Silkroad Ensemble Inspires George Mason University and Local Community

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Interested in Silkroad Ensemble’s 2022/2023 Residency at the Center for the Arts?

Silkroad Ensemble debuted their 2023 program, Uplifted Voices, at the Center for the Arts on January 29 and launched their multi-year participation as a Mason Artist-in-Residence. Learn more about the year's residency activities and Uplifted Voices by reading more here.


Culminating its second of three years in residence at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University, Silkroad Ensemble engaged with George Mason University’s campus, as well as the local Fairfax community, as Mason Artist-in-Residence in conjunction with its November 5 performance of the world-premiere program American Railroad.  

Silkroad Ensemble Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens joins the group in song.
Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens joins Silkroad Ensemble at the Center on November 5.​

Now led by Silkroad Ensemble’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens, the GRAMMY Award-winning group was conceived in 1998 by the critically acclaimed musician Yo-Yo Ma with the goal to expand musical collaborations across cultures and communities across the globe. In its most recent program American Railroad, the ensemble continues to emphasize its mission by highlighting the various communities involved in building the late-1800s Transcontinental Railroad and its connecting railways. Using a spectrum of instruments and voices, Indigenous and African Americans as well Irish, Chinese, Japanese, and other immigrant laborers are put in the spotlight. In a recent Financial Times article, Giddens notes that the American Railroad project is “the soundscape of this story of America, told from the point of view of the folks who are always left out of the photo.” 

Prior to the November 5 performance, Silkroad Ensemble’s Strategic Partnerships and Impact Director Alicia Robinson joined moderator Victor Adebusola in a pre-performance discussion on the Dr. Linda Apple Monson Grand Tier. In addition to the pre-performance discussion, this year’s Silkroad performance featured robust lobby engagement, with an interactive visual-language activity that invited participants to create symbolic representations of their personal Railroad stories. In another area of the lobby was Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which partnered with the Center to present an educational display highlighting the people, landmarks, and innovations of the Great American Rail-Trail®, giving patrons an opportunity to discover the impactful stories still emerging from the Transcontinental Railroad today. Patrons were delighted by the opportunities to further engage with the themes of the show, enthusiastically participating beforehand, afterwards, and during intermission. 

Visual score by Oglala Lakota composer Kite, "Wíhaŋblapi Mázačhaŋku" ("Railroad Dreams").
Visual score by Oglala Lakota composer Kite, "Wíhaŋblapi Mázačhaŋku" ("Railroad Dreams").

The evening’s program included both commissioned and original works from various Silkroad Ensemble artists with represented communities including Native American, African American, Japanese, Irish, and Chinese. Among the handful of impressive pieces that premiered was the new score by Oglala Lakota composer Kite, "Wíhaŋblapi Mázačhaŋku" ("Railroad Dreams"), which was developed in collaboration with Silkroad Ensemble through workshops that employ a communal dreaming and visioning methodology. The Ensemble members documented their dreams and translated them to a graphic, using the Lakota Shape Kit by designer Sadie Red Wing (pictured right), which was combined into a full visual score. This mirrored design structure was then performed by the musicians, musically producing their dreams through improvisation, drone, and Lakota melody.  

To learn more about the creative American Railroad setlist, visit the Silkroad Ensemble program

In the Center's Monson Grand Tier, a reception with toasts by College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Rick Davis, Silkroad Ensemble Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens, and Silkroad Executive Director Ben Hartley followed the world-premiere American Railroad program.  

The residency activities commenced the following day on Monday, November 6 at Fairfax campus’s Harris Theater with more than 20 Osher Lifelong Learning Insitute (OLLI) participants and Silkroad artists Karen Ouzounian (cello), Shawn Conley (bass), and Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese flutes, drums). For this Musical Monday Morning session, each artist individually demonstrated his or her instrument, followed by a Q&A that provided an opportunity for audience members to learn more about Silkroad and the artists involved.  

Silkroad Artist Mazz Swift joins Mason student Darren Badley.
Photo Credit: Ayman Rashid/Creative Services/George Mason University.

Later that day, Mason students were invited to Beyond the Note: A BIPOC Roundtable where Silkroad Artistic Director Rhiannon Giddens and artist Mazz Swift (pictured right) joined BIPOC students from the College of the Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) to discuss the successes and challenges experienced by BIPOC musicians and artists. Students involved in the Roundtable were current CVPA students Darren Badley (Arts Management, M.A.), Telah Harper (Music Education B.A.), and Alyssa Cabassa (Viola Performance and Music Education B.A.). 

Badley (pictured left) stresses the importance of the experience, stating, “Having the opportunity to connect and discuss such how we as marginalized artists are seen was so impactful. Rhiannon and Mazz not only had so much wisdom to share, but the connection of experiences that they faced made me feel seen and heard in that space. Having the space to simply just exist and be is why opportunities like these conversations are so important and why we need to continue to speak up."

Silkroad Visiting artist, Pura Fe performs for "Global Folklore" students. Photo Credit: The School of Music welcomes guest artists at the Silk Road event. Photo by: Ayman Rashid/Creative Services/George Mason University.
Photo Credit: The School of Music welcomes guest artists at the Silk Road event. Photo by: Ayman Rashid/Creative Services/George Mason University.

In the last residency activity of the day, Silkroad Ensemble artist Kaoru Watanabe (Japanese flutes/percussion) and guest artists on the American Railroad program Pura Fé Crescioni (lap-steel guitar/vocals; pictured right) and Francesco Turrisi (frame drums/accordion) joined the Mason Folklore Program’s “Global Folklore” course. The class consists of roughly 100 students, individuals ranging from all fields of studies at Mason, and examines the ways in which folklore from all over the world affect everyday life. Professor Debra Lattanzi Shutika moderated a Q&A session following a musical demonstration from the artists.

In addition to the activities above, multiple Silkroad artists have taken part in a semester-long Mason Honors College course for fall 2023, “The Silk Road and the Railroad: An artistic exploration of the Transcontinental Railroad in American history and culture.” Taught by College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Rick Davis, this academic course explores the many cultures, histories, music, and narratives of the Transcontinental Railroad, providing context to Silkroad’s newest initiative. Throughout the semester, Silkroad artists visited the class for discussions and in the days before the November 5 performance, students had the opportunity to watch a rehearsal session at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.  

Dean Rick Davis teaches his "The Silk Road and the Railroad" course.
Professor Rick Davis teaching his "The Silk Road and the Railroad" students.

Professor Davis paints a picture of the rehearsal’s impact on his students, stating, “25 students from 17 different majors file silently into a rehearsal hall. At first, nothing much happens then the musicians and the sound engineer start checking microphones and monitors. Rhiannon Giddens starts building a song from the ground up, adding vocal lines and instrumental parts, experimenting and playing. In less than an hour, the song is almost ready to be performed. The students and I moved to a classroom for a discussion, and I could see eyes and minds opening, lives expanding. ‘I've never been in a room with so much talent,’ one student says. ‘I've never seen a rehearsal of any kind before and now I feel like I'm starting to understand how art gets created,’ offers another. For me, as an artist and teacher, I can't think of a better way to spend 90 minutes.” 

Programming and Engagement Manager Victor Adebusola expands upon the impact of Silkroad’s residency, noting, “We’re so grateful to have had Silkroad Ensemble’s presence felt in the Mason community through various forms of engagement. This residency has allowed us to connect world-class Artists directly to our community and, for me, proves that the arts enhance our cultural understanding and make us all better global citizens. We’re looking forward to the evolution of this continued partnership!” 

During the November 5 program, Pura Fé performed the Tutelo and Saponi “Mahk Jchi,” a song with lyrics in the Sioux nation’s Tutelo and Saponi. The words are translated as follows, with a sentiment that can be applied to Silkroad’s meaningful time at Mason and the surrounding community. 

Our hearts are full and our minds are good/ 
Our ancestors come and give us strength/ 
Stand tall, sing, dance and never forget who you are/ 
Or where you come from

Read more about the Center for the Arts Mason Artist-in-Residence program, including the upcoming 2023/2024 visiting artists: A.I.M by Kyle Abraham on February 17 and Small Island Big Song on April 20. 
Silkroad Ensemble takes a bow at the Center's performance on November 5.

Silkroad Ensemble takes a bow at the Center's performance on November 5.

Silkroad Ensemble’s American Railroad performance at the Center for the Arts was sponsored by The Mather. The project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.