Exploring the American Railroad with GRAMMY-winning Silkroad Ensemble


In March 2023, the GRAMMY Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble debuted their program, Uplifted Voices, at the Center for the Arts, launching their three-year arc as a Mason Artist-in-Residence. Now, Silkroad Ensemble returns for its second year of residency with the world premiere of its program American Railroad on November 5. Various members of Silkroad Ensemble will engage the community through a variety of events, classes, and discussions, including semester-long participation in a fall 2023 Mason Honors College course, “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 will explore the many cultures, histories, music, and narratives of the Transcontinental Railroad, providing context to Silkroad Ensemble’s newest initiative to map American music through the various immigrant communities involved in building the late-1800s Transcontinental Railroad. To learn more about this class and its connection to Silkroad Ensemble’s upcoming November performance, the Center asked Dean Rick Davis to expand upon the course. 

Violinist Mazz Swift virtually visited "The Silk Road and the Railroad" course on September 21.
Silkroad members, including violinist Mazz Swift, will participate virtually in Mason's "The Silk Road and the Railroad" course.

What is the significance of Mason offering this semester-long academic course in conjunction with the Silkroad Ensemble’s culminating concert at the Center for the Arts?  

A key mission of the Center for the Arts is to bring the voice of professional artists into close contact with Mason students, both in the arts and beyond. It is particularly exciting when those students represent a wide range of interests. My current Honors College class comprises more than 15 different academic majors and a like number of minors, from Forensic Science to Engineering to Economics to Modern Languages. Everyone brings their own perspective to the subject, while engaging with the artists of Silkroad Ensemble in ways that demonstrate the universality and power of the arts to ask questions and tell stories that resonate across cultures and disciplines.  

In what ways is this new project from Silkroad Ensemble, American Railroad, relevant to modern audiences?  

I think it's a brilliant idea to bring the vast metaphor of the Silk Road, that connector of cultures and shaper of economies, closer to home by focusing on the Transcontinental Railroad (and, by extension, railroads more generally) as a transformative element in American history. The cultural connections and clashes that the railroad created (including indigenous and enslaved populations), the role of immigrants in its construction, the very idea that for the first time one could move people and goods quickly across this vast continent—all represent huge shifts in the way our country grew and thought about itself. That, in turn, created songs, stories, paintings, and photographs that still resonate today. The Silkroad Ensemble have studied this very deeply and are creating a variety of original responses. As a symbol of profound change, the railroad has few equals and we are always seeking to understand and live with change, today and every day. 

Get your tickets today and join Silkroad Ensemble on November 5 for its stunning world-premiere performance of American Railroad