The Music Of Strangers (2015)

A Documentary about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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We all want to be loved. We all want to belong. But what do you do if your house is bombed and everyone in it dies? Do you become bitter, or take the high road? And what do you do if your country is being systemically destroyed by forces within and without? Do you forgive or forget, or just “move on” , because ” it is what it is”? These are some of the difficult choices several of the real life characters in Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville’s stunning new documentary have to make. All the people here just happen to be musicians, and so the ” meaning ” of art in our increasingly violent world naturally takes center stage

Yo-Yo Ma, who is perhaps the most famous cellist in the world, seems to have founded his Silk Road Ensemble sixteen years ago both out of interest and necessity. He was, after all, carted around the world’s stages from age six, not unlike Mozart, who under the watchful eye of his father, was expected to deliver “music ” to the European courts like a performing monkey. Musicians are often seen as wounded creatures, or otherwise why would they do it? But Ma’s natural curiosity seems to have been a driving force, otherwise why would he go to hear the Bushmen play in Africa’s Kalahari Desert, which the film shows in fascinating archival clips. It’s about as far as you can get from Carnegie.

He’s predictably attacked here for doing something “crossover” as if “classical ” music is something sacrosanct and impossibly pure. But Mozart stole from Turkish military band music, Brahms stole Hungarian music, Stravinsky stole Russian music from the Crimea in his Noces, and let’s not forget that Bizet stole gypsy music and put it into Carmen, and Verdi used cante jondo in a scene in Don Carlo. And so the idea of classical purity is nothing more than a fancy idea, though keeping various musical traditions alive and kicking is a big deal for several performing artists here. The beautiful and charismatic bagpipe playing Cristina Pato, who hails from the isolated ancient Roman province of Galicia in northwest Spain, worries that their indigenous tradition might not survive, The renowned Persian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, who fled Iran during the 1979 Revolution and is barred from going back home now, preserves his traditional art by playing it, and he’s shown teaching a young student and showing Ma how to play a rhythmic figure which he and the Silk Road Ensemble get in a flash. The Chinese Wu Man, who plays the pipa, mastered her instrument at the start of the Cultural Revolution when just doing that was a political no-no because it wasn’t serving Maoist “ideals. ” The Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh grew up learning the western classical tradition ,and discovered the emotional power and subtleties of his own tradition much later. His pure tone, perfect technique, and acute rhythmic sense shine in everything he does. And that of course also applies to Ma,, Kalhor, and Man.

The big question here is the role of art in our increasingly violent world. Ma thinks that music gives us meaning, but the non-romantic Azmeh isn’t so sure. He says that itcan can’t stop a bullet, but it can make a place for us when we listen, and can perhaps inspire us to be proactive in our shared world. But the biggest question here is what is “home”? Certainly not the tried and true, and the SRE’s musicians here aren’t just playing, but stretching, and communicating deeply so that, to paraphrase a famous song, they’re just not strangers when they meet, but deeply connected friends taking the same path to a shared goal : a sound which joins. Cinematographer Michael Willoughby catches his subjects in philosophical repose and full-bent fervor. This is a moving and deeply necessary film,

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