The Music of the Spheres
Burdened with an excessive and explicit subtitle, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble is as upbeat as director co-producer Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom. Like that 2014 Oscar winner, this documentary, too, celebrates the soul and sound of music and its celebrants who are here not for the money,
Drawn on a larger palette, with some archival and outside footage to enhance then-and-now, this Toronto International Film Festival-premièred entry sets itself into a multi-cultural context, reflecting the shifting fifty-and-more performers in the title cellist and ambassador’s sixteen-year-old Ensemble named after the ancient tri-continent trade route. He and four others among them are singled out in more depth because of availability (New York or California residence) or because their backgrounds and life commitments are illustrative of the group’s goals or just on account of the indefinable screen presence that only some select few have.
The hub is Ma, Paris-born to Chinese parents who then settled in this country when he was seven, where he became a touted child prodigy now grown into one of those rare crossover rock-star classical musicians. So tireless that by his own reckoning he has been on the road two-thirds of his thirty-five year marriage -- one of two sons believed his father lived in airports -- he orchestrated the experiment of assembling half-a-hundred musicians from all parts of the globe, many from the most unexpected of places with unheard-of instruments. Ten days of familiarization and improvisation later, they performed at the Berkshire’s famed Tanglewood, then flew home.
Studying abroad, Ma’s father had speculated about the possibility of fusing Eastern and Western techniques and forms, and, musing upon his own roots and mixed heritage, Ma wondered whether the Lenox, Massachusetts, project was the end of it, or only the beginning. It has proved the latter, a bridge among disparate cultures seeking connectivity through the universal urge to music, those things that unite rather than separate while at the same time respecting the uniqueness of each experience.
The documentary’s two women and two men seen more frequently and at greater length could not be more different, or more alike. Each is part of the whole yet has his/her own private path and pain, whether familial, cultural, national or physical, or is like others who for the time being cannot even go home.
With no English, Wu Man took a leap into the dark after a Beijing appearance by Seiji Ozawa leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, scraping out a living in New York with her lute (pipa) before finding her place and now trying to encourage disappearing traditional music and shadow-puppetry in a China where she is considered American. Cristina Pato is gregarious and different and an outstanding exponent of the bagpipe -- the biggest gaita museum is not in Scotland but Galicia, which is not in Poland or Ukraine but northwestern Spain -- and through her annual Galician Connection festival reinforces the identity of the autonomous region, where family celebrates her birthday but mother is losing her memory.
The two men, Kayhan Kalhor and Kinan Azmeh, hail from hot war zones, Iran and Syria, respectively. With his kamancheh, Persian spiked fiddle, at seventeen the movie-star-handsome former backpacked to and around Europe. Politics later would force him abroad again, leaving behind a beloved wife with whom he is briefly reunited in Istanbul and the emotional scars of a family wiped out by a missile. Older teachers of his instrument have fled or died, and he has a mission to teach his skills to the rising generation. The homeland of Azmeh is similarly convulsed, and for now, in company with Ensemble artist Kevork Mourad, he can only visit refugee camps in Jordan to organize workshops for young people (separate ones for girls and boys).
War, malnutrition, poverty, disease, hopelessness are rife in this present era of displacement such as Earth has never before witnessed. The instinctive joy of and in music is no miracle cure-all, but after the ninety-six minutes of MS: Y-YMSRE one may recall Robert Kennedy: “I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” We need be strangers no more.
(Released by The Orchard and rated "PG-13" for brief strong language.)