sometimes witty book reviews
Title/year: The Music of Strangers (2012)
Director: Morgan Neville
Found: on the inflight entertainment programming of United Airlines
Run Time: 96 mins
The Music of Strangers charts the history of the Silkroad ensemble from its inception in 1998. Founded by the renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, the collective includes almost 60 musicians of various disciplines whose self-identified heritage spans the length and breadth of the ancient Silk Road. Unlike many ensembles founded at this time, Silkroad was not trying to ride the wave of the ‘World Music’ fad which swept the West from the late 1980s onward. Rather, Yo-Yo and his company sought a true collaboration of artistic disciplines from across Eurasia and veered sharply away from any connotations of a money spinning exercise in middle-eastern and oriental exoticism.
This documentary interviews Yo-Yo and several other key members of the Silkroad founding group and charts their journey over the last two decades. Political upheavals post 9/11 threatened the existence of the group, but instead forged even close bonds between the players. The ensemble provided – indeed, continues to provide – a channel of cultural exchange through the ongoing turmoil being experienced by various modern nations that lie along the old Silk Road. The film also manages to explore, in it’s short 96 minutes, the issue of fading cultures and the loss of obscure yet rich musical traditions along this ancient trade route. Along with Yo-Yo, we meet pipa player Wu Man, composer and and kamancheh player Kayhan Kohlor, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and bagpiper (and former Galacian rock-star) Cristina Pato.* Throughout their various personal and political struggles, these artists have literally found solace and inspiration in the music of strangers. The inseparability of music, people and politics resonates throughout.
The original camera work for this documentary is sublime. Still and slow panning shots of the musicians playing solos are contrasted with unconventional and intimate angles of group performances. Spliced into this are hand-held backstage moments, personal video diaries from various performers and historical footage of Silkroad camps and workshops. The balance of these various cinematographic mediums is well executed and effective. The overall effect of the footage combined with the audio of countless examples of musical virtuosity leaves one with an experience akin to Russian Ark (2012). One can hardly believe the film is as short as it is – time seemed to slow down and still (or maybe that was the jet lag kicking in).
Viewing suggestion: Watch immediately after reading the news concerning the US Government’s recent travel ban for particular poignancy.