When cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project back in 2000 with the purpose of connecting cultures along the ancient trading route, it seemed at once wonderfully suggestive and mysteriously vague. As the cellist confesses in Morgan Neville’s absorbing new documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” Ma himself found the task of defining the project to be “a nightmare.”
But he seemed to grasp in his bones a few basic truths — that the forces of globalization threatening traditional art in societies across the planet could also be turned on their heads to preserve these traditions; that older musical cultures still had some fight in them; and that a new generation of virtuoso performers could be rallied to the cause of showcasing these traditions while opening them up to a world of ever more porous boundaries.
Initially, Ma brought together a group of outstanding players from across the globe for just a trial summer workshop at Tanglewood. The project’s potential was clear to all participants, but even so, no one knew exactly what should come next.
The attacks of 9/11 turned out to be next. And while the xenophobia and isolationism that they stoked made this type of international collaboration much more challenging, they also gave the mission of the Silk Road a new urgency. Sixteen years later, the project is thriving.
“The Music of Strangers” chronicles the ensemble’s birth and continued life, and one would have to call it an intensely compelling film even if the bar had not been set so low by many classical music documentaries that feel baldly promotional without getting to the heart of any bigger questions. Neville, who directed the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” at least poses them, and has the wisdom not to leap to easy answers.
“The world totters, governments crumble, and we are poring over music,” says a cravatted Leonard Bernstein in a clip from his famous Norton Lectures (which Ma attended as an undergraduate at Harvard). Translation: In this day and age, does music really deserve the labor of our lives?
For Ma the answer is obviously yes, but he seems, refreshingly, to never stop asking why this is so. The film skips the tired bromides. Music may hold itself out as a refuge from politics, or even as an antidote to some of its darkest tendencies. But in this film, statements of belief in art’s transformative power are rarely far from moments of equally honest grappling with fears of its impotence. At one point, one musician asks: “Can a piece of music stop a bullet?”
The movie’s ability to hold both of these notions in tension brings a deeply resonant frame to the poignant life stories of individual Silk Road members profiled here, including the Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor, the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, the Spanish gaita (Galician bagpipes) player Cristina Pato, the Chinese pipa player Wu Man. Neville follows them to their native countries and draws out each player in strikingly candid interviews.
He has a keen eye and ear for the gritty realism of their itinerant lives, details and real-world events that typically remain hidden between the lines of bland program bios. So musical accomplishments are recounted alongside tales of exile, civil war, and estrangement from the very cultures whose musical roots they champion. Kalhor’s relationship with his native Iran is perhaps the most fraught, his life story the most tragic of those profiled. As a listener who has taken in many of his lyrically soft-spoken performances with Silk Road over the years, I found this portrait to be a revelation.
The film also offers a revealing view of Ma himself, and of the restless curiosity that has carried his career so far from the standard tracks. Having prodigious gifts on an instrument, he makes clear, is very different from knowing what to do with those gifts, or how to build an artistic life of meaning in the 21st century. The cellist again has no easy answers, but his quest has a sincerity that radiates its own charisma. Meanwhile, the film turns Ma’s own journey into a metaphor for his ensemble’s raison d’etre, and for the efforts of its individual members to grapple with the meaning of culture in a time of war.
The movie’s other angle of approach to these themes comes, as it should, via the group’s joyful performances — on city streets, in concert halls, in a Syrian refugee camp. There’s also a memorable moment when Kalhor puts the often unrelenting dominance of political thinking in sharp perspective.
“We are not [only] our political identities,” he insists. “Nobody remembers who was the king when Beethoven lived.” We remember, well, the music.
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
Directed by Morgan Neville. At Kendall Square. 96 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language).Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.