As generously global as it is intensely introspective, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road is a compelling chronicle of a creative consortium.
Named for a network of trade routes essential to early cultural connections between East and West and dubbed “the Manhattan Project of the music world,” the Silk Road Project is the brainchild of cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Since 2000, this pan-global gathering of luminaries has recorded six albums, performed for 2 million people and visited 33 nations. But those, as Ma would say, are just statistics. (Seeing Ma bristle backstage over a biographical introduction is among the many unforgettably unguarded moments caught by director Morgan Neville. “Ninety albums? I stole half of them,” he quips with the humility and honesty of a man unsure just how, or why, the role of icon fell to him rather than someone else.)
Most of all, the Silk Road Project is comprised of colleagues listening to, and learning from, one another in a cross-cultural exchange of joy, dissonance, jubilation and disappointment that stretches 16 years (and counting). It’s an empathetic engagement of essential questions in art (and life) that exceeds simple platitudes and drops perfectly timed grace notes of melancholy and humor.
Despite scores of participants, Neville focuses on five. For Ma, the Silk Road is an attempt to make music scalable after summiting a mountain of fame and face down a challenge to find his own voice amid phenomenal musicianship. In the process, Ma finds he may have more in common with his father’s cultural-anthropology interests than he thought and addresses whether music was a purposeful pursuit or just something he lucked into. It’s refreshing to see Ma as ready pupil rather than a protean titan.
Meanwhile, Syrian clarinet virtuoso Kinan Azmeh wrestles with the worth of art in a war-torn world, recognizing music as a vessel for belief in (and dread of) the power of the human spirit. Wu Man, the world’s preeminent pipa player, worries that time and progress will finish the job of erasing tradition started by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. An Iranian native and master of the kamancheh, Kayhan Kalhor grapples with increasing isolation and alienation from his homeland and loved ones. And Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato finds her protective nature for cultural ideals dovetailing with her mother’s encroaching memory loss.
Neville captures concert footage with the same fly-on-the-wall expertise as his Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom. He also uncovers stunning dynamics of great humor, whether it’s Man jamming on Sabbath in a guitar store a la Wayne’s World or Ma morphing from an evocative description to saying a particular measure should sound “like a giant horse fart.” (A side note: Strangers is absurdly rated PG-13 only for a pair of profanities, one uttered and one subtitled.)
But he finds a richer, more nuanced groove of context than in Stardom. He also lets breathe this film’s inherent ideological villain: That the Silk Road’s “cultural tourism” is meant mainly to maximize, and monetize, as international an audience as possible. In short, a myopic elitism past which some in the classical-music realm refuse to see. If not for white-glove purity and knee-jerk outrage, the Silk Road’s give-and-take nature would be no different than disparate artists jamming out together.
Thus, the performers redress this rancor through radical reconceptualization or reinterpretation, such as when Ma’s signature performance of Bach’s Prelude for Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello suddenly transforms into an underscore for a plaintive Chinese-language ballad. Like musical storytellers, Silk Road players contort and change the classics under new minds and new hands. The very mutability of music creates a momentum to endure and combat the idea that, as Man says, “unless tradition evolves, it becomes smaller and smaller,” like a microdot swept off the table without anyone noticing. The necessity of art, Strangers argues, is that it’s emblematic of opportunity, which, in turn, breeds hope.
Overall, The Music of Strangers is a splendid look at the happy accidents, and intentional elation, that musicians and audiences have found in this fermata of fertile creativity — the best pure-music documentary since 2012’s A Band Called Death.