The Silk Road Ensemble, cellist Yo-Yo Ma's multicultural music ensemble, performed new works by two MIT-affiliated composers in New York's Carnegie Hall on Sept. 16 and 17. The pieces were world premieres for MIT composers Evan Ziporyn and Christopher Adler.
Ziporyn, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music, was one of three established composers commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write new works for Silk Road, whose members play various string and percussion instruments indigenous to cultures around the world.
Adler (S.B. 1994) was one of two emerging composers commissioned to write for the weekend festival, "Tradition and Innovation," held in Carnegie's Zankel Hall.
The concerts were a culmination of a two-part workshop in which Ziporyn and Adler joined Ma, Silk Road Ensemble members and musicians from Azerbaijan, China, India and Iran to explore musical traditions and innovation through the study of existing and newly commissioned works.
Launched by the internationally acclaimed cellist Ma in 1998, the Silk Road Project seeks to revitalize the musical and other artistic cultures along the ancient trading route between China and the Mediterranean.
Ziporyn, who has been involved with Balinese gamelan since taking a Fulbright Fellowship in Indonesia in 1987, is internationally recognized for his works combining Balinese gamelan with Western instruments and electronics. He founded the MIT-based Gamelan Galak Tika in 1993 and continues to direct the ensemble, which toured Bali in 2005.
Adler, one of Ziporyn's first students at MIT, was active in Galak Tika as one of its three original members. Since graduating with joint degrees in math and music, Adler has become an accomplished composer and a foremost performer of new and traditional music for the khaen, a free-reed mouth organ from Laos and northeast Thailand.
"His talent and passion for music were absolutely evident even then," Ziporyn said of his former student, now an associate professor at the University of San Diego. "I now consider him a friend and colleague."
Ziporyn's Silk Road composition, "Sulvasutra," was written specifically for two master musicians, Indian tabla player Sandeep Das and Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, and a string quartet. Ziporyn based his work on an ancient Sanskrit treatise giving the mathematical rules for the proper construction of sacred Vedic altars.
"I was asked to pick an ancient story and I chose one about math and engineering," says Ziporyn, who learned that "without the proper proportions, the temples cannot be considered sacred and, more to point, won't do the job."
Currently on sabbatical, he will premiere his bass clarinet concerto, "Big Grenadilla," with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 13.
Adler's composition, "Music for a Royal Palace," pays homage to Thailand's Bang Pa-In Palace, an opulent 19th-century juxtaposition of Thai, Chinese and Western architectural styles.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 20, 2006 (download PDF).