Friday, November 4, 2011

50. Silk Princess Painting (NOT ON DISPLAY)

The Silk Road!
This unusual podcast, right at MacGregor’s halfway point, starts with him telling a cute story about a princess who smuggled silk-making technology away from her stingy father—in a large headdress—when she went to marry the prince of a distant kingdom, and that’s how they got the secrets of silk-making out of China. I couldn’t find the object in the museum, but MacGregor describes it as a little wooden panel with that story told, almost as a cartoon strip, as an aide for someone trying to recite it out loud. It’s a sweet story, reminiscent of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man (which he mentions) or, from my part of the world, that cute little scamp Raven stealing the light, which his greedy old grandfather keeps in a box in a box in an box and so on, so that the world is always dark and cloudy. Raven tosses the stolen sun up into the sky, creating summer in the Pacific Northwest; here’s that story, as told on a totem pole in Occidental Square in Seattle:

Well, the princess’s theft is more real, less cosmic, but it’s the same story. MacGregor’s version doesn’t tell us too much more about the characters or the significance of the theft. But I’m sure that, if/when it happened that silk-making technology escaped from China, it had economic significance for those concerned.

What MacGregor is really interested in, however, is the Silk Road—that fabled network of transportation, caravan routes, eventually train tracks, leading across the landmass, from Hong Kong to Istanbul. (Or...where does it go, exactly?) Yes, silk and other luxury commodities (such as frankincense from Yemen!) were traded on the great Silk Road, and over vast romantic distances; but the bulk of the traffic, like that on our highways, was more mundane and more significant—everyday items, stories, songs, practices, traditions. He likens the Silk Road to modern air travel, and even goes to Heathrow to get the sound of the busy airport on his podcast.

He also talks to Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road Ensemble has put out some really snazzy albums over the past ten years. Ma is great, he’s poster-boy for the kind of cross-cultural bridge-building, integration project which is so dear to MacGregor’s heart, and I gotta confess I love it when he talks about the musician’s job as learning, learning, always learning. Yes, he says, we have to respect our traditions; but music is communication, it’s gotta be alive, and there are so many people to speak with, make music with, learn from. And MacGregor plays a little sting of his music. Ooo! Let’s go listen to some now.

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