The Hollow Staff: Western Music and the Silk Road

Paul Rodriguez



[F]rom the European side, the history of the violin is as brief in outline as it is scanty in evidence: the rebāb of the Silk Road became the rebec of the minstrels; while the Silk Road ran to weeds the rebec underwent centuries of distinctively European evolution, culminating in Guarneri and Stradivarius.

The histories of many Western instruments match this pattern: their roots reach the Silk Road, but their subsequent evolution through Renaissance, Classicism, and Romanticism places a distance between the modern instruments and their Silk Road ancestors as great as that between the instruments as the Silk Road knew them, and their most primitive forms. The distance between a war bow plucked for music and the rebāb, both in the technique of the player and the technique of the luthier, is no less than the distance between rebāb and violin. This is not a European exception: the history of the sarod in India starts in the same place as the violin and matches the broad periods of its development — but compare them! The sarod is not even bowed.

The morphology of instruments is a distraction from the history of music. The descent of instruments is darker and more uncertain than the descent of species. Even without the retrospective divisions imposed by modern nationalism, instruments acquire as many names as they acquire associations: what is the same instrument by form and action may be known by as many names as there are techniques to play or construct it, or places where it is played. The same perversity that now divides the violin from the fiddle held on the Silk Road. The name of an instrument refers not just to a piece of wood or metal, but to a living community of players and builders. Sometimes (witness the guqin or gagaku) a community maintains an ancient continuity. Sometimes it shifts around a stable instrument (witness the guitar in the last century). Sometimes it maintains continuity as a community despite substitution of the central instrument — witness the piano’s succession to the harpsichord. Distinctions of morphology are simply futile: consider the mandolin, an instrument whose ancestor diverged from the violin’s on the Silk Road, only to re-merge with the violin a thousand years later — Karakoram to Kalamazoo!

What, then, do we owe the Silk Road? The music of the ancient world, and the music of the kingdoms that gave on to the Silk Road were, in purpose and use, occasional. The musician waited upon some need for music. Music was a propriety of royal splendor or priestly mystery; an accompaniment to the conduct of rituals and the staging of plays; an echo of the voice of the poet, a shadow of the gesture of the dancer; an excuse for song.

The musicians who obtained court appointments, who beguiled feasts and ornamented festivals, who accompanied rites and ceremonies, who sounded strings before the battle and beat drums to join it — these, and those like them in all the courts of the Mongol Empire, and the courts of the kings before and after it, were the successful musicians, the lucky ones. What could a musician do, who never won a court appointment? Whose court or army lost the battle? What could a musician do between appointments, without giving up music?

Travel, of course; but travel where? Travel the briganded back roads, the ignorant farm towns? Or travel with the caravans, in safety of numbers, between the comfort of caravanserais, through rich cities of rich patrons?

Thus the Silk Road would have been full of musicians, musicians living in hope and without plans, musicians from a dozen distinct traditions traveling in the same caravans, meeting around the same fires. What did they say to one another when they met, when they saw the telltale marks on lips and fingers, saw the shrouded awkward bulk, too precious to be parted with, heard a song drift in from out of sight and saw someone else sway a little too eagerly, swing arms and fingers a little too rapidly? A musician who only plays alone is no musician. Perhaps they communicate in broken Sogdian, perhaps they only gesture and sing a little, but the instruments came out one way or another, and whoever plays first sounds strange and barbaric to whoever plays second.

There they are, musicians with nothing in common except music, playing music just to play, and now people stop to listen. What do they hear? Music — but music for what, they are asked when they run back to rouse the other bored men from their rest. But it is not music for anything. It is music for music.

The history of musical performance in Europe is usually traced back to the vocal embroidery of the Mass, setting patterns later to be resettled on instruments instead of voices. But in this account the instruments appear as a mystery. The channels of their arrival can be guessed at — Andalusia, the Holy Land, Venice, Byzantium — but beside their brief association with the troubadours, just what were they doing for the centuries before they began to appear in estampies, chansons, and motets? Someone was playing them; someone was listening; but who? And where? To make sense of the two recorded musical traditions of medieval Europe — organum and the music of the troubadours — a third unrecorded tradition must be posited — music not ceremonial and not courtly, but urban and excursive — an extension, running between merchant fairs and universities and pilgrim sites, of the musical environment of the Silk Road, of music for music.


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Paul Rodriguez

Author's Bio

Paul Rodriguez writes The Ruricolist, a blog essay series. He lives in Lousiana.