizations have tried to overcome this limitation of consciousness by creating charismatic icons (e.g. cathedrals, pyramids) and rituals often around timeless natural cycles (e.g. river flooding, moon and sun); and these social innovations crucially helped to justify large investments in culture and infrastructure with long pay-outs over generations. Similarly, Brand and others set up The Long Now Foundation to develop consciousness-shifting icons and ideas, like a 10,000 year old clock. While complexity theorists and earth system scientists are trying to close this cognitive gap with sophisticated computer models, we shouldn't ignore the power of beauty and aesthetics in enhancing our perceptions. And this is why we should also look laterally to artistic innovations like Yo-Yo Ma's for ideas for the future. As Ma puts it:

We've got to emotionally feel interdependent. Not codependent in the negative sense, but interdependent in the sense that everybody has strengths. We actually do have to live in one world... and all of this technology is making it more essential that we have a way of thinking about a whole because we know that the alternative is disaster, is total, utter disaster.
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